Judy Benn has held the reins as Executive Director of AMCHAM for 15 years, and she’s been in Asia nearly twice as long. The ambassador of American business interests in Thailand leads a nonstop life, but she managed to find a few minutes to talk with Bangkok 101 about her work and life.
How did you get to your position?
I came to Asia to work in the private sector. I was with KPMG [one of the Big Four auditing firms] for about 15 years. I’d been active in AMCHAM in Taiwan and Shanghai when I lived there, and I enjoyed what the organization was. After I left KPMG, I came to Thailand and took some time off work, but I saw this little ad in the paper for the job, and here I am fifteen years later. You know, it was funny — I always thought executive director at AMCHAM would be my ideal job. My predecessor held this role for 19 years, and his predecessor was here for 12. This job doesn’t open up very often. It was destiny.
What does a usual day look like?
In the morning, I’m visiting businesspersons who want to talk about the economy or business environment. Then, I meet with our board of governors, counselling them, helping them find speakers, or crafting the message of the month. Or I’m with our staff, organizing events, making sure we’re within budget, fair, and transparent. Later, I’ll meet with our communications people. It’s a lot of coordination. At night, I represent the Chamber at events around town.
What are some of the challenges you face as Executive Director?
Political instability is always hard. Our goal is to attract investment and assist companies that are doing business in Thailand. For some big, multi-national organizations, the politics can be unnerving. Thailand is very resilient, though. It always bounces back. There are lots of good reasons to invest.
How do you show that Thailand is a good place to do business?
Some companies like to set up because of the cost of labour and the high quality you get for the investment. Others like the demographics. There’s a growing middle class with disposable income. To spread the word, we send out information online and in print with our magazine, T-AB. We generate interest through events, like our USA Fair and the Independence Day Picnic, and we do networking nights all the time. I’m often a guest speaker at other events.
Are you working on any big projects at the moment?
In 2013, we were asked by the US Chamber to set up an AMCHAM in Myanmar. Within two months, we had 50 companies signed up as members. We hit 100 last September. It was very exciting, but tricky, because of the sanctions and compliance issues. A lot of people are on the SDN [Special Designated National] list, which means you can’t do business with them. Lots of banks were on it. Sometimes an SDN will run funds through their family, so we had to do a lot of due diligence.
What services does AMCHAM provide that the public might not know about?
We’re about 80 percent business and 20 percent charity. A major part of our CSR goal is to improve the quality of education, because it helps our members and down the line makes for a stronger local economy. We help fund Fulbright scholars, who are like mini-ambassadors upcountry, helping to build infrastructure in rural schools. We provide scholarships to disadvantaged youth so that they can finish their studies. And our Adopta- School programme funds needy schools in Thailand.
With a packed schedule, how do you balance work and life?
My number-one secret is that I live down the street. I can be at the office in ten minutes. I have a 15-year-old daughter. I always have breakfast with her. It’s my golden rule. I’ll go home in the afternoon, head to the gym with her or help her with homework, and then go back out to events.
What do you like to do when you have spare time?
I love to run. Every Sunday you can find a 10k. I do two a month. When I first came here, I’d travel all over the country doing races — Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, Surin. My favourite is the River Kwai half-marathon. I used to push my daughter in a stroller. I’d see the same people every weekend. Eventually, a couple of guys knew us so well they would take the stroller and run off with my daughter during the race. I saw one of them not long ago.He recognized us and was so excited to see us again.