A half-century after Jim Thompson vanished in the Malaysian jungle, the American spy turned Thai silk baron lives on–and not only in the films and books that continue to appear, rehashing or offering new theories on his perplexing disappearance. Eaten by tigers? Killed by the CIA or Communist rebels? Or did the 61-year-old simply take a misstep and tumble into a ravine?
It’s one of Southeast Asia’s great mysteries, about one of its most colorful characters. Thompson lived large, an American bon vivant in old Siam, where his significant art collection, an influential circle of friends and fabulous parties earned him a Great Gatsby-style reputation. Yet he was also an astute entrepreneur who helped revive the silk trade in Southeast Asia. And now he’s going global.
That’s the vision of father and son Bill and Eric Booth, whose Thai Silk Co. is Thompson’s legacy. With three dozen stores across Thailand, 2,600 employees and $90 million in annual sales, it’s a Thai institution. Jim’s estate in Bangkok, where several old wooden houses overlook ponds and display his art, has become the famed Jim Thompson House, a cultural center that is one of Thailand’s most-visited tourist sites.
But will success in Thailand translate overseas? The first store abroad opened in Singapore in 1999. The company expanded beyond Asia with a German distribution office in 2007 and one in Paris in 2013. Next, Eric, the assistant managing director, spent several years building an American operation based in Atlanta. But now he wants to accelerate that international expansion. “We’re one of the most famous brands in Thailand,” he says. “But abroad, no one really knows us.”
In 2016 the Booths launched a five-year strategy to change that and installed a new chief executive, Gerald Mazzalovo. “Jim Thompson can be the first global luxury brand from Thailand,” he says confidently. He’s a lifelong luxury specialist who ran Salvatore Ferragamo, Loewe, Bally, Robert Clergerie and other luxury outfits. He’s the first outside CEO for a Thai company that has operated for decades as a family firm.
Outside Thailand most people know Thai Silk for its swashbuckling founder. Hailing from Greenville, Delaware, Thompson attended Princeton University and became an architect. Then, during World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. He excelled at shadowy operations in Europe and Africa, then was sent to Asia to prepare for the battle to liberate Thailand from Japanese occupation.
Afterward, he fell out with Cold War hawks. He sided with Asian independence movements, but Washington supported anticommunist regimes, such as in Vietnam. A disillusioned Thompson decided to become a textile merchant–his father had been a textile manufacturer–and started his company in 1947. But he remained an outspoken critic of Cold War policies, and many speculate that the CIA or its Asian allies silenced him in Malaysia at the height of the Vietnam War.
Thompson disappeared on March 26, 1967, and had no children. His stake in the company went to a nephew; he and other investors put Bill, who was a top staffer, in charge after Thompson’s deputy died in 1973. Just like Thompson, Bill had been dispatched to Thailand by the U.S. military. He arrived with the army in 1959, then returned to Bangkok three years later, after his discharge.
Thompson is widely venerated for reviving the craft of silk weaving in the region, which has mostly been replaced by mass production. “Handweaving has become an endangered species here, and sadly that’s the case everywhere,” says Carol Cassidy, who runs Lao Textiles in Vientiane and is among the region’s top experts on silk and weaving. “Jim Thompson always had a great sense of quality. He definitely raised the bar for silk and crafts.”
But it’s Bill, the chairman and managing director, who’s built the business over the last 45 years, opening shops in high-profile locations such as airports, hotel arcades and malls. He expanded production and broadened the catalog of finished items and accessories. He shifted much of the operation up-country to Isan, closer to the weavers and silk farms, where land and other costs are far lower than in Bangkok. Thai Silk has 1,600 acres in Isan and operates a model farm that’s open part of the year to the public. Popular with school groups, it showcases not only Thai silk history but the art and culture of Isan, the country’s largest province. “Jim Thompson wouldn’t recognize all of this,” he jokes.
In recent years Bill has passed more of the decision-making to Eric, 48, his only son, who joined the company in 1998 and has focused on expanding the international business. “He’s the future; I’m the past,” quips Bill when we meet in his office, decorated with Thai artifacts and fabric. He turns 80 in September and still works every day, dressed in dapper suits. Charmingly humble, he displays a folksy good humor that reflects his simple roots in the Pacific Northwest farmland of Yakima, Washington. More than once he suggests that his rise to the top was due to luck rather than skill or smarts: “I’ve always said, you have to be lucky or smart. I’ve always been lucky.”
The way he tells it, his return to Bangkok as a 24-year-old silk trader was a disaster. He exhausted his funds within a year and was headed home in failure. He sought out Thompson to try to sell his remaining silk stock. “Someone had just left his company,” recalls Bill. “He said, ‘You speak some Thai, and you know silk.’ He hired me on the spot.” When he mentions the date, we both laugh. It was April 1–April Fools’ Day.
He says their styles were completely different. “I saw Jim every day. It was a small company then, probably 50 people, and only a few foreigners,” he says. “Jim was high up there; he knew royalty, everyone. I was in a totally different crowd, you know, the sports club.” In reality, though, it’s hard to imagine a boss who would be a better steward for Thompson’s vision. “All the time,” he concedes, “we think: ‘What would Jim do?’ ”
From the start, Thompson was one of Thailand’s biggest boosters, promoting tourism and supporting community charities. And, of course, Thai Silk would thrive if Thailand thrived. Today tourists visit the Jim Thompson House and watch cocoons being turned into the silk that’s woven into products they can buy at the showroom on-site. Then they can dine at a Thai restaurant–there are six Jim Thompson food outlets in Thailand and one in Singapore. Two more are franchise operations in Japan.
Upstairs is an art gallery, fitting since Thompson was a passionate collector of art and antiques from across Southeast Asia. Yet these are contemporary works. Credit Eric, who walked me through the gallery. He’s been collecting art since 1992 and has between 250 and 300 pieces, he says. Collecting runs in the family: His Thai mother, the late Patsri Bunnag, was a notable fashion collector, and after his parents separated, she married French art collector Jean Michel Beurdeley. “It’s an addiction,” says Eric, smiling, “but a good addiction.” Two years ago, Eric and Beurdeley opened Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai. Besides works from the family collection, the museum hosts Thai exhibits that are often provocative and address pressing concerns.
One concern Thompson had right at the beginning was for Thailand’s last traditional weavers. He found some living in the Ban Krua neighborhood, so he started the company and built his house there. He hired the weavers and gave them shares in Thai Silk; the original weaving families still own more than 5% of the privately held company. (The Booths decline to disclose the size of their stake or identify other shareholders.)
Thai Silk invests heavily in research and development, crucial for any company banking on trend-sensitive fabric and fashion. But the investment extends all the way back to the farms–to the worms, in fact. Most of the company’s silk comes from Isan, and the majority from worm stocks it helped to develop. These were bred to be more resilient and easier for farmers to raise, producing silk threads with the strength required for high-quality fabric. The most expensive products typically are handwoven. “You can feel the texture, the history in everything,” says Eric.
On a visit to Isan, Tamrong Sawatwarakul, manufacturing director for the silk company, shows me around the Jim Thompson Farm and the production facilities half an hour away. A vast complex has grown incrementally, with facilities and machinery added as the company expanded into new markets and added more complex printing technology. Still, the company occupies just a tiny niche in the world silk market. China has dominated the silk trade for centuries. Bill estimates that 90% of production comes from China, with India adding 5%. “Thailand silk may account for 1%,” he says. “That’s why what we are doing now is so important. We really have to move up, position ourselves at the luxury level. That’s the only way to succeed outside of Thailand.”
The company markets the unique feel of Thailand’s silk and its handcrafted products. “What Jim discovered in the 1940s was that silk in the markets here was different from silk available from China and Japan,” says Eric. “It was also hand-reeled, handwoven and hand-dyed. And uneven. That gave it this unique texture.” Long ago the market moved to mass production and consistency, but these days there is more interest in artisanal products, he adds. “That’s our advantage.”
Will it work? Finding local examples is difficult. Thai brands Harnn and Thann have expanded overseas. Both make lotions and creams that benefit from the country’s association with spas and massage. But there aren’t any real success stories at the luxury level for retail. And going global may present surprising challenges. “Jim Thompson is already such a powerful brand,” says Catherine Monthienvichienchai, strategy director for branding specialist QUO in Bangkok. “They have great products and a fantastic story with their history and the story of their founder.” Being seen as a Thai company with authentic woven goods is an asset with visitors but may not have the same attraction overseas. “They may need to shake off some of this association, show they aren’t tourist-driven.”
Concedes Bill: “This is something we probably should have done earlier. It just makes sense. How many more stores can we open in Thailand?” And it’s really just the continuation of Thompson’s work from 70 years ago, showing the world the luster of Thai silk. “His DNA is in everything we do.” – Ron Gluckman (ForbesAsia)