Chicken bowls and a living museum
The Dhanabadee Group is a well-established ceramics business known for its revival of the chicken pattern on noodle and soup bowls, a classic design long associated with ceramics in the region. The first company to manufacture chicken bowls in Thailand, Dhanabadee now exports them and other products like household items and decorations around the world.
“Our brand name comes from our family name,” said Panasit Dhanabadeesakul, the company’s second-generation leader and CEO. “My father came from the Chin clan in China but changed his changed his family name to Dhanabadeeskul, meaning ‘a wealthy merchant family.’ We wanted the prestige of our family name to apply to our products made by our two companies: Dhanabadee Décor Ceramic Co., Ltd. and Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum Ltd.”
From China to Lanna
Panasit told of when his father, Ee (Simyu) Chin, arrived in Lampang, bringing his skills in making chicken bowls from China with him. Lampang had the high-quality kaolin needed for making chicken bowls, so his father got some friends together and set up the Ruamsamakkee Factory, which was the first factory in Lampang to make the chicken bowls. The business was very successful as imports of chicken bowls from China had stopped during war between China and Japan, and the national Pro-Thailand policy of the time encouraged such domestic-based production.
Eventually, the original business partners left to start businesses of their own. Father Ee and a partner then built a second factory before moving to a third factory. This became a small family business called the Pae Simyu Factory, which focused mainly on making tiny ceramic cups for baking Thai desserts. Its name was later changed to the Dhanabadeesakul Factory and has remained in that business for 50 years. It is now run by the family’s eldest daughter.
“After I graduated from Silpakorn University in Decorative Arts, I realized that I didn’t want to work as an employee,” said Panasit. “I returned home and tried working with ceramics, but my ideas were too different to be welcomed by the family. But then my father gave me 40,000 baht to start my own business as he had taught me to do — 40,000 baht was much more money in those days, of course. I tried many things out but didn’t have much success, but I am a fighter. The first 4–5 years were difficult, but eventually I became successful.”
History worth preserving
“The big change happened the day I came across one of my father’s old chicken bowls at the back of a kitchen cupboard at home and saw how beautiful it really was,” said Panasit. “This was at a time when chicken bowls had for various reasons completely disappeared from the Thai market. I knew nothing about them until my father told me what had happened. The story so fascinated me that I decided to revive the design and bring it back into the market. We started by manufacturing them with the traditional chicken design down to the last detail and began showing them at trade fairs. Customers liked them and began placing orders because they hadn’t seen them in the market for a long time. Wealthy customers who had used chicken bowls when they were still poor reminisced about their past. This sparked the return of the chicken bowl.”
“The economic crisis in 1997 saw most ceramic factories in Lampang shut down except ours, which went in the opposite direction. We barely were able to keep up with manufacturing chicken bowls for export. Our factory was hardly affected even though other factories copied us — Dhanabadee’s chicken bowls were distinctive because of their unique and traditional pattern.”
“My goal remains to preserve our family roots but at the same time to move forward with what I’m good at, namely making household items and home decoration for export,” Panasit said.
Rethinking during a crisis
Panasit recalled the crisis caused by rising costs when the minimum wage per day was raised from 165 to 300 baht, which happened at the same time as gas prices rose. Manufacturing costs became so high that Panasit thought they might have to close the business down.
“When we imagined ourselves having to close, I wanted to preserve our family history and tell it to the world,” said Panasit. “This was how the idea of the Dhanabadee ceramic museum came about. I wanted to register our old ‘dragon’ kiln, so that future generations wouldn’t destroy it. This seemed to be the right thing for me to do as the heir to our family tradition. But even though business slowly began picking up again, we still had to negotiate cost-cutting measures with our employees to avoid having to lay staff off. Fortunately, all 300 employees understood and cooperated. We then started to gain more customers when some of our competitors had to shut down. Thanks to cooperation from all around, we began to become more profitable than expected within a year and a half.”
Panasit acts as head designer, supervising the direction of overall design. He said he found it difficult creating his own style, but then he went to training sessions at the Department of Export Promotion, where foreign designers helped develop design concepts based on worldwide trends. However, when Dhanabadee showcased new designs based on these concepts at trade fairs, they saw that other brands were coming up with very similar ideas. Their customers told them that their products no longer had the distinction of the Dhanabadee Brand.
“The products may have been beautiful and reasonably priced, but they were not our style; our customers were not happy with them. So, we returned to our own identity and style without referring to world trends,” he said.
A new beginning for better goals
Dhanabadee changed their marketing strategy. “We stopped all participation in trade fairs and built our own showroom and museum for customers to come and browse through,” said Panasit. “We considered the styles our customers liked, and then we started following the European trend of offering new designs year-round rather than launching two new collections a year. Customers liked this and orders began increasing,” said Panasit.
Panasit himself leads tours through the museum, telling Dhanabadee’s stories and persuading customers to buy products and return for more. He treats customers like friends or business partners, and when new purchasing personnel come to Lampang to place orders, Panasit offers them advice about restaurants, accommodation, attractions and itineraries.
“Dhanabadee isn’t just about our products, we are also about encouraging positive sentiment. Our high-quality products aren’t only beautiful, they are different and meaningful. They come with stories, but of course design matters, but ultimately it is customers’ needs that are key. As for companies that copy us, as far as I’m concerned, the more they do so the more our products become distinctive,” he said.
Regarding design, Panasit lets form following function, saying it is important to concentrate on what each product is used for, what its required components are, and how it will be different from that of their rivals. Eighty percent of Dhanabadee’s customers are foreigners, from Europe, USA, Australia—the company exports to 72 countries.
Twenty percent of their customers are in Thailand, where production is more socially oriented. Dhanabadee makes “elephant” souvenir products, the proceeds from which go to the Elephant Hospital in Lampang. They make vessels used to make religious offerings in Buddhist ceremonies and rituals, and they donate to the School of the Blind and Old People’s Homes.
Taking care of everybody as family
“It is Dhanabadee’s policy to hire people from the local community; we put vacancy ads around our community first. We encourage local employees to invite people they know to come work with us. We offer a special bonus to employees who bring in new workers who stay with us longer than three months. This helps reduce employee turn-over. We also support local school activities and participate in religious ceremonies at community temples,” Panasit said.
“We offer activities to create a happy workplace for both older and younger employees. The age difference sometimes results in different ideas, levels of perseverance and personal expression. The activities we offer help reduce this gap. We provide health care benefits and promote health in the workplace, and we offer advice on other issues regarding everyday life, such as financial planning, and we have organized a savings group.”
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, Dhanabadee was seriously affected, but not for long. Everybody was afraid of the disease, business halted and orders were paused. Like everybody else we suffered badly in the beginning. The only thing we could do was give our customers moral support. When business came to a standstill, we spent time improving our products. We analyzed and planned. It turned out that when foreign customers came out of the pandemic ahead of us, almost all our old customers returned, and some new ones came as well. Sales kept growing, but the hard work this required started to feel overwhelming and we became less happy. Most of our employees are older and were starting to become exhausted. We had to rethink our strategy and find a new balance between work and life. We began to be more selective with customers and make new plans. We talked with our customers and balanced manufacturing capacity. We concentrated on our core customers without forgetting the most important people—our own employees. We wanted them to be happy.”
The Buddhist way is our way
Panasit follows the Buddhist way of thinking and adopts it in his life and work. “Permanence is impermanence. Nothing in this world is static or unchanging,” he said. “This is the basis of our business management. It helps us understand life much better. Identify what is making you suffer and then try to understand and accept it without letting it affect you too much. It is the same in business. Things always happen. The goal is to be happy. If you work hard but you are miserable, no matter how much money you are going to make, that work will be unlikely to do you much good. You must always keep your balance.”
“I have done my best. I have fulfilled a dutiful son’s role to improve the family business, making it prosper more than before. I’ve had the chance to honor my parents and make a name for the family. I think this is the best kind of gratitude sons and daughters can offer to their parents.”