Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lila Thai Massage - A good business

Gentle Reader,

As the title implies, I like Lila Thai Massage. I became interested when I read about them some time ago.  Let me begin  with a quote from their newly updated website:

     “ The Lila Thai Massage was established by Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, former Director of Chiang Mai Woman’ Prison (2011-2008), to help support the lives of newly released inmates in society. She has dedicated the greater part of her 40 year career understanding and bridging the gap  between a non accepting public, and the problems released inmates encounter adapting to a new community. Prior to their release, these carefully screened inmates go through an extensive training program which allows them to make a living and contribute to society.
       “Unfortunately these detainees often encounter discrimination from employers who refuse to hire these skilled therapists. Sadly, due to lack of employment opportunities some return to a cycle of crime, and find themselves back in prison. The Lila Thai Massage was established to help eliminate this pattern of crime and lack of apportunity.
       “The Chiang Mai Women’s Prison ang the Institute of Skill Development have designed a 180 hour massage training course for these inmates, which are endorsed and meet the requirements of the  Chiang Mai Public Health Department. Thus, we guarantee you will receive a fully trained professional massage therapist. It is our cherished hope that you will see these former inmates in a positive light, and your kind patronage will allow them to proudly start a new life and support themselves and their families.”

 Khun Naowarat Thanasrisutharat
This idea of building a business while helping recently released inmates intrigued me so I started to do a little research and eventually had an opportunity to meet Khun Naowarat Thanasrisutharat. I learned that in 2007 three women came to her stating that with all their training they could not get a job because they had been in prison.  She decided then to open Lila Thai Massage.  From that humble beginning the company has grown to five locations employing more than 90 massage therapists.  As of 14 November 2012 there were 15 working at location #1, 25 at location #2, 10 at location #3, 21 at location #4 and 20 at location #5.
Khun Naowarat Thanasrisutharat & a few staff at Location #4
When I spoke to Khun Naowarat I learned that, today, not all of her employees come from the prison.  Approximately 15% are friends and relatives of the former inmates who heard good things about the working conditions and asked to join the company.   I also learned that each new employee is mentored by the more senior employees to insure a consistent massage technique is used.  The system works.

Lila Thai Massage is a family business.  Khun Naowarat’s son-in-law Khun Piyapong Chutipangvivale handles most of the media requests and oversees locations #1,#2,#3 and #4.  #4 is also their main office. Her niece looks over location #5.

Speaking with Khun Piyapong about the drug factor and learned that 85% to 90% of the women in the prison are there on drug related charges; no surprise.  I was reminded that, unlike the United States and many other countries, simple possession demands a prison sentence in Thailand. When I asked about the recidivism factor I was told that the women at Lila Thai do much better than the average.  I haven’t verified it, but I’m told that on average about 50% of the women in the women’s prison are repeat offenders.  

In the last year three women were asked to leave because of drug activity. Two failed a random drug test and one was known to be associating with drug dealers from her past. They cannot refer their employees to a drug treatment center because the centers would be required to report them to the police. They would automatically be back in court and back to prison. Rather, they asked these two women to leave inviting them to solve their own drug problem with the understanding that they could be re-hired if clean.

Lila Thai’s massage therapists seem to range in age from their mid 20’s to their 50’s which could be related to the length of sentence served before coming to work. These women are well aware that their past is a huge part of Lila Thai’s marketing.  If asked polite questions their answers will be frank. For something like three years I’ve been receiving massage at their shops.  I often ask how long they have worked there, where were they before and then how long they were in prison and why.  To their credit, and I suspect to the credit of Khun Naowarat, they never try to hide the truth about their past.  I even interviewed two of the therapists for this article (see below). Of the several women I’ve spoken to over the past three years all were in prison for drug related offenses and all came to work at Lila Thai upon release. Their time in prison ranged from less than two years up. The first lady I asked these questions to responded with “8 year, 9 month – I never forget”.  A month ago I thought I was going to have an opportunity to interview a woman who had spent 25 years in prison, but when I pressed Khun Piyapong for a specific time it became obvious that he wasn't going to arrange it, perhaps she wasn't comfortable. I’ll never know for sure. This is Thailand and the culture features a lot of indirection.

When I asked Khun Piyapong about employee retention he told me that most of the older women tend to stay with the company while some of the younger ones go on to other opportunities.  That made sense to me.
From what I can tell, Lila Thai Massage is based on an excellent business model and does in fact provide a good value. A couple of years ago the tourist population was predominantly “farang”(white English speaking people).  Today there are a much higher percentage of Chinese tourists.  The Lila Thai Massage website was recently revamped and is now available in both English and Chinese, telling me they are keeping up with the times and business climate of Northern Thailand .

As you can see on their website, their prices are competitive.  I’ve done a bit of snooping and I can tell you that this company does pretty well while others are closing their doors.  I like to think it’s a combination of good karma and a good business plan.  Massage therapists are paid by the job.  The compensation at Lila Thai is certainly as good as other massage shops and better than many.  Yes I know the exact numbers and no I’m not going to publish them.

I interviewed Khun Pae and Khun Koi about a week ago.  Although I interviewed them separately I’ll present their comments as though they were together.  The interviews mostly featured the same questions.
Khun Pae and Khun Koi
JN:  Thank you agreeing to do this interview.  Please tell me your name and can you spell it for me?
P:  Pae, เป้
K:  Koi, ก็อย

JN: How long have you been working here?  
P: 8 months
K: About 3 years

JN: Where were you before you came here?  
P&K: prison

JN: Why were you in prison?
P: I used drugs.
K: Drugs. Methamphetamine, using and selling.

JN:How long were you in prison?
P: 1 year, 11 months and 15 days.  Very bad, I will always remember.
K: 2 years 8 months

JN: How many people go back to prison after being released?  What percentage?
P: Not sure, maybe many.
K: More than 50% go back, I think

JN:Do you think you will ever go back to prison?
P: No.
K: No!  Prison is "Mai Dee Mack" (very bad)

JN:Did you learn massage there?
P&K: Yes.

JN: Did you have a choice in training at prison?
P: Yes, many learning programs

JN: Why massage?  
P: My mother thought I should learn massage.

JN: Do you like massage?
P: At first I didn't but now I do like it.
K: Yes, maybe I stay a long time

JN: You know the prison moved, right?   Do they still have the massage program?
P: Not sure.
K: Don’t know.

JN: Do you like this job and this company?
P&K: Yes,

JN: Do you think you will stay here a long time?
P: Yes I want to stay a long time.
K: Yes, maybe 10 years or more.

JN: Is that because of Griang Jai or do you really love it here?
P: No, I like it here.  (She was a bit startled and confused when I mentioned the Thai way of Griang Jai)
K: No I really Iike it, I love it, real life. (She grinned at the question as if to say, oh, you aren’t totally stupid – it was an interesting moment).

JN: What do you think you would have done if the massage training wasn't offered?
P: Not sure, I'm glad I have massage.
K: I would sell things in my family shop.  My family has a furniture factory in Banklong, Handong.

JN: Does Lily Thai ask you to take drug test?
P: (Pae didn’t understand the question and went on to explain that all the new employees are tutored by one that have been here a while.  She mentioned Koi as an example.  The idea is that every customer should receive the same quality massage with generally the same technique).  
K: (Koi didn’t understand the question either.  Test means proficiency test to them).

JN: May I ask some personal questions?
P&K:  OK

JN:  Where are you from?  
P: Mae Rim.
K: Banklong, Hangdong

JN: May I ask your age now?
P:  30 years old
K:  I born 1976

JN:  What about your family?    Married?   Children?  Parents?
P:  Mother is in Japan with her Japanese husband.  They were married 28 years ago.  No siblings.
K:  I went to prison about 6 years ago in February 2007.  My baby was born there on November 2nd, 2007.  My marriage ended at that time too.

JN: Your baby was born in prison?   What happened to her?
K:  I kept her for about a month and then my mother kept her.  

JN: How much formal schooling have you had.  Your English is quite good.
P:  I went to many schools, maybe 8 of them after high school.  (She giggled and admitted that she was a 'bad girl', meaning she wasn't too serious.   Her warmth and openness was very refreshing).

JN: Where do you live now?  
P: Chiang Mai.  We (mother and I) own a house.
K: I live with my parents and my baby.

JN: What is your life dream?   (The answers reminded me that these women are Thai and Buddhist).
P:  Take care of my mother, she took good care of me in the past.   It's hard now because she can't come to Thailand and I can't go to Japan.
K:  Take care of my daughter, want her to have good job and good life

JN:  Last question, what would you tell young people about using drugs?
P:  Not tell them.  Parents should tell them  They must learn for their selves.
K:  Drugs not good.  Don’t do, don’t buy, don’t sell.

Many thanks to those who made this article possible.