The Thai people pride themselves on their powerful national culture, summed up in that elusive quality “Thainess”: the essence of being Thai. They often point out that the kingdom was never formally colonised, even when most of mainland south-east Asia was being carved up by the British and French. In one recent assertion of national identity, the Thai government said it planned to nominate tom yum kung, Thailand’s piquant shrimp soup, for inclusion in Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list.
But Thai cuisine and culture are a mélange of foreign influences — a description that also applies to the country’s billionaire business-owning families.
The conglomerates that dominate the Thai economy were mostly founded by foreigners — primarily Chinese families but also Indians and Europeans. One such family member is Harald Link, who chairs the board and represents the third generation of the dynasty that owns B Grimm, one of Thailand’s oldest conglomerates (founded 1878). Though he was born in Switzerland and grew up in Germany, Link is a Thai citizen and runs a group with deep roots in local industry, including energy, transport, healthcare and property. Its power unit alone is valued at $3.7bn.
“I have become very Thai,” says the 66-year-old Link, speaking at B Grimm’s Bangkok headquarters, which is adorned with portraits of Thai royal family members and the company logo, based on the silhouette of Bangkok’s Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). “One Thai newspaper called me a German with a Thai heart.”
Link and B Grimm are part of a small but noteworthy European business diaspora in Asia that can be traced back to 19th-century merchant families and retains a presence in the shape of groups such as Hong Kong’s Swire and Jardine Matheson.
The FT spoke to Link at a challenging time for Thailand: the Covid-19 pandemic has sideswiped its trade- and tourism-reliant economy and caused the deepest slump since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government managed the first year of the pandemic well, but has recently come under criticism for vaccine delays. Frustrated businesses eager to reopen the kingdom to foreign visitors have offered to help. The private sector is “willing and ready to support the government in administering vaccines as fast as possible”, Link says.
Thailand’s conglomerates sometimes come in for criticism for their formidable market clout in a country where regulators, business media and consumer protection groups are weak. On the other hand, Thai leaders turn to the big family groups for help in emergencies.
This symbiotic relationship between business and the political establishment is woven through the country’s history. Founded in Bangkok in 1878 by the Austrian trader Erwin Mueller and the German pharmacist Bernhard Grimm, B Grimm played a role in Siam’s development at a time of rapid modernisation. The group opened one of the kingdom’s first modern pharmacies, won a concession to dig Bangkok’s irrigation canals using German equipment, and helped tame a cholera epidemic.
Ownership of the company passed to the Link family via Harald’s grandfather, Adolf Link, when the original founders brought him in as a pharmacist in 1903. The company had its assets seized during both world wars, the second time rebuilding under Adolf Link’s sons, Herbert and Gerhard, Harald’s father. Harald, who was born and grew up in Hamburg, studied in Switzerland before coming to Bangkok aged 23. Today, B Grimm is expanding into faster-growing markets such as Vietnam, where the company opened the country’s largest solar power project in 2019. “We are always at the forefront of technology and new business models,” Link says. The power unit supplies electricity to business parks, a growing niche in south-east Asia as manufacturers diversify away from China.
However, the pandemic has shone a harsh light on Thailand’s developmental model by putting millions of low- or unskilled wage earners out of work, while the rich, buffered by their investments, largely coast through the crisis. Link acknowledges the gap but frames it as a global problem. “I fully agree that in the whole world, that in this context of low interest rates, the rich get richer,” he says. “And it’s very tough for the poor to get loans because the banks are afraid of everything.”
Thailand’s education system is well down the international rankings. Its schools came in for criticism from young activists in last year’s democracy protests, including pupils who lambasted their educators for being too authoritarian and doing too little to prepare them for the workplace. More controversially, protesters also demanded the Prayuth government’s resignation, a new constitution, and limits on the wealth and powers of the normally unassailable King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Link has lobbied the government to open vocational schools based on the German system of academic and practical training. “We don’t have a dual vocational system spread out in the whole country,” he says. “I guarantee you, Thailand will have a strong middle class once that is introduced.” He also supports The Little Scientists House Project, a charity backed by the king’s sister Princess Sirindhorn, which aims to instill enthusiasm for science in young children.
Asked about last year’s protests, Link gives a diplomatic answer, noting that B Grimm has “thrived under a number of great monarchs in Thailand”. But he also makes a passing reference to the banning of Future Forward, an opposition party with strong support among young Thais, whose dissolution last year was a leading catalyst for the protests. “I don’t agree with a lot of the things the protesters are asking for,” he says, but adds: “At the same time, I would like to see [more] young people represented in parliament, and the arguments to happen in parliament.” Link himself has noble connections: his wife is a princess — Maria Assunta von und zu Liechtenstein. The couple have two children, Felix and Caroline, who are both involved in the business; Caroline is being groomed as a possible successor.
Link’s signature philanthropic endeavour is wildlife conservation. Since 2014, he has supported campaign group WWF Thailand in conserving the country’s surviving wild tigers. B Grimm, meanwhile, has spent $4.5m since 2018 on conservation and on publicising links between illicit trade in wild animals and diseases such as Covid-19. “I think there is a much greater awareness . . . of pandemics and where they come from,” Link says. “So it’s easier for me now.”
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment.