The dragon from Träskvik’s got it all in Thailand

Håkan Wallenius was born in the Chinese year of the dragon though this may not have meant much in his birthplace Träskvik, a village in the woods in the southwest of Finland, Kristinestad being the nearest city, where Swedish was commonly spoken and hens and cows were part of the family.
     Håkan grew up in a small cottage as the youngest of ten sisters and brothers. The highlight of the month, recalls Håkan fondly, was when a shiny black and yellow car pulled into the yard and an achingly sweet smell invaded his nose. It was the candy man, selling sweets in all shapes and colours that tasted as if they were made in heaven.
     The dragon was to leave this safe haven as a five-year-old when his family moved to Surahammar in Sweden. There he was called “bloody Finn”, and when he went back to Träskvik in the summers he was called “bloody Swede”. Such childhood encounters no doubt prepare a man for future travel and a stretching of boundaries to allow for more than merely two races of men.
     “It was hard being a Finn-Swede,” Håkan recalls, “like not having one true country of origin. Nowadays, I feel more Finnish the longer I stay in Thailand, and if I visit home, then it’s Träskvik I head for.”
     After having moved first to Halstahammar and then to Västerås and studied economics among other things along the way, it was time to start earning a living, something at which even the young Håkan proved to be very talented. At 21 years he started out by selling caravans – he had never owned or stayed in a caravan himself, but no matter. He borrowed some books, read everything there was to know on the subject and got to work.
     “My sales philosophy was to eliminate all the fuss and drama that surrounds the signing of a buyer’s contract,” Håkan says bluntly. And so he did, which resulted in him being the best salesperson at Kristensens husvagnar in Halstahammar. It also earned him enough money to buy a filling station in Orebro.
     “It was a fun and useful experience to run a company of one’s own and to have the possibility to sell just about anything there. But it was also hard work; I worked constantly. The filling station was open around the clock. When, after seven years, we decided to close at night we could not find the keys since the place had never been closed!”
     After ten years of total commitment, Håkan got restless and decided to sell the filling station and the garage that his brother by then co-owned. That brother is still a mechanic and has his own garage at the same place.
     “By the way, his house is called tick-tock because he collects pocket watches,” Håkan smiles, “he has got 400 of them!”
     Håkan now had the chance to use his education in economics combined with his knowledge gained from running the filling station to start up his own auditing firm, creating an auditing system especially for owners of filling stations.
     “If we don’t save you more money than our fee, our service is for free,” was his message to the clients.
     “After a short while we were four people serving sixty clients. I often think about that when I see all the people involved in administrative matters here in Bangkok,” he sighs.
     One of Håkan’s clients sold district heating to China and wanted to open an office in Thailand which had Håkan spending a lot of time in this part of the world. Finally, the day came when he realised that he didn’t want to go back to Sweden at all and he pondered the possibilities Bangkok had to offer.
     “Being interested in music, I missed somewhere to read about all the events that went on in Bangkok. I had seen the magazine Nojesguiden in Sweden and decided to try do something similar. We started out in Nonthaburi just outside Bangkok, where the rent was low, with an initial investment of Bt 400,000.”
     “The magazine mainly depended on me sitting on the back of a motorbike trying to have as many meetings as possible in one day. The first one to advertise in the Guide of Bangkok was the Marketing Director of Hard Rock Café who bought the back cover of the magazine. He never regretted taking that chance in supporting a newcomer. The Hard Rock Café ad has been on all 150 issues ever since.”
     Except for a dip during the Asia crisis in 1996 Guide of Bangkok has been successful almost from the outset. So successful that it was bought by the second largest daily newspaper group in Thailand Daily News. Håkan, who still owns 12 percent, is the Managing Director and also writes for the magazine.
     Says the editor and longest term employee at the magazine, Frances Dowd Ekasastr, “I had a hunch the magazine would succeed from the very beginning. Not so much because there was clearly a niche in the market, but because of Håkan’s utter belief in what he was doing. The past ten years in Guide of Bangkok’s evolution have not been easy, the early years in this business never are, but what has always impressed me about Håkan, and what I feel is the essence of his success, is his complete confidence in himself and in his product. This has made almost all his decisions over the years swift, sure and sound, which makes him not only an innovative business force, but the inspiring individual spirit behind the whole enterprise.”
     Over more than a decade, Guide of Bangkok has developed from merely informing about events to being a widely read magazine chockful of information and articles on what is going on – and, of late, has turned into a bi-lingual publication. True to character, Håkan has always involved himself in every aspect of the business, with no job being too complex or menial for him to tackle.
     Hatsada Tirawutsakul, Graphic Designer with Guide of Bangkok is probably the person who encounters his bosses pivotal role most routinely.
     “He is not only an excellent salesman but his knowledge of the printing process also helps him understand the relationship, and bridge the gap between sales and production.”
     On a more personal note, he adds, “Håkan is kind, generous and friendly and that makes employees feel comfortable working with him. I can always expect good advise from him, whether it’s work-related or just in general.”
     Hakan’s home is in Bangkok and although he recently found his own safe haven out in the leafy suburbs (selecting more than 20 varieties of orchid and 70 other plants for his garden) he is still interested and takes part in what is happening in this throbbing metropolis.
     As a man whose true love in life is music, the magazine has always slanted towards coverage of live and recorded music. He explains, “My interest in music is vital to my life and work. When other kids were listening to kids’ songs, I was listening to Chicago Transit Authority (later Chicago) playing R&B. All the musicians I know ask me which instrument I play – otherwise how can I talk to them musician-to-musician – actually, I don’t play at all, but I know music.”
     Håkan thinks that Bangkok is fantastic when it comes to entertainment, certainly it’s never dull and there’s always something new and interesting to do. His favourite music place is Saxophone Pub close to Victory Monument where any night of the week one can find five bands on stage playing all kinds of music. When it comes to food he suggests a visit to one of the food courts (self service cafeteria) where it is fun to people-watch as well as eat.
     “By all means, go out from the centre where the Thais themselves eat. Ask, talk, smile and taste. It is incredibly cheap and the Thais are helpful.”
     Malika in Sukhumvit, Soi 22 and Rotdee in Siam Square are two other places where Håkan likes to take a bite.
     For some peace and quiet he prefers Lumphini Park and the small pottery island of Koh Kret nestling in the Chao Phraya River.
     Although Håkan works hard, he plays easy and has an old passion for natural places and natural people when the working week is over. One of his favourite escapes is Home Phu Toey tucked away in the wildly beautiful province of Kanachanaburi, northwest of Bangkok, and owned by the much-revered Thai, Kanit Wanachote. Here, Håkan not only has the chance to enjoy the pristine air and the slow and easy pace on the banks of the River Kwai, but also to indulge in another old love: football. Khun Kanit tells the story best.
     “Håkan made it his regular duty to coach the local kids who were crazy about football, the greatest joy these poor children ever had. His generosity prevailed among our small community of children who come in from the two schools next to our resort.”
     Håkan is by no means a dabbler in the sport as football played a very large part in his life from the age of 25 to 38 years, during which period he was coaching 25 hours per week. The first five years with youth teams and later on at senior level. His experience as a coach stems from the fact that he has been invited to several top clubs in Europe including Hamburg SV, Roma, Ferencvaros and AEK Athens. Many of the young players he trained went on to the Swedish national youth team.
     His love for the sport extends beyond the pitch, however.
     “I often judge people on the basis of whether they have ever been involved in a team sport. I don’t tend to gravitate towards those who haven’t. Probably the only thing I am more judgmental about is smoking which I hate more than any other vice.”
     Of course, with Håkan, all of his interests and pet hates are out in he open as many of his ideas have seeped into Guide of Bangkok over the years as his voice is heard in regular column Bangkok Spy, seasonal columns on football and more besides.
     He has many followers of his astute observations and easy style. As Khun Kanit, who also runs English schools, “His English is beautiful, witty, profound, sharp and beyond expectation. What a Swede! His English is so rich it almost hurts!”
     Håkan has managed to assimilate smoothly into his life as an expat – he is married to a local lady, Sunee whom he met when they went to see the same band.
     “I have been incredibly lucky meeting her. She is a very independent woman and runs her own business. She is the love of my life, my inspiration and gives me the local angle on things when I need a point in the right direction. Her daughter is like my own daughter. I believe in being faithful and have learned respect for woman from my sisters. I hope to bring Sunee and Bay to Träskvik in the near future. One smile from Sunee throws a warm glow on my world.
     “I have a wonderful family, a nice house, a good salary and a great job. There is nothing missing. I am a very happy man.”

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