Chumpol has upheld Siam Cement's honor by dealing head-on with the crisis of 1997 when it lost $1.3 billion. "The worst thing is when investors and lenders think you've got your head buried in the sand," he says. He hired McKinsey & Co. to draw up one of Southeast Asia's most radical restructuring plans. The group focused on its core businesses: cement, petrochemicals, and pulp and paper. Chumpol raised $1 billion by selling stakes in 20 companies ranging from a bathroom-fixture manufacturer to a tire plant. Chumpol also wiped out the group's $4.5 billion in foreign debt in 1998 by floating local bonds and generating cash internally. Last year, the group eked out a $960,000 profit on sales of $2.8 billion.
A former World Bank loan officer with a Harvard MBA, Chumpol, 54, is well known outside Thailand. He travels frequently, including to the U.S. Chumpol, however, calls himself "just a hired hand." His chief worry, he says, is not his own celebrity, but how Siam can pay dividends again by next year and replenish the royal purse.