Elephants used to work in Thailand’s logging industry, hauling felled trees out of the thick jungle. But when logging was prohibited in the late 1980s, thousands of captive Thai elephants and their mahouts were out of a job. Elephants aren’t cheap to keep, consuming around a tenth of their bodyweight daily, which translates to as much as 200kg of food. Mahouts resorted to taking their elephants to big cities in the hope that tourists would pay to have their photo taken with them. Elephants are unsuited to city living, facing health issues linked to inadequate nutrition, pollution and walking on hot concrete all day, as well as the constant threat of being hit by traffic.
It was during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 that billionaire Bill Heinecke, owner of Thai-listed hospitality and retail empire Minor International, started feeling really sorry for the urban elephants of Bangkok.
“Elephants are, in many ways, just like people,” reflects 67-year-old Heinecke. “The average lifespan of an elephant is around 60–70 years and you don’t really begin working as an elephant until age 15 or 16. Family is very important to them too.”
We are admiring the view from one of the 15 plush residences for sale at his Anantara resort on the island of Phuket, a stunning Thai jungle-covered hillside resort overlooking the Andaman Sea. Far below us, a solitary paddle-boarder sinks his oar into the deep calm blue. Down-to-earth Heinecke is in relaxed mode, dressed in a faded purple polo shirt and shorts. A baseball cap pulled over his grizzled mane gives the only clue to his identity — it’s emblazoned with the MJets logo, Thailand’s largest operator of private jets, which Heinecke owns a large stake in.
In fact there’s not much in Thailand he doesn’t own a stake in. Heinecke’s Bangkok-listed company comprises around 145 hotels, properties and resorts, including those under the Anantara, Four Seasons, Marriott, Avani and St Regis brands, along with more than 1,800 fast food and retail businesses. Minor International has diversified into China, Portugal, Brazil and Australia, and half of the group’s revenues come from outside of Thailand. Net profit last year was a record US$200 million. Privately, Heinecke has an envy-inducing collection of vintage Ferraris and a superyacht.
But he has earned every penny. Heinecke started his business in 1967 as a teenager in Bangkok with US$1,200 borrowed from a moneylender. He spent it on a registration fee, plastic buckets and floor mops to set up a one-man cleaning business. Through hard work and determination, Heinecke is now arguably the smartest expatriate entrepreneur in Southeast Asia.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, and there were times he thought he was about to lose it all. “There was a come-to-Jesus moment during the financial crisis in 1997,” he recalls grimly. “It was a dramatic time and many companies didn’t survive. We went into a negative position. Although we recovered in a couple of years it was a moment where you think, my gosh, we’ve worked so hard, and without doing anything wrong, the currency devalued and then we were stuck. So that’s what our diversification grew out of.”
But after his company was back up and running, Heinecke couldn’t stop thinking about the street-wandering elephants of Bangkok that he felt had a sort of tragic symbolism.
“The elephants were still in a sad state, walking the street, begging, cars driving around them and honking their horns. A lot of people were out of the work so the elephants were too. For an animal that was the symbol of Thailand, which used to be on the national flag, it was a shame. No one was interested in saving them.”
So Heinecke decided to set up a foundation to do so, called the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). He bought a protected area of forest located in the far north of Thailand bordered by Myanmar and Laos to rehome around 30 street elephants.
Tourism is one of Thailand’s biggest earners and an ‘elephant experience’ is high on the bucket lists of visitors. Realistically, says Heinecke, Thailand’s captive elephants and their mahouts cannot be boycotted overnight. He realised there was no point buying the elephants from their mahouts and putting them into a sanctuary. When you are trying to make a change, you have to fix the cause, not just the symptom, explains Heinecke.
“Chances are if you buy the elephant from the mahout, he would just go into the wild and get another elephant. So we provide education, housing and livelihood for the mahouts and their families,” says Heinecke.
The foundation rents the elephants from the mahout, providing food, shelter and medical care for the elephant, the mahouts and their families.The mahouts’ wives have been set up with a silk-making enterprise, growing silk worms in the village and then extracting the silk from the cocoons. They dye and spin the silk, and weave beautiful scarves that sell at the boutiques of Heinecke’s high-end hotels, with all profits going back to the wives.
Among his peers, Heinecke also has a reputation for being irresistibly persuasive. You can see this first-hand at the Anantara annual elephant charity polo competition and auction — The King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. So far, the tournament has raised millions for charities that benefit the elephants of Thailand.
Heinecke says his stance is reflective of the entire corporate culture of Minor International. “You have to ensure there’s always that thinking of how to produce a ‘double whammy’. If we encourage other people, and we match it, and if we give a great experience to these people, they’re more inclined to give.”