Next Generation Entrepreneurs

What does the future of panel manufacturing look like? The answer may be found in the young managers of Thailand’s Metro Ply Group.

At 28 and 26, Rangsinee and Kanatuch (Ekky) Piyasombatkul represent a new generation of plant managers in Southeast Asia that will one day take ownership of their family’s wood business.

Cousins Rangsinee and Kanatuch (Ekky) Piyasombatkul have been tasked to manage their family’s panel business, and one day grow it beyond its current capacity.

Growing up, they were taught riches do not endure forever and a crown is not secure for all generations. They visited the factory frequently, the value of hard work, discipline and responsibility woven into the fabric of their nature at a very young age.

That this has always been in their DNA meant Ekky “never really thought of anything else except to step into the role,” he says.

“My father is a very serious man and a personal motivation for me. He would say ‘no one is going to support you, you have to support yourself and be the family leader one day.’”

Stepping into the world of wood panels with no experience or credibility— and expected to manage it one day—is a mammoth task. The learning curve is steep and there is no hand holding.

The second of three children, Ekky manages the particleboard and flooring products business. He started learning about machines first, from staff who have worked in the factory for decades. In the meantime, he also made the effort to get to know them and their families.

His cousin Rangsinee is in charge of Advanced Fibre, the Group’s fourth and newest MDF line. The second of five children, she returned to Thailand after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from Imperial College London in 2011.

“Our parents were part of that generation that struggled from nothing into something. It was always part of the plan that we continue what they have built,” she says.

She started shadowing her father at meetings and through careful observation, grew to understand the panels business on a deeper level.

Subsequently, she found her place in the massive conglomerate. In 2015, when the Group decided to build Advanced Fibre, it was like starting from the beginning again. This time, armed with experience, things began to make more sense. She was involved in the negotiations and personally saw the project from start to finish.

“I saw how my general manager dealt with suppliers, how different machinery came together, how boards are produced successfully and how to sell them,” Rangsinee shares. As she gained experience, people also started to ask for her opinion, she adds.

EVERY PART IS IMPORTANT

The Metro Ply Group produces plywood, and owns four MDF and three particleboard lines. Its fourth and newest MDF line, Advanced Fibre, is a highly-automated, high speed thin board line. It features a 28-metre long CPS+ continuous press and equipment from Europe.

Advanced Fibre has a total annual capacity of 240,000m3. It sources rubberwood and some eucalyptus from the southern and eastern parts of Thailand.

Building began in early 2016 and the first board was commissioned on July 4, 2017. The 2mm MDF boards are now exported worldwide and mostly used in indoor furniture.

The factory stresses safety and cleanliness for the benefit of employees.

But there is also a practical reason behind this culture. Firstly, for machines to work at optimal level, they need to fit like a jigsaw. And for that to happen, excess residue and saw dust must be removed, “otherwise you have to hit the stop butt on and clean for hours. It’s not a job you outsource to a cleaning lady, it’s a lot of headache and it wears down your people,” Rangsinee emphasises.

The smallest component, she adds, makes a huge difference to the plant. For example, dust extraction systems and fibre sifters are often overlooked as vital elements for success. But it helps create a clean environment that allows the factory to produce panels efficiently.

She says, “People always see the press as the main star. At commissioning, it gets the most attention. But I don’t think any part is insignificant or secondary because in the end they all help production run smoothly.”

It is one of the reasons why the factory was serious about having a good dust extraction system to reduce downtime and workplace accidents.

Dust extraction system delivered by Scheuch

Ekky adds, “Scheuch is the innovator in this field. The office* in Bangkok is an advantage. We never thought we’d have a local contact where we could drop in anytime.” The best thing he likes about the partnership, he says, is communication.

“Machines will always cause you problems but if a supplier has set his mind to solve that problem, it will be solved.

The best companies are not the ones that make good machines. They are the ones that help us along the way as well.”

Yet it did take some convincing for the company’s shareholders to agree to a premium suction solution since most of them are not technically involved in the factory’s set-up. But the engineering team persevered.

Part of the Advanced Fibre factory in Kanchanaburi

“We are not a newcomer that dismisses machinery as ‘unnecessary.’ We are operating on European standards now. We want the best of the best because we will have to live with the decision for the next few decades,” Ekky says.

KEEP GROWING

Today both Ekky and Rangsinee have come a long way from Day One. There have been good days and poorer moments but at the end of it, they say it’s about learning on the job, coming back from failure, fixing mistakes, going to bed and waking up again, ready to face another day.

There is also a sense of accomplishment that comes from being recognised for small milestones, such as successfully operating machinery, merging old practices with the new, building a team and managing it.

The journey does not end with them as middle managers for their parents want them to be entrepreneurs—an undertaking that meant their experience at the bottom was essential.

“You cannot hope to rise to the top without first knowing how things work at the very basic level,” Ekky explains.

Rangsinee also runs Pink Berry with her older sister on the side. Although frozen yoghurt and wood have nothing in common, she was able to apply her management skills to the franchise business.

“Be it frozen yoghurt or any field, our parents want us to stand on our own feet and be decision makers,” Ekky says. As a hands-on person, he spends most of his time in the factory, giving him little else to think about.

“In the end if you are always seeking their approval, years down the road no one will be telling you what the right decision is.”

Meanwhile, the company is now planning ahead, filling up plots of land to prepare for a day the board of directors decides to build another line.

The next few years will see both cousins improving the line’s efficiency and growing the business, realising the very destiny they were meant for.

*Advanced Fibre is Scheuch’s first direct sales since it opened its regional office in 2015. It is located in downtown Bangkok and headed by Managing Director Andreas Köck. The Austrian technology company has served the Southeast Asian market for decades and is no stranger to many plant managers in the wood-based panel industry here.

 

Some key equipment featured in Advanced Fibre:

Energy Plant

Buettner

Forming line, pre-press,

continuous press, star cooler

 

Dieffenbacher

Dust extraction system

Scheuch

 

Refiner

Andritz

 

Sanding machines

Steinemann

 

Finishing line (cut-to-size

saws, handling equipment)

 

Anthon

Chemical preparation

IMAL

Thickness gauge and blow detector

GreCon

 

 

 * This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Panels & Furniture Asia.