I recently interviewed Bhanu Inkawat, a Bangkok entrepreneur who founded Greyhound, a fashion and restaurant chain that revolutionized advertising and branding in Thailand and then conquered the world.
“I grew up in Bangkok, around Petchaburi and Sukhumvit Road. My father owned a petrol station. My mother is from Chinatown. She studied literature at Chulalongkorn University, the only woman in her class. She was one of the first women who broke out of the traditional way of life and worked for UNICEF and the Red Cross.”
Inkawat followed in his mother’s trail-blazing footsteps. After two years study at the Chulalongkorn high school, he left for New Zealand in 1971.
“At Chula, we were taught a new way of learning in school. We were encouraged to think critically and to express our attitudes. At the same time, my cousin went abroad. When he came home, he looked different and brought lots of fashionable things back with him. My mother sent me to Auckland, thinking it was peaceful enough that I wouldn’t get spoiled.”
Inkawat studied graphic design and moved to London after a year.
“Graphic design was very new back then. Fine artists looked down on the subject as it was considered commercial art, 2nd class art. But I did really enjoy it because it involved analysis. I learned about conceptual ideas.”
Inkawat took to western pedagogical methods.
“Project would be discussed openly. Everyone talked about their own ideas and there was no right or wrong.”
In London, Inkawat studied in Luton and at Harrow, but once his course was completed, he decided to go back home. In 1977, he started his professional career at the Bangkok Post.
“I worked for a year as paste-up artist. I had friendly colleagues and a great boss. We had a good lifestyle.”
But Inkawat was restless and soon changed to become art director at Dishan, a popular women’s magazine.
“Dishan was published by Advance Media, which was owner by Sonthi Limthongkul, a young guy with modern ideas. He was very aggressive and pushy and he offered strong comments to staff on how to improve things. He was not so involved in politics back then.”
In the early 2000s, Limthongkul would go on to become a leader of the right-wing PAD movement that helped topple the elected Thai government.
Inkawat quit Dishan after a year and joined Chicago advertising company Leo Burnett when it opened an office in Bangkok in the late 70s.
“I was 25 years old when I started as art director. Three years later I was creative director. I stayed 25 years.”
At Leo Burnett Thailand, Inkawat came into his own and eventually became CEO.
“I loved the ideas culture. As the company expanded, we built a team together. This was called Re-Engineering. We would create small units within the company. When we started everyone had their ow table or office. Now we all shared the same space. Each unit was responsible for its projects and for its profits. We pitched our ideas in-house first. That created competition within the company. Thais don’t enjoy being the boss. They prefer to work hard under some direction. Now employees had to function in independent units.”
Inkawat remembers his rise at Leo Burnett fondly.
“We worked hard. Advertising really sucks up your energy. You work till 2am, go home, take a shower and then make a presentation to a client.”
Inkawat looked after the creative department and eventually also sat on the company’s executive board.
“70% of my work was creative, 30% was administrative. I was happy to be part of this organization. It was high pressure but fun. And going to the head offices in Chicago was like coming home.”
At Leo Burnett, Inkawat worked for Thai clients with international brands including Johnny Walker, Warner Brothers and PTT. Inkawat was closely involved in creating and running the long-running, high profile Amazing Thailand campaign for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. But as it turned out, success in one of the world’s largest advertising company wasn’t enough.
“After work, I used to hang out with my old friends. We sat together every night and thought, why don’t we do something together. I suggested we open a fashion shop. In 1980, the market was empty. Clothes came from department stores. There was nothing interesting out there. So, we started Greyhound. Our first outlet opened at the Siam Centre.”
Inkawat designed both the shop and its contents – casual wear for men.
“We sold interesting T-shirts with funny messages. We sold jeans with printed on graphics. The young generation loved it. But we had real problems sourcing pure cotton. Everything was mixed with polyester. In the end we went to a bedsheet company to get our shirts made.”
Greyhound was hugely successful and began to open branches in shopping malls around Bangkok.
“We opened an outlet at Emporium in 2000. That was a real milestone. Now we were next to Louis Vuitton and Dior. The people we leased the space from had another space next door. They suggested we take it over and make a coffee shop. That’s how the first Greyhound Café was born.”
Basic with a twist has been Greyhound’s enduring motto.
“We really thought about the concept and brand idea before we opened. As with Greyhound Fashion, it was more about the style than anything else. We use basic ideas and then introduce a twist. We followed that strategy when we started doing food. Easy food, not too sophisticated, but with a twist. And we wanted to offer a complete experience, a restaurant with lifestyle atmosphere built in. We called it a fashion café. We put funny statements on the wall and on our staff uniforms.”
The Greyhound concept proved hugely successful and the company eventually opened 25 fashion stores in Bangkok. Some 20 Greyhound Cafés had been opened prior to Covid.
“When the Paragon mall opened, they asked us to join. But they wanted something a bit more upmarket. We mixed Italia and Thai food. I felt the two cuisines were quite similar – spices are important and the idea of sharing food exists in both cultures. We called it Another Hound.”
In the late 90s, while Inkawat continued working for Leo Burnett, the hounds of fashion continued to thrive in Bangkok.
“In the early 2000s, Disney revamped Micky Mouse. We made a deal with Disney and created Hounds & Friends and put iconic images of Micky Mouse on fashion pieces.”
In 2005 Greyhound went international.
“We weren’t ready to go out there. We weren’t run like a proper company. We were the same group of friends. We were creative rather than marketing led. But we opened a restaurant and a fashion shop in Hong Kong.”
Inkawat happily acknowledges strategy errors, “We branched out to Korea. But that didn’t work for long. Thais aren’t great at designing winter collections.”
But Greyhound continued to spread internationally with shops opening in Singapore. Until high street brands in the West began to catch up.
“Fast fashion became a major challenge for us. Companies like H&M, Zara and Uniqlo went to the world’s cat walks in the early 2000s. Three months later, they’d have their products in the shops. An entire new generation became more fashion conscious, but they didn’t have 10000 baht for a T shirt. H&M offered T Shirts for 300 baht. We found that there was a segment of people who didn’t want to dress like anyone else. There was still space for something with a good statement.”
In 2018, Greyhound opened its first restaurant in London.
“That was really fun to set up. In Singapore we had a track record, but in London, no one knew us.”
Inkawat talked to food consultants.
“They told us, if you put a burger on the menu, you can go home. Photos on menus look cheap. We kept the burger and we produced beautiful, illustrated menus. We got great reviews.”
But time was not on Inkawat’s side.
“When I was 59, I realized just how much I had worked. I was single. I had no children. I thought about what would happen to the brand once I’d be gone. We had a 1000 people working for us. We were the first brand company to sell at a high price in Thailand. People now say I am a brand guru. I simply believe that if you create the right brand, it will increase the value of your company.”
Inkawat sold Greyhound in 2014, but stayed on as consultant until 2019.
“I wrote my good bye letter six times. I finally got it out of my system. A new team had to come in. Then Covid came. That was the first time I stayed home for one month.”
Inkawat still does a spot of consultancy. But mostly he is taking stock on what made him what he is.
“It was the people I worked with that made me happy. Not just the company but the people who had the same belief and goal in life as me. To get good at something, you have to work with the best. I always hired people better than me. Helping one another, that’s how you do a great job. In any field.”