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Bangkok's Cheese Whiz

Bangkok's Cheese Whiz

PAK CHONG, Thailand (AP) - When William Heinecke, an American expatriate was growing

up in this country most Thais would almost gag at the prospect of eating cheese.

Now, thousands are gobbling up gooey mozzarella atop the pizzas Bill churns out in

his fast food empire.

To insure a steady supply to his 26 Pizza Hut franchises, Heinecke opened up Thailand's

first cheese factory this year. Alongside, he's got an ice cream-making operation

for his 24 Swensen's outlets.

An American-born Thai citizen, Heinecke is an acknowledged whiz at spotting local

trends and turning them into profit via Western-style business techniques.

It made him a millionaire at roughly the age of 20, and this year is expected to

help make the more than 30 companies of his Minor Holdings Group some U.S. $300 million

in sales.

Timing, he stresses, is key. Earlier attempts at introducing pizzas and other American

fast foods proved a flop. But when Heinecke put up his first Pizza Hut in 1979 his

"Gut felling that it would work" was also based on perceivable trends.

As for as dairy products, milk was traditionally regarded as something for the old,

the very young or the sick. Cheese was thought of as smelly. Like other Asians, many

Thais also lacked the enzyme needed to digest larger quantities of some dairy products.

Nonetheless, Heinecke noted that Thai students were returning from the west where

they acquired new eating habits. A rising middle class was hungry for foreign products

of any kind. So Heinecke acquired franchises. They grew steadily and are now surging

ahead.

"At first eating pizza here was like going to a Chinese restaurant in America.

It was like an ethnic food, a treat three or four times a year," he says. "Now

we're seeing the same regulars once a week."

The entrepreneur ascribes this in part to the mushrooming of television, including

cable and satellite, which brings foreign programs into even the remote regions of

Thailand.

"When you see [U.S. President] Clinton jogging into a Macdonald's on television

and you have one down the road that you haven't tried, you just got to go,"

said Heinecke in an interview.

"Thirty years ago, links to the outside world were largely letters. Now, you

get everything instantaneously," he said.

Research supplied by Heinecke's chief cheese-maker, Hap Pierce, shows sales of dairy

products grew by 17.4 percent a year between 1985 and 1990 and are projected to grow

by 12.7 percent annually between 1990 and 1995. Cheese sales have increased at an

even higher rate.

The earlier growth was spurred by a government milk promotion campaign which featured

advertisements telling kids to "get on the team" by drinking milk and becoming

as tall as Japanese, Koreans and other Asians who were overcoming their aversion

to dairy products.

Ice cream has been popular since the Vietnam war era, when it was introduced by U.S.

troops stationed in the country. Cheese has infiltrated largely via the pizza, but

Heinecke adds that Thais are hardly panting after Gorgonzolas, blues and other more

pungent varieties-at least for the time being.

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