Striking gold with his Bangkok condos

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 1, 2013

BANGKOK - The year was 1998. After more than 15 years abroad, a bright young man returned to Thailand only to be plunged straight into the darkest days of the country's economic crisis.

His family's company, which builds luxury homes for Thailand's upper crust, was reeling from the collapse of the country's banking system.

The 25-year-old finance graduate, the eldest of five siblings, was put in charge of restructuring the business.

He spent the next two years staunching the red ink as he retrenched staff and negotiated with creditors in a bid to keep the company afloat.

In 1999, he left to start his own firm, which became known for building mass-market condominiums within spitting distance of almost every electric train station in Bangkok. The units sold like hot cakes.

The company, Ananda Development, went public last December.

The man behind it is Mr Chanond Ruangkritya, now 39 and married with an 18-month-old son.

Mr Chanond looks back at the first few years of his working life with relief and some satisfaction.

Life then was a matter of "waking up and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and just hacking away, day by day", he recalls.

He was driven by a sense a duty.

"I got to where I am in life because of my parents," he says.

"Whatever services I can provide, I think I owe it to them."

Yet those difficult years also helped him acquire a reputation as a "young kid" who "took the plunge... (and) stuck to it".

"Today, senior bankers know what I did, and they always back me up in what I do. I'm very candid and honest in my approach," says the economics graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, who also has a master's degree in finance from the London School of Economics.

And candid he is, laying out Ananda's strategy over an English lunch with this reporter.

From a small firm of about 30 people, it has grown into a publicly listed company with a staff of more than 400.

It targets Bangkok's middle-class buyers by keeping home prices below 3 million baht (S$127,000), he says.

The condos are located within specific distances of Bangkok's skytrain and subway stations and marketed accordingly.

Its Ideo condos, for example, are within 300m of a skytrain station, while its cheaper Elio condos are within 600m of one.

Developers tend to fudge the distance between their projects and train stations, he says with a laugh.

"When we came into the market, we said it was 25m, 30m or 2m from the station. We use exact metres."

Proximity is prized in Bangkok, whose notorious round-the-clock jams can turn a five-minute ride into a half-hour crawl.

But land around transit hubs is expensive, so there are nips and tucks to keep prices below the 3-million-baht ceiling.

One way is to build them small. The tiniest unit measures just 21 sq m.

"The city is your living room. You zip around on the train, you go to Paragon, to Central World," he says, referring to two popular malls.

One gets the sense that Mr Chanond wants to populate Bangkok with his condominiums much like the 7-Eleven stores that dot every strategic street corner.

Thailand is planning a massive rail expansion that could more than quadruple the existing 80km of subway and skytrain lines in the capital over the next six years.

Ananda has built 12 developments, is completing eight others and plans to launch five more this year.

But "if they have 200 more stations, we need to build 200 more buildings", Mr Chanond says.

It's like buying toothpaste. "If you need to brush your teeth, why don't you use Colgate? If you need to be close to a train station, why not buy an Ideo?"

Mr Chanond thinks Bangkok's home prices are still too high, which is probably why about half of its residents are forced to rent.

On the drawing board of his mind is an alternative housing solution. Just suppose, he says, a company can offer you different types of housing to suit your needs as you age - for a monthly "fee".

The amount will vary according to the type of housing.

But unlike rent, the money remains in your name.

It is reinvested by the company and returned to you together with investment gains at a future date.

Now suppose the scheme is tied to health insurance. And the rights to the scheme are tradable.

Mr Chanond chortles at the mental gymnastics required to digest this radical idea.

"It's theoretical," he says. "But it's something… I think about all the time."

If his ideas are anything to go by, this real estate tycoon may be offering more than brick and mortar in the future.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 1, 2013

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