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Past and Future Perspectives

A Thai-Norwegian joint venture in the furniture business. That started an adventure resulting in a number of businesses and thousands of employment opportunities. Mr Nils Gunnar Hjellegjerde offers a unique perspective on both the past and present.Mr Nils Gunnar Hjellegjerde found himself with an interest in Thailand as the Asian Financial Crisis was unfolding.

His family acquired a company which held a Thai-Norwegian joint venture in the furniture business. That started an adventure resulting in a number of businesses and thousands of employment opportunities. From being introduced to Thailand during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 to serving as Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce President from 2002 to 2003 and a continuing presence in the Kingdom to this day, Mr Nils Gunnar Hjellegjerde offers a unique perspective on both the past and present. Over the years, Mr Hjellegjerde has established three businesses in Thailand in addition to serving as President of the Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce in 2002-2003. From a business perspective, the country has made improvements, but he also notes there are challenges remain from the time he first arrived.

“Doing business in Thailand has become a bit easier. It is a combination of gradual improvement and digitalisation. Transparency has also increased making it easier to navigate as well as shed light on things that need to be improved,” Mr Hjellegjerde said. “But some of the challenges are the same today as they were back then. There are still a lot of regulations that remain somewhat blurred and hard to understand the purpose of. This makes it hard for newcomers to manage and steer effectively.”

Perhaps the greatest improvements have come from the Office of the Board of Investment (BOI). Mr Hjellegjerde cites its key role in supporting Thailand’s efforts to be more open to foreign investment as a notable step forward. “The BOI in general is a huge success. Things are now easier with the BOI One Start One Stop Investment Center. Our companies are BOI supported and that helped a lot. Especially the first one as I was quite new to Thailand. We received tax benefits, duty exemption, easy access to work permits and ability to own land,” Mr Hjellegjerde pointed out. While these advancements are a step in the right direction, Mr Hjellegjerde stresses that progress is relative. If Thailand improves but others do so at the same speed or faster, the country will not find itself in a better position. His business experience in Vietnam provides an interesting frame of reference.

“The challenge for Thailand is that the world is not standing still. When you compare it to Vietnam, where I set up two factories, you see they have more transparent regulations that make it easier for newcomers to understand,” Mr Hjellegjerde explained. “Thailand’s hesitation to engage in comprehensive trade agreements might also be a disadvantage compared to other countries. I think trade agreements and good international relationships will be critical for Thailand in the years to come.”

It also means the country needs to clean up other troublesome areas, such as slow VAT refunds process and import duties, which cause uncertainty and extra cost among foreign businesses. However, if Thailand is to truly be competitive, Mr Hjellegjerde believes it must invest in education and infrastructure. “The most important resource is the human factor. The countries that can retrain and upskill will attract investors and businesspeople. This investment can create high-paying jobs and improve the wellbeing of Thai people,” Mr Hjellegjerde stated.

According to Mr Hjellegjerde, a possible solution would be partnerships between the private and education sectors. He would like to see this focus on fields where there are currently talent shortages. Of course, education efforts need to be supplemented by activity in other areas. “Infrastructure is also critical. That includes everything from internet and digitalising infrastructure to transportation, ports and the cost of moving products,” Mr Hjellegjerde said. “Finally, I think Thailand needs to embrace sustainability even more. Not just as a slogan but as a prerequisite in everything we do.”

The Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce also has a role to play when it comes to improving the business climate and supporting Norwegian companies. “The Chamber was created as a venue where Norwegian businesspeople could share experiences, learn from each other and brainstorm on how to improve the business environment in the country,” Mr Hjellegjerde explained. “But we have to be realistic. The Norwegian business community in Thailand is small. We must work together with other chambers as well as the Joint Foreign Chamber of Commerce to draw attention to these issues and get them improved.”

“Despite some of the shortcomings of the country, I have chosen Thailand as the home for our family and we have raised our children in the Kingdom” ends Mr Hjellegjerde.

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