The first thing I notice about Piyapan “Kai” Hannarkin is her calm and collected demeanour. That, and the fact that she is a strikingly beautiful woman, looking more like an older sister to her two 20-something daughters, Jib and Jeab.
Like most successful businesswoman, she has had to work twice as hard to earn the respect of her male peers and counterparts, but Kai also has a secret weapon. As managing director of Operational Energy Group Limited (OEG), she has never foregone her femininity – instead, she has used it to her advantage, along with her expertise and perseverance, to rise to the top in a world very much dominated by men.
A little over 20 years ago Kai was invited to be part of a group of investors that acquired OEG from the previous American operator. The firm now provides operational, maintenance and power plant services for independent power producers and small power producers across Asia, the Middle East and Southern Africa.
It is the first company in Thailand that employs aero-derivative gas turbines (engines) along with the most advanced technologies – similar to that used to power a Boeing 747. With operations currently in Ayutthaya, Sri Racha, Ratchaburi, Myanmar, Indonesia and South Africa, Kai manages a team of almost 500 employees, whom she all treats like family.
When asked to what she attributes her success, Kai says she owes it to three factors: the ability to evaluate opportunities when they present themselves and being prepared to pursue the right ones, a commitment to do the best and be the best, as well as her femininity.
“Women have this delicateness and gentleness about them that softens harsh situations and appeals to other people in many positive ways,” the 54-year-old executive says.
“It can be an advantage, but it has to go along with substance and persuasiveness, of course. You can’t use only your feminine appeal to win an argument. You need to really know what you’re doing and present your ideas well.
“None of my staff calls me ‘boss’. To them, I’m P’Kai and I treat everyone like family. Again, this intimate familiarity is something women are more likely to uphold when running an operation. I extend company benefits also to immediate family members of staff, invite their families along on company outings, and I care for them in every way I can to make sure they’re happy.
“Since the very beginning, I have personally signed birthday cards for everyone in the company – every month, without fail. It’s a very small and oft-overlooked thing, but it makes a great impact. They feel that the company really cares [about them], and people are at their best when they’re happy. Anyhow, I don’t expect them to stay with the company forever. People have to grow and venture on with something else at some point, but while they’re still with us, we take good care of them.”
The personal, caring touches Kai adds to the running of the company and her sincere affection towards her team has resulted in a work culture of efficiency and synergy – everyone is involved in problem-solving and performance improvement, she says.
“When I was very young, my father gave me some really good advice. He said that it’s impossible to be successful all by yourself. You should be guided by your boss, supported by friends and pushed by your staff. You can’t ignore people around you, whatever level they are at.”
Her late father, Dr Panas Hannarkin, comes up a lot during our conversation, and he clearly played a significant role in moulding Kai into the woman she is today – unwavering, perceptive and honest, and at the same time kind and understanding.
“I come from an academic family,” Kai says.
“My father was Srinakharinwirote University’s first president (now Naresuan University) and my mother, Professor Vilas Hannarkin, was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Phitsanulok University. They were very dedicated to their jobs and groomed my siblings and I to be perceptive and independent. They were very open. They would listen to our thoughts and even yield to our reasons if they made more sense. A lot of people think I grew up abroad for having this mindset.”
Growing up in the north of Thailand with three other sisters did not cause her personality to become demure – it had quite the opposite effect.
“Other people often noted that my parents had four daughters and not a son,” Kai recalls.
“It didn’t seem to bother my parents at all, and I never saw them giving more credit to men, or expressing that they would have preferred sons to daughters. Despite that, I wanted to be able to do the same things boys were empowered to do, so that my parents wouldn’t feel the need for a son. That’s probably why I developed a fascination for fixing things, and later on decided to study engineering.”
Thanks to her visionary uncle, Pala Sukavej, Kai was advised to and opted for electrical engineering to accommodate the Thai government’s increasing interests in energy technology at the time. She was one of only eight women among 200 male students in her class at Chiang Mai University.
Upon graduation, she applied to be a pilot at an airline company but was turned down, because she was a woman.
“The job announcement didn’t specify preferred gender at all so I went ahead to apply. All my male friends who applied, too, were appointed. But I didn’t get the job. The airline company suggested that I become a flight attendant instead,” she laughs. “Shortly after, I landed a position in training at the Provincial Electricity Authority a few buildings down Vibhavadi Road.”
Being a new recruit and a woman in a male-dominated world, Kai was tested relentlessly for her knowledge and patience by those in more senior positions.
“They asked me lots of questions and expected me to be rattled, but I didn’t get discouraged or emotional. I always responded in a calm and professional manner, and everything I presented to them was backed up by theories and studies. My boss was very pleased at how I handled this,” she recalls.
A few years later, Kai succeeded to a petrochemical job in Rayong that eventually paved the way to her executive role at OEG.
Two years ago, Kai was accepted to attend the prestigious Thailand National Defense College, part of the graduating class of 57 that presented recommendations on National Security policies to the prime minister and the cabinet. Her achievements did not go unnoticed.
Last year, she was appointed as vice chairman for Energy Strategy under the Standing Committee on Energy of the National Reform Steering Committee. Earlier this year, she was elected as president of Chiang Mai University’s Engineering Alumni Association – the first-ever female president of any engineering alumni in Thailand. Most recently, she completed a Public Administration Program in Public Policy from Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University.
Despite a busy career and a long list of professional accomplishments, she is also mother to Sirada “Jib” Hannarkin and Titaporn “Jeab” Duangratana, a role that she clearly relishes. Kai and her daughters are obviously very close, as evident from their interaction during our photo shoot.
“I’m a single mother and I raised my two children the same way my parents raised me,” Kai says. “Of course, every parent has expectations from their kids, but you have to understand that everyone has their own way. I just want them to be reasonable and independent people, and I’m very happy they turned out to be just like that.”
Fashion-forward Jib (26) is the founder of FabLab, a multi-brand space for more than a hundred aspiring Thai designers, with branches in CentralWorld, Central Eastville and Siam Center. She recently also opened FabLab Café on Ekkamai, her own working space and a hangout spot for like-minded people.
The young entrepreneur with a Bachelor’s in Marketing from Thammasart University (International Programme) also works on real estate projects in Nakhon Ratchasima with her husband, Wongpiti “Ome” Songsapkul.
“My sister and I grew up mostly with mum,” Jib says.
“She is very open with us. She gave us this big playground where we can run around freely and do what we like. Only when we strayed or got out of line she would step in and discipline us. She never forced us to do things her way. Instead of judging and dictating, like a lot of parents do, she showed us different sides of things and let us make our own decisions. She groomed us to become independent but also respectful, and I am very grateful for that.”
Her younger sister, Jeab (24), who has just finished a Bachelor’s in Marketing from Mahidol University (International College), also finds comfort in Kai’s counsel during difficult times. “Mum is like my best friend. I can talk to her about everything. My friends are jealous that I have a mother that is so understanding and cool.”
The three of them often make time from their busy schedules to have dinner together. But their most favourite family activity is shopping, as they all share a passion for luxury brands and fashion.
“We go on shopping trips together whenever we have free time,” Kai says. “It’s a lot of fun. We pick things for each other because we know each other’s styles so well. There are about 400 pairs of shoes and lots of handbags at home. We splurge on accessories and shoes because we can all share them. That’s one benefit of having the same shoe size!
“My favourite brands are Chanel and Hermès, and I absolutely love jewellery. I often go to Gems Pavilion for earrings and necklaces because I love their exquisite Art Deco designs. For me, luxury has to be something high quality and long-lasting. It should complement us and make us shine in our own unique way.”
Photographer: Apichart Chaichulla
Stylist: Jantima Smithavej
Makeup Artist: Nichakan Sungwian
Hair Stylist: Narongsak Yiamlaengamkool
Editorial Coordinator: Sirinart Panyasricharoen
Jewellery: Gems Pavilion
Venue: 137 Pillars Hotel Bangkok