Exclusive Interview with Jean-Marc Dallaire: Finance and Business in Thailand from a Canadian Perspective
Canadian Business Consultant
Jean-Marc Dallaire is a Canadian management professional that has been working in Thailand and Southeast Asia for over a decade. His experiences are dynamic and varied, from spearheading Thanachart Bank’s credit card launch to kick starting his own consultancy practice, JMD Consulting. Learn more about Jean-Marc’s career and experiences working as a Canadian in Thailand through this exclusive interview.
How did you find yourself in Thailand, working on the credit card project with Scotiabank?
For 24 years I worked for Sears Canada. I worked my way up the ranks there, and eventually ended up at a very senior level before leaving and joining Scotiabank, the most international of the Canadian banks and a very close partner of CanCham Thailand. At that time, in December 2006, I was only hired as a consultant, managing a huge multi-country project in the Caribbean, improving their processing capacity for credit card applications. The project looked at risk management, analytics, sales, back office operations and regulations, and I did very well with it, winning second place for international project of the year. When we left for the Christmas holidays in 2006, my boss told me that in January he was to have a call with Scotiabank’s Vice-President for APAC Retail Banking in the Hong Kong regional office, who wanted to start a credit card business in Asia but didn’t know how or where to start. I found that very interesting, because that was exactly my background at Sears Canada where I initiated and created the Sears Canada bank, launched the Sears Mastercard, managed the Sears Club loyalty programs, and worked on card acquisition and card marketing.
In January 2007, the meeting came, and my boss invited me to attend. The Vice-President of Retail Banking, Ajay Mundkur, started to explain what he wanted to do, and I asked lots of questions. He saw clearly that I knew the business, and he found it interesting to talk with someone so passionate about it, so we made a deal to connect every week to work on this new project. We decided to do a scope of the regional market via a trip to Asia covering 4 destinations (Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and China), and so I contacted our international partners at Mastercard and VISA to book some meetings with their local groups in each country to be visited.
I sort of forced my way into the project—I was just a consultant, not really a Scotiabank employee yet, so others were confused why I would want to go to Asia with them. I knew the business though and I was really interested in it, and I’d been working on the project already, so I knew I was the best one to do the job. I argued my case and won, and so I flew with my superiors to Hong Kong.
After just two days in Hong Kong, in April 2007, I could feel the electric buzz of the region; it was unbelievable. It was so dynamic, and it was then I realized that the world centre was shifting to Asia. I knew this was the place to be for at least the next 15-20 years, because of the sheer size of the population, the dynamic of the region, and all the new things that were being innovated, especially in the digital and banking sectors.
As we were progressing through that trip, we ended up in Thailand. I had booked meetings with VISA and Mastercard on April 13, which happens to be the Thai New Year, but nobody had told us so we didn’t know. Regardless, the country heads for both VISA and Mastercard accepted our meeting invitations. We arrived at the VISA office at about 10am for the meeting, went straight to the meeting room, and almost immediately made a remark about how quiet it was that day in the office. They said, “Khun Jean-Marc, it’s Songkran, our Thai New Year—it’s a statutory holiday, that’s why everybody is at home.” Of course, we were very surprised; we said, “you should have told us! We knew nothing about this, or else we would have booked a meeting another day.” Yet, as typical of the Thai hospitality and good human nature they insisted it was no problem, and the meeting went very well. In the afternoon we went to the meeting with Mastercard, and since we now knew about the holiday we apologized, and that meeting also went really well.
During the trip we also met with the executive of Thanachart Bank, to discuss credit cards. Scotiabank had already completed its due diligence to make a strategic investment in the bank and to help them develop their Retail Banking operations. They asked us a lot of questions; they were nervous about unsecured lending. Their main business was auto loans, a type of secured lending; they were very good at that and understood that if the customer doesn’t pay, they would be able to repossess the car with no issues. However with credit cards, you cannot do that, and this—along with the cost of marketing—concerned the bank. In their eyes, credit cards were already developed and mature in Thailand at the time, and everyone already had numerous credit cards in their wallet. Why would someone want the Thanachart credit card? My argument to them was that you are essentially doing the credit underwriting already when you extend a car loan, so there is no reason you should not be able to extend a credit card to your customer as well. Considering that Thanachart is a national leader in cars and car lending, why not offer a credit card that would provide automotive value and offers on gasoline, maintenance, auto parts, carwashes, and road assistance as well? Nevertheless, they were not convinced.
What happened after you left Asia?
After the 2.5-week trip, my first trip to Asia, we returned to Toronto and I started to write up a report. I made some recommendations that the best place to establish a credit card portfolio and unsecured lending was in Thailand, because of Thanachart Bank. We knew that that deal would close, and that the bank already had about 1.8-2 million captive customers, so there was enough data, enough existing customers to offer cards to. Thailand was the best place to go to, especially because Thanachart bank really wanted to work with Scotiabank as a strategic partner. Though Thanachart was already offering savings accounts, deposit accounts, and some personal loans, they did not offer credit cards—things that Scotiabank could help with in order to grow the bank and bring it to the next level in terms of retail banking.
At Scotiabank, we made it clear that in order to become a retail bank, you have no choice but to offer a credit card and unsecured lending in order to be able to attract more customers. Once you have those customers, then you can offer other products and grow your business. As I was explaining to the executive of Thanachart, a credit card is not only a financial tool, but it’s also a customer relationship management tool. When you extend a car loan, what information do you know about the customer? You know their name, their address, the car they’re going to purchase, and after that, that’s about it. They will make a payment every month, and you don’t have a very strong relationship with them; it’s difficult to extend the connection. However, when you have a credit card, your customer spends and travels, and with that data you can build a customer profile of what they do and don’t like. You can then use that data to further develop incentives and promotions, to further develop the relationship with these customers. If you attract your customers at a young age, then you can even bring them into the life cycle, having them go through the customer journey when they get their first job, car, house, mortgage, retirement savings, and so on: this is what credit cards can provide for you.
But still, Thanachart was unsure, so we suggested a feasibility analysis. They were not sure if there was still a place for Thanachart in the credit card business in Thailand, so we did a full scan of both the market and the organization, looking at risk management, the operation, the IT, the marketing, the call centre, the financial aspect and the database analytics to find gaps and make recommendations. Thanachart liked the idea but they didn’t want to pay for it, so Scotiabank agreed to cover the costs.
Again, I somewhat forced my way in; I wanted to be there for the analysis and knew I needed to manage the project. I had to once again argue my case to work on the project, since I was not a full-time Scotiabank employee, but I had already created a bank and managed the portfolio at Sears (12 million credit cards) so I won my case. I went to Thailand for three months and my trip was paid for, from October to December 2007—it was amazing. We hired a total of six consultants to support the team that I created there, made up of four amazing guys from Mastercard, each one coming with specific expertise covering operations, risk management, database analytics, and marketing. We also hired the ex-country head of VISA from Malaysia as well as an American national and ex-Citibank finance and credit card specialist. Within the bank, I selected people from all different departments that would be impacted by this new business, including IT, operations, sales and marketing, legal, finance, risk and marketing analytics, risk management, and the contact centre to work on the project. We did the full scope analysis not only looking at the organizations but also the entire market, looking at the competitors and their products, and we clearly saw that there was still opportunity for Thanachart to take part in this business in Thailand.
One of the key reasons was based on the fact that at that time, and even still today, most of the credit card programs were all very similar. I then started to use the expression “Same Same,” because in Thailand it’s very popular. This became my thing when I was talking to my team. I always said, “we do not have the ‘Same Same’ strategy. If you want to win in the business, you have to be different. We have to be innovative, aggressive, think outside the box, and we need to come with products that are outstanding and people have never seen.” We wanted to be the everyday card for consumers, because in Thailand people are always looking for promotions, cashback, and rewards. Although there are many cards with these offers, they are all associated with the large retail shops, or with exclusive affinity programs, which do not generate large portfolios. For example, there’s in Thailand very large retail conglomerates, each with their own credit card program. People go and buy in those department stores, each with their store-specific credit card. To shop at Central, they need a Central card, and to shop at the Mall, they get the Mall Group card, and if they go to Tesco-Lotus, then they have the Tesco card, and so on. That’s why there are so many cards: because customers can only get their benefits in card-specific shops.
I decided if we could have a card that provides the same kind of value as the existing cards but whenever and wherever you go shopping, you could maximize the benefits, so that’s just what we did. We were to launch two cards: one automotive, and one everyday card that customers could use whenever they shop. At the end of the 3-month trip, we produced a 350-page report and made a presentation with our recommendations to the Thanachart board, and they gave us their thumbs up. I came back to Canada for the Christmas holidays, and after the holidays when the card business project budget was approved, I flew back to Thailand to finally start building this amazing project.
How did you motivate the team throughout the process?
I made sure to establish very good relationships with the team in Thailand, and I always found ways to motivate them, because that’s a large part of managing people. Many were not sure about the project, and worried that they couldn’t do it, it was too big a project for them, and it was new to the bank. One day I had a meeting with the head of PR of the bank, where I came up with an idea. He was very proud to show me the bank’s new branding and persona, using the slogan “Thanachart can do.” When I saw that on the screen, I thought about all the feedback about the hopeless scale of the project; I asked to have a logo designed with the Thanachart logo in the centre and the words “Thanachart credit card, can do”. Then, I requested the design to be produced on a hundred t-shirts, and I started to distribute them into my team meetings, and I also made a video to motivate people. Every time I started a meeting, I would always say the tagline “Thanachart credit card....” and everyone else would reply “can do, can do!”. These little changes completely transformed the workplace culture.
I remember one night I was going to a funeral in Thailand, and I was in the car with one of our team members. He had come from another bank and he had experience with credit cards, and he described the difficulty of working in the team sometimes because they were all so new to this. I looked at him and said, “if you talk like this, nothing is going to happen. You need to start to believe that we can do this. The first thing you need to think is ‘I can do’. Then you need to voice it, loud, and you have to carry it in your heart. Then you will start to change entirely.” Not long after, I made him the co-project manager for the program, and after that he drove the team like there was no tomorrow.
What was the process of launching the cards like?
We launched the cards in April 2009, and we immediately started to rock the industry there even though we were the “new kids on the block”. During the build-up phase I was made a full-fledged Scotiabank employee, and stayed in Thailand to run not only the credit business, but the entire Unsecured Loans and Payments business of the bank. They said, you proposed it, you built it, why don't you stay to run it, and that is exactly what I wanted to hear. I started to grow my team; it was very important to acquire leaders that had strong drive, so I was hiring people from other banks that already had experience to complement the team I had built internally. We also acquired another bank during that time, Siam City Bank. They already had a credit card portfolio, so we re-branded some cards and eliminated some others, merging these customers into our own Thanachart brand.
What happened after the launch?
The life of an expat is not indefinite, and eventually our role was to build up the knowledge in Thailand until the business is led by local Thais. One morning my boss scheduled a meeting with me, and announced it was time to go after 8 years. I was not the only one; there were already others that had left because they were trying to downsize the number of expats, and so I was in the second or third wave of expats to leave the bank. I didn’t want to leave Thailand and the region, so luckily I was already in discussion with another group, a FinTech, that was interested in working with Thanachart. They acknowledged that I had experience, and had seen me at many meetings so they knew how I dealt with people, so they offered for me to join them.
I joined the FinTech, and I learned a lot about what it means to be an entrepreneur. I also found how much I enjoy meeting people, building new business, building new relationships, and always being on the move. I could not see myself in a big office anymore, struggling in traffic to work. I actually became the President of that FinTech, spending a lot of time in the Philippines, where we had two development centres, and in Barcelona, Spain. A year later I left and for 10 months following, I worked at a loyalty company that I was introduced to when I was at Thanachart, where I became the Regional Head for Asia-Pacific. There I had some amazing projects, spending two weeks per month in Jakarta, Indonesia where we implemented loyalty programs in two of the largest banks and travelled throughout the region.
I decided not long after to start to look after myself and decide what I really wanted to do, because before I never really had to apply for a job—people always came to me and asked, “can you do this? Can you do that? And I never say no; I like challenges. So, I came back to Canada and decided to start my own consultancy practice, and use my experience and the network that I built especially in Southeast Asia to help Canadian companies to build business in Thailand and in ASEAN.
When did you start your own consultancy?
In September 2017 I started my own consultancy practice, JMD Consulting. There is always the stress of finding the first client with a new business, but through my good friends in Canada I soon started to build a client list. My dream and my focus has always been to bring these people to the next level. I could see what my clients were doing in Canada, and I knew what they had in Canada could do well in a country like Thailand—before growing into neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. They’re all very similar growing economies.
What should Canadian entrepreneurs know about starting a business in Thailand?
Entrepreneurs in Canada are so busy trying to build up their business there, and the first reflex when they're successful is to go to the United States. They don't think about Asia, but in Asia there's so much opportunity: good, talented, and qualified people, amazing infrastructure, and in Thailand specifically there are good programs to incentivise foreign companies to invest, do business, and establish companies. There's also very good support from the Canadian Embassy, the various provincial representative offices located in Singapore and Hong Kong serving Thailand, and of course from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Another tool that people sometimes don't really use or think about is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is an amazing platform when it's used professionally and properly; I've hired people from LinkedIn,, and most of my clients actually found me on LinkedIn and approached me that way.The Thai government has also put in place the Thailand 4.0 strategy, in which anybody that has an innovative business can receive support and get access to some business advantages. They are really zoning in on 10 industry sectors, especially technology, blockchain, artificial intelligence, fintech, agriculture, and manufacturing. For those exporting businesses in those industries, I would say there are very good opportunities. Another idea is to become a member of the Canadian ASEAN Business Council, which is very close to CanCham and the Canadian Embassy. The Chambers of Commerce are also excellent tools; in Thailand they often have multi-chamber events, where many chambers meet—these are great networking opportunities.
If you just want to establish business there, you should work with people like me that know the lay of the land. One thing I always say to my customers is that it is totally different doing business there than in North America. In Canada it’s very rushed, but you can’t do that in Thailand. They need you to build trust first, because that’s what they're looking for: long term relationships. They want to make sure that you're going to be the right partner, so they will test you; they will want to meet with you, talk to you, and know you, so you need to build trust. You also need to be patient. A deal doesn't just happen overnight there; the sale cycle is much longer than what you experience in Canada. Overall, you will also see that in Thailand there is a high quality of life—you’ve got everything! Not many people in Canada have the opportunity to be near the ocean, but if you're in Bangkok, you can drive 1.5 hours and you can be at the beach for a very affordable price. The growth is also exponential here, if you do a good job and get good people working for you.
Why is Thailand a valuable place to do business?
I think the beauty with Thailand is that with the ASEAN community, Thailand is in the centre in terms of strategic geographic positioning. Road and air traffic has to go through Thailand, because they're well positioned and are building massive infrastructure. Comparing Bangkok in 2007, when I first got there, to Bangkok when I left in March 2020, the changes are incredible. Every time I go back to Bangkok it’s something different… I am always discovering something new, it's unbelievable. It’s a very dynamic city, and there's a lot of dichotomy, the modern and the ancient. They’re expanding like there's no tomorrow, whereas in Canada, when we want to expand our infrastructure, we take so many years. It would take 25 years talking about it and completing the environmental and feasibility analyses, before it is put on hold by a new government, before finally beginning any construction. Over there, they need it, they do it—and that's about the same in every Southeast Asian country.
Do you have any last words for the CanCham audience?
First, I'm looking forward to seeing all of you back soon in Thailand because I miss everybody there! I'm able to see some of you through video conferences, but there's nothing like a real face to face meeting. I look forward to being back, and I'm hoping that I will see everybody soon.
My goal is to promote Thailand and doing business in Thailand first, before expanding into Southeast Asia, to Canadian companies. I am active at the moment to expand business for my client active in Artificial Intelligence and Enterprise Blockchain Solutions. We have delivered last year a very comprehensive solution for a local Thai company active in oil & gas distribution which involved participation of the Thai Revenue and Tax Department, the major airline carriers, oil companies and AOT. On the artificial intelligence side, we are currently under discussions with several parties in Bangkok to offer massive savings on energy consumptions and carbon emission with a technology engineering in Montreal. I work really hard as an entrepreneur and I'm very passionate about what I do, the country, and the opportunities there, and that's why I will retire in Thailand for sure.
Finally, I would like to thank everybody at CanCham, the Canadian Embassy, and the Quebec Office in Singapore for all their support—they’re very good friends there and I’m looking forward to seeing everyone soon.
Author: Samantha Rae Harriss