There are far worse unofficial titles than the one high-flying executive Vicha Poolvaraluk has been stuck with for over a decade now: king of cinema. When asked about it, the mastermind behind Major Cineplex Group, Thailand’s largest and preeminent cinema chain, seems unfazed. “I don’t really get affected by or take notice of these things,” he says nonchalantly. “I simply focus on my job and do my best to deliver the finest cinema experience possible.”
Vicha’s immersion in the hyper-competitive cinema house game began 23 years ago. “At the time,” he recalls, “numerous foreign cinema chains had entered Thailand as a result of globalisation. They were dominating the cinema business in the country.” Having decided he would try to change that by competing with them, Vicha set about building cinemas. However, it wasn’t a case of just building them and hoping for the best. As is so often the case with business, innovation and creativity were key to his success. “Instead of just building a cinema in a shopping mall, we introduced a brand new concept called the cineplex. The term is derived from cinema and entertainment complex.” In a nutshell, the idea was to provide not only movie theatres but also restaurants, bowling alleys, karaoke booths and more all in one place. It was a challenge. But his perseverance paid off. Before long, Thailand had become the first Asian country where locals had managed to buy back all foreign-owned cinema chains.
His career journey has been a highly fruitful one, and, at 53, he has no intention of slowing down. “Putting a company on the stock market alone is a challenge but it’s also about how we can build and deliver growth each year,” he says. To try and achieve that growth, Vicha has a new endgame in sight. With the company soon to enter its 24th year, he is currently developing an ambitious and strategic plan to further the growth of not only Major Cineplex but also the Thai cinema industry as a whole. “If you look at Korean or Chinese movies,” he explains, “they have a more than 50-60per cent share in their own markets while for Thai movies, the market share is only at about 30 per cent in the country.”
Major Cineplex has over 600 screens nationwide and has already successfully extended its presence into regional CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam), and there is more expansion to come. “Our ultimate goal is that by 2020 we will have 1,000 screens in Thailand and the CLMV countries,” he explains. The plan is to leverage this capacity to increase the market share of Thai movies in the countries in which Major Cineplex operates. “I don’t think people realize that when we launch a movie, sometimes we launch it in 11 countries at the same time,” he says. “What’s amazing is that Thai movies currently already have a 40 per cent market share in the Cambodian market,” he adds. The last jigsaw piece involves actually making movies rather than just screening them. Dovetailing with Vicha’s plans for regional dominance is his latest joint venture: a tie-up with South Korean media company CJ Entertainment that will find Major Cineplex coproducing movies aimed at Thailand and the region.
Movie mogul aspirations and serious business credentials aside, there’s a side to Vicha that’s not at all about profit, growth or market share. Behind the fortune and the success is a man who has not turned a blind eye to Thailand’s socioeconomic problems. “It’s not just business, business, business. I think it’s very important to give back to society,” says the grounded and modest businessman, who is ranked number 50 on Forbes’ Thailand’s 50 Richest list. “There’s an immense gap in our country with so many people out there without opportunities. Any company with the capacity to help society shouldn’t hesitate to do so. ”
As the owner of McThai, which operates 227 branches of McDonald’s across Thailand, he is the chairman of the Ronald McDonald House Charities Thailand. A few years back, he also established the Major Care Foundation, a charity that tries to bring joy to disadvantaged children throughout the country. Blending business and social work, this foundation opens up a new world for these children—one that is educational as well as entertaining. “Major Cineplex has branches throughout the country but not everybody has the means to go to the cinema,” he explains. “So we bring children and sometimes elderly citizens to come and watch movies at Major. At the same time, we also encourage all our employees, especially the managers at each location, to become involved with helping society.”
Another of the foundation’s initiatives is helping schools to build cinema-like rooms with large plasma screens. “You would be surprised how free these children are during the afternoons, with so few activities for them to do,” he says. “With these cinema rooms, they have something fun to do. However, the important thing to remember is that movies are not just entertainment and happiness but can be a strong educational and inspiration tool.” Because education is a key pillar in a child’s development, educational movies are specifically selected so that they learn while having fun. School stationery and equipment are also given to the children. “We want to inspire them to become good citizens,” says Vicha. “We even paint the rooms to look like a cinema to offer an experience as close as possible to that of a real movie theatre. This year, we delivered 10 rooms in schools across the country.”
Looking back, it has been more than 30 years since Vicha earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Chulalongkorn University and the International University of San Diego. It’s been even longer since his high school days. Born to a business-oriented family, he had aspirations from a young age. “My father was a true entrepreneur,” he says. “So, ever since high school, my only inspiration in life was to become a successful businessman and follow in his footsteps. Also, my father was running cinemas long before I was born,” he adds.
Work is clearly Vicha’s main passion, something that he is not only fond of but also deeply dedicated to. But in addition to being the king of cinema, he is also a family man who has been happily married for 25 years. “I have two boys and one girl, who is my angel,” he says proudly. Managing time between his work and his personal life can be tricky but Vicha seems to have it all figured out. “It’s very important to make time for family but it all comes down to balance,” he says.
“When you are young and just starting your business, work probably constitutes 80 per cent of your time. Now at my age, it’s about 50 per cent work, 30 per cent family, 10 per cent for society and 10 percent for myself.” What about hobbies? “I love watching movies. Luckily I’m in the cinema business,” he says with a laugh. Every weekendhe and his family try to go to the cinema and sometimes, on weekdays, he even goes alone. He’s also the sporty type, someone who tries to play tennis every week. At home, Vicha also enjoys swimming in the pool. “I exercise in the home gym and play with my six dogs a lot,” he adds. He’s besotted with his furry friends, admitting with a laugh that if it were not for his wife restraining him, he would probably have 20 of them by now. As for travelling, Vicha vacations with his family at least twice each year, usually to the glamorous cities of Europe or to the wilderness of Africa.
Of course, the path to blockbuster success for this visionary business mogul was far from easy. “You have to be extremely focused and always be cautious about the changes that can occur at any time,” he says. Being a businessman, he says, is like piloting an airplane. “Start young,” he advises. “You will have a longer landing strip in front of you, more room to make mistakes and you can pick yourself back up and learn from those mistakes.” At the end of the day, Vicha thinks it all boils down to knowledge and giving it your best shot. “Too many people dive into businesses without sufficient knowledge and that is why they fail,” he says. “Make sure that whatever you do you aim to be the best in your field. Be optimistic and always set the bar high.”