Their massage parlors began as a closely guarded secret. Wiboon Utsahajit and Prasert Jiravanstit tried to maintain appearances, working for their respective family businesses. Unbeknownst to their parents, however, they would slip away on weekends from Bangkok to the northern city of Chiang Mai to run a Thai massage chain they started called Let’s Relax.
That was 1998. What Wiboon and Prasert started in stealth has become one of the few publicly traded spa companies in the world, Siam Wellness Group. The company also stands out by using big data analysis to improve its services—and profits.
“At that time, massage parlors weren’t that clean,” says Wiboon in an interview in a Let’s Relax branch inside Bangkok’s Hyatt Regency. “The good ones were in the hotels. They were clean, but the therapists weren’t professional. And at the mom-and-pop shops, the therapists didn’t look good, but their skills were good. So we decided to open something better.”
Since opening their first Let’s Relax 21 years ago, Prasert and Wiboon have launched five more spa brands with 69 branches around Thailand as well as in Cambodia, China and Myanmar. Siam Wellness is also listed on Thailand’s stock exchange with a market capitalization of roughly $260 million. Now, fueled by rapid earnings growth, Siam Wellness aims to become a global massage and wellness brand.
Prasert and Wiboon, both 55, didn’t have a background in massage. Wiboon, whose family ran a copy and printing business, earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Southern California. It was there he met Prasert, whose family makes shoes. After graduating, the two set up a business importing goods to Thailand to sell to tourists.
Running a business takes legwork, and Wiboon soon developed foot problems. The relief he found from Thai massage inspired him to take a class in the technique. Soon, he and Prasert got the idea to start a branded Thai massage chain marketed to tourists.
Their first Let’s Relax was somewhat typical: an unregistered parlor in a night market. Small, often unregistered, family-run businesses still make up about 90% of Thailand’s spa market, which Thailand’s Public Health Ministry values at $1 billion (sales).
As Let’s Relax’s first shop was unregistered, Wiboon says sometimes police raided the outlet. It was one of these raids that tipped off his family to his side hustle. Staff panicked during a raid trying to telephone him while traveling abroad instead reached Wiboon’s sister. “She answered [my staff’s call] like, ‘What massage? What kind of massage? Who is this?,’” Wiboon says. “Finally the receptionist had to tell my sister that this business belonged to me, so the secret was no more.”
Once his family was in on the secret, though, they saw the opportunity. He began recruiting siblings and cousins to executive positions, including Wiboon’s nephew Narun Wiwattanakrai, now Siam Wellness’ chief marketing officer. Before long, Siam Wellness surpassed the family’s copy-print business in size. Siam Wellness emphasized on bright, clean interiors and efficient service. The company portioned massage oil and lotions into individual sachets so it could determine usage per massage.
Next came data mining. Armed with his computer science degree, Wiboon designed and commissioned a customer registration system that collects basic customer details, treatment preferences and any health issues, which Narun then uses to devise targeted promotions and spot tourism trends. One they saw early on was the growing numbers of mainland Chinese tourists, so Siam Wellness now actively markets to Chinese tour groups. Soon, Siam Wellness was branching out, launching in 2005 a destination spa resort, RarinJinda, which now has three locations. In 2007, it created a company to market its own massage oils and other products, Siam Wellness Lab, followed in 2011 by its own massage school, Siam Wellness Education. In 2015, it bought rival massage chain, Baan Suan, with 10 branches.
In late 2014, Siam Wellness went public, raising 280 million baht ($8.7 million) on the Stock Exchange of Thailand’s market for small and midsized enterprises. Profits have soared since: Siam Wellness last year reported $6.4 million in net profit, up 17% from 2017 but six times what the company was earning when it listed. The company enjoys gross margins over 30% and net of 20%.
Siam Wellness’ growing branch network abroad, analysts say, can help it weather a slowdown in outbound China tourism to Thailand. It’s also diversifying, adding a facial care salon, makeup studios and yoga studios.
Expansion puts Siam Wellness in competition with bigger, international names in hospitality. But Wiboon is confident that when it comes to Thai massage, Siam Wellness has a home-field edge. “At this point they have to run really fast to catch up,” Wiboon says of his competition. “We have the advantage.”