Buy a brand-new house from Anant Asavabhokhin and you'll get an unusual sales pitch: You can't choose the paint color, the flowers in the garden, or which style of kitchen cabinets. This comes as a shock to Thai home buyers, who are accustomed to selecting what they want for their houses. "Take it or leave it," says Anant, president of Land & Houses Public Co. of Bangkok. "If you don't like the house, we've got another to show you."
The 53-year-old Thai civil engineer calls his all-or-nothing approach "mass customization." Anant completes every house down to the last lightbulb and blade of grass before showing it to prospective buyers. He bases his designs on painstaking in-house market research and keeps an inventory of at least 200 fully built houses "on the shelf" before selling them for an average price of $130,000. "This is a new concept," says Anant, who earned a master's in engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1973.
You can't argue with success. Anant's strategy, which cuts construction costs, saved Land & Houses from bankruptcy during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, and it brought him out of the red in 2000. Since then, revenue has tripled, to $306 million, and profits have doubled, to $91 million. Today, real estate analysts say Land & Houses builds 27% of all stand-alone houses in the Bangkok metropolitan area. The company says it will sell 3,800 houses next year, helped by pent-up demand and low interest rates.
What makes Anant a star, though, is more than his ability to survive. He has restored the trust of Thai home buyers who were burned when hundreds of developers went out of business in the crisis and failed to refund buyers' downpayments. By resuscitating the property market, Anant is helping to drive a groundswell of consumer confidence -- one reason Thailand stands out as an Asian success story.
There have been some glitches. Like almost all other Thai developers, Anant was battered by the 40% devaluation of the Thai baht in July, 1997. About 80% of his debt was in U.S. dollars. But Anant's bankers were willing to keep him in business by extending credit to his customers. That's when he started prebuilding houses before selling them -- a radical departure from standard practice.
Anant's success has turned Land & Houses into a darling of investors. "This is the most reputable company in Thailand," says Supavud Saicheua, managing director and chief economist at Merrill Lynch Phatra Securities Co. in Bangkok. And a symbol of a resilient country.