Bill Heinecke was 42 when he did something drastic: He walked into the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, handed over his passport and renounced his citizenship.
It wasn't a moment of madness, nor was it strictly necessary: The American-born entrepreneur had by then been living and working in Thailand for almost three decades. But it did showcase what he says is one of the most important skills in business — commitment — and, as a result, propelled him up the ranks of the country's rich list.
"I remember the time very well," the now-69-year-old self-made billionaire said during a recent episode of CNBC's "Managing Asia."
"I remember the counselor who said to me: 'I think you have to rethink this, you know. I've never seen or heard of anyone who wanted to give back their citizenship.'"
But Heinecke was resolute: "I said: 'Well I've made up my mind and I, you know, I don't need to wait.'"
Heinecke is the chairman and CEO of hospitality group Minor International, the company he founded as a cleaning business when he was 17 — still a minor — four years after relocating to Bangkok with his family. Throughout his 20s and 30s, it evolved into one of Thailand's leading hospitality chains, and Heinecke said he felt he owed it to the country that "adopted" him to show his dedication to doing business there.
By giving up his U.S. citizenship, Heinecke relinquished certain benefits afforded to U.S. nationals, such as his right to vote in U.S. elections and enjoy unrestricted travel into the country. But he also exempted himself from U.S. tax implications.
"You know, we've had so much good support from whether the Thai banks or Thai business people or the community in general," said Heinecke. "They've embraced us and embraced our company and, you know, we're proud to be a Thai company."
Committing to working in an emerging economy was not without its challenges: Heinecke's hotel chain has battled tsunamis, the Asian financial crisis and near-bankruptcy. But it also proved to be a savvy business move, which helped him win favor over other major international corporations.
Eight years after becoming a naturalized Thai citizen in 1991, Heinecke was faced with one of his toughest business negotiations; a takeover bid by Goldman Sachs of the Anantara Siam, a heritage hotel in which Minor International owned a minority stake. Ultimately, Heinecke managed to thwart the bid because of the reputation he'd built as a trusted local businessman and the relationships he'd cultivated with the business arms of the Thai royal family.
"It was very much that we wanted to retain this hotel in Thai hands," said Heinecke.
Minor International has since gone on to expand beyond Thailand, catapulting Heinecke's net worth to $1.9 billion and positioning him as Thailand's 17th wealthiest person, according to Forbes' rich list. But he said demonstrating that commitment all those years ago stood him in good stead to build trust and develop one of the Asia Pacific region's largest hospitality and leisure groups.
"I'd like to hope that some of my Thai friends are proud that I'm Thai — even if I'm only Thai by citizenship," said Heinecke.
Of course, not everyone has the option, nor the need, to do something as radical as relinquish their citizenship. However, Heinecke said the ability to show commitment, in any of its many forms, has been one of the most important contributors to the success of his 52-year-old career — and, to this day, it continues to be one of the key traits he looks for in his team of almost 100,000 employees.
"You've got to be totally committed to what you're doing, you've got to be willing to sacrifice everything in the interest of what your vision or what your interest is," he said.
"If you're not, then you shouldn't be pursuing it."
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