another publication by IMAGE asia

Bill Barnett

Property columnist and founder and Managing Director of C9 Hotelworks reveals how one book inspired a life-changing trip to Asia, where he’s lived for nearly three decades.

How long have you been in Phuket?
I’ve lived in Phuket for 10 years and have been in Asia for 28 years.

Tell us about your background and how you came to live in Asia.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. In my early 20s I was in the music business, working as a tour manager and also at Capitol Records in the PR department as a messenger. I started writing record reviews. It was my passion.

Later, I was living in Hawaii and read a book called 'Lost in the Sepik River' about Michael Rockefeller, an American who went missing in Papua New Guinea. It was one of those Jerry Maguire moments of clarity and I became possessed with thoughts of moving there.

I was hired by a guy who ran white-water rafting and jungle trekking tours and exported native art from the highlands of New Guinea. From there, I showed up in the Philippines when Marcos was in the middle of People’s Power. I was the first American hotel manager to work in Vietnam after the war, in the early 1990s during the US embargo. There was no banking system, there were no credit cards allowed, and our phones were tapped. I was in Saigon then went to Hue. Probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, it was fabulous.

I worked for a hotel chain out of Hong Kong, a company called Century Hotels; I was their point man for any new market they entered. They sent me to any place in Asia they wanted to set up.
I was in Hong Kong almost nine years, in and out.

After briefly working in Singapore, I was recruited to work as Deputy Managing Director at Laguna Phuket in 2002. It was a big complex, I had a lot of scope, and we kind of fell into doing the property thing. We started selling houses and the boom started. We went from 20 million to a billion baht in real estate in a year.

Tell us more about your business.
After working with Laguna, I started my own business, C9. Our profile over time has evolved. Early on it was more asset management and development consultancy. Now it’s shifted to more market research and feasibility work. We do a lot of work offshore, mainly in Asia: Bali, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Singapore. We’re working on a handful of significant mixed-use hotel and residential projects in Thailand. It’s a small operation with three analysts, a PA and myself.

On your own blog, The Phuket Insider, and in the media, you sometimes write the not-so-sunny sides of Phuket, such as problems with infrastructure. Do you ever get any flack for it?
From time to time, yes, but you have to do it balanced. You don’t have to do a rant but you need to draw attention to the issues. We’re not brokers, but independent consultants. I’ll tell the client if a project’s not going to work. You’ve got to show the good and the bad. It’s good to pitch, but it’s good to be real too.

What do you see as Phuket’s challenges as a tourist and investment destination?
Phuket’s challenges are not unique. Every Asian resort destination, Pattaya and Bali included, are becoming urban centres: it’s not about the beach any more. There’s population pressure, mass tourism issues. Another danger is the mindset of numbers-driven growth; when it flattens there’s potential for it to turn ugly.

What are the most positive developments you’re seeing in Phuket now?
It’s the spirit of the entrepreneurs who are coming in. There are a lot of people doing impressive things here, like Klaus Hebben who built Thanyapura with its organic farm, school and a whole facility that attracts sports people to Phuket. He’s certainly raised the bar here. Right now we’re seeing some major investors coming back to Phuket.

Whereabouts do you live in Phuket?
I live in Laguna Village because it’s near the office. I can’t imagine commuting. At one time I lived in Kathu and realised I was spending more time with my car than with my family. It’s all about location.

Do you own a house or do you rent? What influenced your choice?
I own our house – I put my money where my mouth is. I promote Phuket property so I’m going to buy Phuket property. This is the fourth house I’ve bought here.

What do you think the future holds for you?
You have to keep evolving, keep changing, re-evaluate what you’re doing. You can’t be stagnant. When business slowed down in Thailand in 2008 we had to go and remake ourselves overseas. Having an international business based in Phuket is a blessing and also a curse: you have a great lifestyle but you also have to present yourself. People see you as some guy on an island and think ‘Where’s Phuket?’ Credibility is important and that’s a challenge. You have to stay on top of things and present a global view − and that takes work.