U.S.-born entrepreneur seeks to expand Thai food company to Mideast

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - Now that William Heinecke has successfully brought American pizza, doughnuts and ice cream to Thailand and other Asian nations, he's setting his sights on the Middle East and its oil wealth _ a tempting but risky target for many U.S. entrepreneurs. 

The twist is that Heinecke and his company are not American; they're Thai. And he believes therein lies a huge advantage. 

"People are very pleased that we're not an American company. If we were an American brand, there are people who might be concerned,'' said the 56-year-old business tycoon, who changed his citizenship from U.S. to Thai in 1991. 

"In the old days we (America) were loved,'' Heinecke said from his 18th floor office overlooking Bangkok. "But now we may not be entirely loved in the Middle East.'' 

Politically, that may be true, but Heinecke knows there's passion for American foods around the world, especially if they're given a twist to suit local tastes and sensitivities. 

The Pizza Company chain he started here offers menu items like the "tom yum kung'' pizza that tastes like spicy shrimp soup.  

The chain has about 150 outlets in Thailand and has spread to six other countries so far, including Cambodia, China and the Philippines. 

All in all, the Minor Group _ the food, clothing and hotel conglomerate Heinecke founded in 1970 _ is responsible for bringing a hefty slice of Americana to Thailand: Mister Donut, Swensen's ice cream and Burger King. He's also imported Esprit clothing from Hong Kong, Bloom cosmetics from Australia and Tumi bags from the United States. 

The son of an American diplomat raised in Asia, Heinecke started his business in Thailand because he wanted to import foods he "missed as a child,'' like the Swensen's ice cream he savored on furloughs to the U.S. 

Born in Virginia, he moved to Asia when he was 3 years old because his diplomat father, Roy E. Heinecke, was posted to Tokyo. Several years later, in 1963, his family landed in Thailand. 

After graduating from an international school in Bangkok in the late 1960s, he started what would become one of Thailand's largest food and hotel conglomerates. 

Although Heinecke has lived practically his entire life in Thailand, he sees himself as thoroughly American because of his father, who served 25 years in the U.S. military through two wars and then joined the foreign service. 

"I was always raised around the embassy and around the diplomatic corps, the military. You can't get more American than that,'' Heinecke said from his office, adorned with a large carved Buddha head and a water buffalo's traditional wooden plow on his wall. 

In turning his attention to the Mideast, Heinecke sees as much potential there as he does in China. 

"China has staggering numbers of people, but the Middle East has staggering amounts of money _ a small population, but a staggering amount of money,'' he said. "The economy is absolutely booming in the Middle East because of oil exports and the price of oil.'' 

Heinecke has already opened three Pizza Company outlets in Kuwait last year and one in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in May _ along with a Swensen's shop. 

There are plans for a total of 50 Pizza Company and Swensen's restaurants in the United Arab Emirates; six pizzerias and four ice cream outlets in Kuwait; and 50 Pizza Company restaurants in Saudi Arabia. 

He's working on a pizza menu that will cater to Mideast palates with beef and turkey instead of pork. Plus, the Saudi Arabia outlets will have separate dining areas for men and women. 

One of Heinecke's partners in the Mideast is Mohammed Saleh Bin Lahej, a Dubai-based businessman who has successfully operated Chili's and Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurants throughout the region for more than seven years. 

Bin Lahej, however, seemed more impressed with Heinecke's business savvy than his nationality. 

"It is Minor International's phenomenal track record over the last 30 years ... that positively influenced our decision to partner with them rather than the nationality of Mr. Heinecke or Minor International,'' he said by e-mail. 

Wearing a tie patterned with Thailand's symbol, the elephant, Heinecke also talked about plans to manage hotels and spas in the United Arab Emirates, drawing upon Mideast and African influences in their style, decor and treatments. 

This fits with his pattern in Thailand, where the Minor Group's hotels are built in traditional Thai architectural style. One of his hotels in the north has rice paddies for landscaping. 

Heinecke says he changed his citizenship partly because it would be easier to conduct business as a Thai in Thailand. As an American, he was limited in land ownership, shareholding and even conducting business with neighboring countries such as Vietnam. 

Also, even though he paid some U.S. taxes as an ex-patriot, he never used the school or medical system, or any other benefits of a normal taxpayer _ so he went native. 

"I could see no advantages to being an American,'' he said. 

Heinecke is married to his high school sweetheart, Kathleen, and now has four generations of family residing here. 

"I was born an American, I was raised an American. I adopted Thai citizenship, but I don't think just because you carry a Thai passport that you become a Thai,'' said the bespectacled, bearded businessman. "I think of myself as a guest in Thailand.'' 

Heinecke is expanding his business halfway around the globe, but Thailand is his home, and he has no plans to leave. 

"It shows my commitment to this country,'' he said. "I'm not here for a short-term stint, to make some money and move to Hawaii.'' 

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