grow unevenly. As Southeast Asia's powerful centers surged ahead in recent
decades--Bangkok prominently among them--they captured the lion's share of capital and
jobs and new opportunities. To rural areas the new wealth trickled down all too slowly,
all the more so after the region's long sustaining boom ended abruptly in 1997. Thai
business leader Sophon Suphapong thinks that economic growth that neglects the countryside
is unhealthy. As president of Bangchak Petroleum, he has been stimulating Thailand's
economy where he believes it matters most: at the roots.
Born in 1946, Sophon spent part of his boyhood in Thailand's rural southern provinces
where his father served as governor. Despite its elevated status, the family was extremely
frugal. This was necessary because Sophon's father refused to augment his meager
government salary by accepting bribes and other illicit sources of income.
"Honesty," he taught his son, "is the highest honor of a man's life."
Later, when for many years Sophon's father lay helpless in the hospital with a
debilitating nerve disease, Sophon asked himself, "After a man dies, what is left of
his name?" This thought, he says, "established my way of life."
Sophon studied electrical engineering at Chulalongkorn University and then entered the
petroleum industry. In 1980, he was appointed deputy governor of the Petroleum Authority
of Thailand and assigned to manage a debt-laden oil refinery belonging to the government.
At the time, it was losing three million baht a day. Sophon reorganized the company and
restored it to profitability. Renamed Bangchak Petroleum, it was soon one of Thailand's
leading oil providers. Sophon was named president in 1985.
Eager to expand Bangchak's distribution network and, at the same time, to enliven the
rural economy, Sophon began recruiting agricultural cooperatives to be owner-operators of
his company's service stations. To help them, he guaranteed loans for purchasing Bangchak
franchises and sent his managers to teach neophyte dealers how to run the new businesses.
Today, cooperative societies, women's groups, and other community organizations throughout
Thailand own and operate six hundred of Bangchak's twelve hundred service stations. Many
have also branched out into other Bangchak enterprises such as petroleum delivery,
clothing manufacture, and service-station convenience stores called Lemon Green. Moreover,
farm-fresh produce is now available at many Bangchak outlets. Over a million Thai
households are now involved in these money-making enterprises. Bangchak Petroleum has also
profited from Sophon's unconventional strategy. As one admirer puts it, "Bangchak's
national distribution network is the envy of its rivals."
Under Sophon's direction, Bangchak also promotes conservation and environmental awareness
in Thailand and is a leader in sponsoring public interest television programs. When the
country's new reform constitution was being formulated in 1997, Sophon fostered public
debate by using Bangchak's network of service stations to distribute the draft
constitution nation wide. As a private citizen, he is preoccupied with issues of poverty,
child abuse, and his country's democracy.
Sophon shuns the social whirl of Bangkok in favor of his many causes and the quiet haven
provided by his wife and two daughters. In the current economic crisis, he worries about
ordinary Thais. As government-owned Bangchak faces privatization, Sophon fervently asserts
that the company's new owners should be Thais--even better, rural Thais. "Economic
power that lies in the hands of only five percent of society . . . is not healthy,"
he says. A healthier economy for Thailand's future will be based on "many small
businesses" throughout the country--businesses much like Bangchak's rural gas
stations and mini-marts.
In electing Sophon Suphapong to receive the 1998 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service
the board of trustees recognizes his stimulating Thailand's rural economy by helping
hundreds of rural cooperatives and community organizations own and operate their own
businesses as affiliates of a major Thai oil company.