Most stories of successful entrepreneurs start from achieving their own dreams. But for Pita Limjaroenrat, his life was guided by fulfilling his late father’s vision to improve Thailand’s agricultural sector by staking his claim in his inimitable way.
Born in Bangkok, the fast-talking, independent thinking 36 year old entrepreneur who easily looks a decade younger grew up in New Zealand’s wholesome isolation sent overseas at nine. His father, Pongsak Limjaroenrat, a leading agricultural expert and professor made his eldest son spend his holidays working on different farms.
Physical labor did not faze the high school valedictorian who graduated with first class honors in finance from Thammasat University in Thailand, where he also spent two years at the University of Texas at Austin. He gained a broad overview of different industry sectors and countries upon joining Merrill Lynch and The Boston Consulting Group.
He was first exposed to the public sector and the notion of maximizing value with a social agenda as a consultant for Thailand’s national petroleum state-owned enterprise. His proposal to improve Thailand’s tourism post-tsunami was shelved due to insufficient funds made him realize he could make greater contributions elsewhere.
He shone at the Office of the Minister in the Ministry of Commerce. His tourism project was taken up by the Cabinet which allocated US$ 100 million. He developed trade and investment policies, and designed capability building frameworks to boost Thai industry and agriculture, particularly for export-oriented businesses by emphasizing technology and innovation to combat the commoditization of Thai products.
His mentor Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai’s recommended that he apply to Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to study Public Policy (Leadership) led to a joint-degree with an MBA (Strategy) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. This news vicariously fulfilled Pongsak’s youthful dreams to attend them.
Pongsak suddenly passed away three months after starting the business in 2006 while Pita was at orientation. Barely a fifth of the US$ 6 million loan remained. At the funeral, bankers told Pita he had four months to rescue the company. As a partnership of three companies with the Limjaroenrat family holding a 73 percent stake, Pita was also personally liable as debt co-guarantor. The 25 year old who had to soldier on alone as his younger brother was then 21 to save his family’s assets. “It was the toughest period of my life, and it shaped my character.”
“I knew what I needed was prioritize my response. I knew where all the problems were in every department and what questions were necessary to get the team going,” he says. His father had a team of loyal staff and industry veterans, but there was no machinery. Pita hired foreign experts to construct and assemble the factory which became operational after three months. When work stabilized, he resumed school in 2008 and graduated in 2011.
Pita manages the company’s performance guided by the Board’s strategy which requires him to formulate and implement policies, and execute operational strategies that ensure profitable growth and develop strategic operating plans for the company’s long-term objectives. His knowledge complement the strengths of his two Japanese partners. Boso offers manufacturing technical expertise while Sojitz markets and distributes to Japan and beyond.
Even while he was away, his performance exceeded expectations. In 2007, he generated sales revenue of Baht 400 million in 2007.
When fuel oil prices surged to US$150 per barrel in 2008, it pulled rice bran oil prices along, pushing his annual sales revenue to Baht 1 billion by 2009. He continued working as Managing Director while at school. What propelled Pita was not only his family. “The reason why we exist is to improve people’s lives through meaningful innovations of rice bran’s health benefits.”
Since rice is a low-priced commodity, hope lies increasing the value of cheap livestock feed a hundredfold. Rice bran oil has high intrinsic value being a sustainable, non-GMO oil with a high smoking point which makes it a genuine contender against global oils like soybean, palm, olive, and canola. Besides conventional cooking oil, Pita launched ‘TIMS’ in 2016. This premium rice bran oil primarily targets Michelin-starred restaurant, 5-star hotels and organic restaurant chains.
Innovation through industrial partnership with Cornell University and six universities across Asia has yielded value-added rice bran products such as snacks, skin care, and health food, especially as oryzanol extracts that research has shown to aid people with chronic elevated cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes sold under The Rice Brand Oil Company (TRBO). “We will continue to evolve as a specialized, innovative rice bran oil company working with rice farmers and scientists to fully extract the nutritional benefits of rice bran.”
“Our vision is to be the undisputed rice bran leader committed to excellence in all matters related to rice bran. We want to be the nutritional and science center of rice bran, serving or working with people who share the same mission with us. Together, we will deliver superior value for our customers, shareholders and grassroots rice farmers,” he says. “By 2020, our goal is to be the world’s top rice bran company”
This seems possible with his loyal 150 employees. None of the old guard left his side since he promised to ‘work with’ them rather than having people ‘work for’ him. “There are no orders – only questions – questions that invite the staff to think and find solutions instead of dwelling and getting upset about problems,” says Saowalak Uksornpunp, Quality Control Director. “That makes us realize that sometimes asking questions is more important than answers, and definitely better than orders.”
The company was Factory of the Year representing Singburi province and the recipient of the Green Industry Award from Thailand’s Ministry of Industry for minimizing operational impact on the environment, and the Outstanding Award for Safety, Occupational Health and Environment from the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.
It is fully certified by international accreditation boards including GMP, HACCP, ISO 9001, ISO 14000, ISO 22000, Kosher, Halal, the Thai Board of Investment, and the government of Thailand. Besides being sold domestically, most products are exported to clients in Australia, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and New Zealand.
Outside of work, the former intramural squash champion at University of Texas and Harvard University shoots, boxes, sails, and enjoys traveling to exotic locales. The jazz lover also finds time to work on his oil paintings every week, and collects Persian carpets and Bonsai trees. He is a doting father to two Chihuahuas, Rabbit and Kati.
His life will change with the arrival of his firstborn daughter in March as Pita has promised his beloved wife, Chutima Limjaroenrat, that he will be a hands-on father. “I’m eager to embrace fatherhood which is an important part of understanding the fullness of life.”
In parting, Pita shares a life lesson. “People can simply be divided into two groups: motors and anchors. Motors push and propel you forward. Anchors pull you down. Always surround yourself with motors.” By such inspiring motors, Pita and his company will remain a significant driving force in the Thai rice bran sector.