John Stevens burst onto the CanCham Thailand scene in 1997, when as an intern at the Canadian Embassy one of his tasks was to monitor how the Chamber was doing. At the time, the Chamber was led by Hall of Famers Sean Brady, Sam Cohen, Don Lavoie, and Peter van Haren, but it quickly became apparent to them that John’s star was on the rise and he was to be groomed for leadership if he chose to stay in Thailand. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. How did John get here? Born and raised in Vancouver, he attended St. George’s, a private boy’s school, where early on he was encouraged to expand his horizons. So, upon graduation, John and nine high-school friends went east to further their studies at Queen’s University. It was the first time he played hockey outdoors, tasted poutine, and tried Tim Hortons. He also traveled to Montreal for the “Kill McGill” football weekend, took in a ZZ Top show at Maple Leaf Gardens, and he even did the Mock United Nations at Harvard, where he snuck in a side-trip to see the Boston Bruins play in the old Boston Garden. The whole experience was a wake-up call as the eastern part of North America had seemed like a world away.

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John decided to return home to finish his undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia in political science and international relations. John’s father had traveled to Hong Kong and Japan in the 70s and regaled him with stories of the Orient. This led John to develop an interest in Asian food and culture. When he came back to study at UBC he immersed himself in courses relating to Asia, hoping that eventually, it would lead him to an opportunity in this part of the world.

After a few years working with Canadian Pacific Hotels (now Fairmont) and lifeguarding on the weekends, John decided to go back to school and applied to the Asia Pacific Management Cooperative Program, a post-graduate degree offered through Capilano College, while at the same time being accepted at UBC’s Business School. An uncle convinced him that it would be foolhardy not to accept the Capilano offer and he did, and it has made all the difference in the world. The first year of the program offered courses on business and Asian culture; the second was an overseas work placement.

In 1996, before entering the Capilano program, John had made a four-month, seven-country backpacking tour through Asia, and he spent about three weeks in Thailand, visiting Bangkok and the South. The trip cemented his resolve in finding a way to live and work in Asia.

John was one of the younger students in his Capilano class and although he had hotel experience, he didn’t yet have extensive business experience. Back then, the younger students tended to get hired by the embassies while the older students were placed with corporations. John thought he would be placed to work in China or Taiwan as he had studied Mandarin, but he ended up interviewing with the Canadian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, who told him he had a landed a job — as an intern with the Canadian Embassy in Bangkok, starting in June 1997.

Ken Lewis was the Senior Trade Commissioner at the time and guided John through his internship, which focused on a follow-up to the Canadian trade mission in 1996, led by then Prime Minister Jean Chretien. John organized three follow-on trade missions throughout Thailand and Laos. He was also the Embassy’s unofficial liaison with the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce and this began a very long and fruitful association with the Chamber.

During his time at the Embassy, John met Richard Kendon of Nova Gas, who offered him a job once his internship was up, doing research and business development work. He used the money he made from this to bootstrap his first business venture, The Best in Bangkok, a dining and entertainment coupon book, which he launched at the Can-Am Invitational golf tourney in November 1998.

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“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent,” John says. “I get satisfaction from something that I initiate. The Best in Bangkok was one that I thought that I could establish on my own without a lot of start-up money. I didn’t know if it would work or not but I had the opportunity to have some students at the Masters of International Marketing Program at Thammasat University do some market research for me and seemed that the sentiment was positive that something like this would be received well in the market.”

John sold The Best in Bangkok through commercial channels like bookstores, corporate sales, and one-on-one direct marketing. It took about three months to produce the book, but to get paid could take an equal amount of time because of the credit terms the bookstores demanded. So from a cash flow perspective, it wasn’t a very sustainable project.

As a result, John decided to tweak the business model and he started providing white label discount and loyalty programs to customers like TRUE, DTAC, Thai Kasikorn Bank and GE Capital.

Working with Nokia, he created the world’s first SMS-based discount program. After enlisting 300 venues, each with its own code, customers would type that number on their phone upon entering the premises. A few seconds later, they received an SMS giving them a special promotional offer, which could be shown to the outlet staff to redeem.

While this was a successful campaign for Nokia to sell more phones, John felt there were bigger opportunities for his company to pursue. In 2002, John shifted the business model from designing and operating loyalty programs to become an out-of-home advertising company – thus POV Media Group was born.

John and his team approached the network of restaurants, bars, clubs, and theatres that had been amassed through The Best in Bangkok, to put ad billboards in all of their restrooms. Among the first clients to buy advertising in this novel network were BMW, Durex, and Red Bull.

POV grew to thousands of static billboards across the country and expanded its offering to include new ad formats in shopping centers and big-box retailers such as Carrefour. In 2005, the company launched Thailand’s first digital signage network, POV TV – where internet-connected LCD screens were placed inside the elevators of high profile office towers in Bangkok’s central business district. By 2008, the POV TV network had grown to 700 screens in the top office towers in Bangkok and Singapore. The company caught the interest of VGI, the advertising operator on the Skytrain and the largest out-of-home media company in Thailand. In 2010, John sold POV Media to BTS Group.

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After a year-long handover period, John saw an internal opportunity within BTS and pitched the concept of a loyalty and membership program for the soon-to-be-launched Rabbit Card. The pitch was accepted, and John took on a new role as the group’s Managing Director where he was responsible for marketing the Rabbit Card and amassing millions of members under the Carrot Rewards loyalty program.

As a sideline, John and some of the partners, including mentor and friend Steven Lippman from Vancouver, who had previously backed John in POV, decided to form a club to invest in early-stage businesses. They started by backing a Bangkok-based French entrepreneur who was launching a radio-frequency identification tag manufacturing business to capture the emerging trend of new technologies and security features embedded in passports and other identification cards. As time progressed, John realized his passion lay more in starting or helping to start entrepreneurial pursuits than working for a big company.

In 2015, John and his partners successfully exited the RFID investment. John took it as a sign that it was time to get serious about getting back into the entrepreneurial world of starting and supporting new companies. John parted ways on good terms with BTS Group and co-founded Stonelotus Ventures with David Washenfelder, a US-trained lawyer who was also looking to break from a big firm, in his case Baker & MacKenzie.

Describing Stonelotus, John says, “we’re a venture builder, we identify early-stage businesses with good ideas whose founders are energetic with a deep knowledge of their field but might need funding or management support to get their business off the ground or to the next level. We differ from traditional venture capital firms in that we don’t operate a fund. Instead, we bring together a group of investors on a project-by-project basis and get quite involved in supporting the management of the business.”

In 2017, Dan McKay came on board as a partner, overseeing the financial side of things and taking care of the accounting team. Next on board was Derek van Pelt who joined as a partner focusing on business development.

The companies Stonelotus is working with today include Getfresh, Thailand’s leading healthy food restaurant chain; Primal Health, a food and drink supplements company catering to “urban warriors” with active lifestyles; Protanica which manufactures premium cricket protein powder for export: Welify, a group that distributes equipment into the spa and wellness industry; and Criterion, an executive recruitment firm. Generally, the Stonelotus focus is to invest and support ventures in the health and wellness sector in Southeast Asia.

John loves what he calls “the business of the business” - the strategic side of things: “Do we need to raise money? How are we going to grow the business? Are we going to buy another business? Are we going to sell this business? Those are the pools I like to swim in.”

John has learned a lot since he started The Best in Bangkok and he says the key to running a good business is finding the right people. “I just can’t stress how important it is to invest in and hire good people. It may cost you more, but the pay-off down the road is well worth it.”

What about advice for someone starting out? “The best thing you can do is work for an established entrepreneur for a couple of years, or to seek out a mentor who has “been there, done that”. They can prepare you in all kinds of ways for situations you would never have expected, and they will make you realize what’s important and what’s not. For instance, I didn’t realize the importance of good bookkeeping when I first started or how critical it was to validate the business idea by solving a consumer pain point.”

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John is a passionate hockey fan and ardent supporter of his beloved Vancouver Canucks. He is also a longtime member and former captain of the Thai-Stix ball hockey squad, with whom he won more Mekong Cup championships than any other player in Thailand. Pre-Covid, John made annual pilgrimages back home to see his mom, sister, and nephew as well as a large network of friends made at school, UBC, Capilano College, and in the hotel industry. An avid outdoorsman, John recently hiked the West Coast Trail on the BC coast with current CanCham President Derek van Pelt and a couple of other friends.

John says his wife Kay is his rock and is very supportive and a big part of why he has been here so long and why he loves Thailand. From her business called Samantha’s on Soi Thonglor, Kay runs Thailand’s first consignment shop for premium women’s clothes and accessories. She also teaches hotel management at the UTCC.
CanCham Thailand has been a big part of John’s life for the past two decades. Early on in his career he was awarded “Entrepreneur of the Year” at CanCham Thailand’s Business Excellence Awards and his career has continued to take off since then. John has been an active board member for most of his time in Thailand and has served on the Executive Board as Secretary, Vice-President, and then President from 2017 to 2020.

Even today, John is reaping the benefits of connections made through CanCham, “Anyone who tells you the Chamber does not provide value is simply not putting in the time – you have to give to get,” John says.

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