Royal in origin, biggest firm finds freer market

By , business correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.

Thailand's largest company was started by a king and sells its products under such names as Cobra, Tiger, and Elephant.

The company, the Siam Cement Group, naturally makes cement. But it is only half the company's business. Because of cement's importance as a home-building material in Thailand, it is a politically touchy commodity. The government has controlled the industry, especially prices.

But price controls weakened the industry, created a black market, and led to a cement shortage in 1977. Since then, controls have been loosened in the name of free enterprise.

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Thailand's three largest cement producers - Siam Cement, Siam City Cement, and Jalapratharn with 70, 17, and 13 percent of the market, respectively - have been allowed higher prices and free export in the last year, on the condition they set aside permanant capacity for Thailand.

This brightens Siam Cement's outlook.With $600 million in sales last year, it is already Southeast Asia's largest cement producer and is gearing up for new ventures, such as a petrochemical plant using Thailand's new gas supplies.

The Thai firm will be the first private company to tap into Thailand's offshore gas pipeline, reducing its oil dependency. A 110-mile spur will be finished this year, providing 50 million cubic feet a day for a plant in Sara Buri Province.

Founded in 1913 by King Rama VI and with crown money, Siam Cement today owns selling more than 2,000 items of construction materials in its own ''supermarkets.''

Like many Thai companies, this industrial conglomerate tries to offer its 10, 000 workers lifetime employment. Last year, however, a construction slowdown forced Siam Cement to ask for 500 ''voluntary'' retirements. And rapid advances in technology sometimes force the firm to hire easily trainable young people, allowing older workers to become ''window watchers,'' says Siam Cement's vice-president for marketing, Amaret Sila-on.

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