That might seem like an innocuous expression to most, but it was those very words that made a 13-year-old Alex Mavro determined to speak Thai. He had been in Bangkok for eighteen months and had refused to learn Thai, longing to return to Vietnam, a country that enchanted him. But when his buddy named David Morris recognized those words while the two were waiting to buy popcorn at a kiosk in the parking lot of the Plaza Hotel, Alex chastised himself, saying inwardly “If he can learn this language, so can I.”
alex and nid mavro bAlex (with wife Nid, photo left) first came to Southeast Asia in 1955 as a seven-year-old boy. His father, due to his French-language skills, was posted to Saigon as an extension of the Marshall Plan. The family was based both in Saigon and Phnom Penh before taking root in Bangkok. Alex fell so in love with Vietnam that at age eleven he ran away from home trying to get back to Saigon.

Eventually adjusting to life in the Land of Smiles, Alex graduated from ISB in Bangkok then through ROTC earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Florida at Gainesville in political science (Asian Studies). He owed the Air Force six years, and since he was fluent in French, Mandarin and Thai they shipped him off to Thailand where he spent his entire tour of duty as a civilian-military liaison at various air force bases in northeastern Thailand. 1976, Alex was one of the few serviceman to be separated in place, meaning he didn’t have to go back to the US to muster out of the service.    

Alex’s first civilian job was as a diving instructor; he’d teach the students at pools in Bangkok and then take them out to Pattaya for the actual dives. He then moved into the security business, becoming Operations Manager for MPA, the first private security outfit in Thailand, which guarded everything from embassies to the airport. But he soon grew tired of the security business, and moved into the logistics business with a friend named Stan Griffin, who had started DHL here.

He stayed with DHL until 1990, when through a bitter fall-out with the parent DHL company Griffin’s widow (Stan died in 1988), Alex and his other partner, Dave Daly, left to set up a rival logistics company called GDM (using the first  initial of their last names to form the company’s acronym). By the way, DHL is an acronym for the first initials of the last names of its three founders too: Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn.

Explaining the courier business here, Alex says “It’s not about brand, it’s about who you are, it’s who the secretary sees, she sees Somchai the messenger, and she’s using your company because she likes Somchai, not the brand. We kept all our messengers; we didn’t lose any of our staff. But the war between DHL and us hit the industry hard and probably set it back ten years. (By the way, at that time, FedEx and UPS were making enormous profits stateside and didn’t see Thailand as a particularly valuable area; they were eventually forced to expand by customer demand.)”  

GDM eventually agreed to be taken over by TNT, but Alex was kept in place to make sure the transition was smooth; problem was he was used to being his own boss, and didn’t take very kindly to being told want to do by those far less experienced in the business so he only lasted a couple of years with TNT, before setting out on his own to do consulting work in corporate social responsibility.

Then in September of last year Alex was approached by Chulalonghorn University to become the Chief of Operation for the Sasin Centre for Sustainability. He was to work with academics to set up a series of courses so that MBA students could pick up a major in sustainable development during their two years at SASIN. Alex explains sustainability in this context as teaching people to manage their business operations so that their overall impact is positive, and doesn’t take away anything from the world, but hopefully adds something to it. With the world having finite resources, he says it’s very important to imbue this mindset in the business community, especially the young business community.  

Another important part of Alex’s life is his work with the Rotary Club. In 1995, he was invited to a Rotary meeting; you have to be invited by a member to attend one. He’d been to a meeting before and hadn’t been impressed, but at his friend’s persistence (he said his club didn’t have a courier) he went, this time to a different club, and his experience was totally different; he was smitten, he’s been a member ever since.  

alex mavro receiving rotary honour b

But not only is he a member, he’s the first farang Rotary District Governor in Thailand’s history. There have been farang heads of local clubs before, but to be a governor you need to fluent in Thai, and be able to read and write Thai too, which Alex can. Alex’s club, Bangkok South, stretches from Rama IV to the River, and has 108 members (it’s the biggest in Thailand). Most clubs have between 50-100 members and there are 300 clubs throughout the country. Clubs are broken down into districts and Rotary likes to see 50-100 clubs in a district. Alex’s District (Central) spans 11 Thai provinces and has 85 clubs, including five clubs in Cambodia. Only four of these speak English, one speaks Japanese, one Mandarin and four Khmer.

Rotary is a service organization made up of volunteers (usually professional businessmen) who have time to devote to doing service and helping the disadvantaged. It’s not just about donating money though, but time as well, e.g. a carpenter, accountant, or IT expert all have skills that can help Rotary with the projects its working on. And each club has its own projects depending on the needs of the area where it’s located.  
Alex has made a tremendous journey in his five-and-a-half decades in Thailand. Few foreigners can speak Thai as well as he can and few foreigners have a better grasp of Thai culture than he has; Rotary is lucky to have him (photo right shows Alex receiving Rotary honour).  

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