Your father grew up in Australia and all he wanted to do was to leave. Do you feel the same about Phuket?
Zachary Underwood: Phuket has always been home for me, I’ve been in Thailand since I was little, growing up in Bangkok and down here. I guess there’s a bit of difference between rural Australia and this island, so I can understand why he left.
And you never felt like leaving it behind?
I do travel a fair bit with work, but I feel lucky to have Phuket as a base. Sometimes it gets a little too cozy so I do escape from time to time – mostly to Bangkok, just to get a taste of the city life for a bit. It’s great for a long weekend, a short burst to completely change the scenery.
And how does coming back feel?
I was in university in London prior to moving back to Phuket, so it took some readjustment coming back.
And how about coming to work with your father?
It was a bit rocky when I first started. It took a while before we started to get in sync and understand how we fit into each other’s process.
We still butt heads sometimes, but the projects are really stimulating and it’s something I’ve always imagined myself doing, creating these fantastic pieces. I’m passionate about the work we do and the truth is, I’m a bit of a workaholic.
And those headbutts – who wins those?
I‘d say it’s a 50/50 split. You have to exert a lot of humility and assertiveness in the equal measure because it’s the quality of the work that’s at stake. We often both have different ideas and the key to all this is to be as open-minded as possible. He has lots of experience in turning ideas into a reality. A lot of the time that’s the transition you have to overcome – from what it looks like on paper to when you have to actually build it. You have to translate it properly because you can have an incredible idea, but unless you know how to build effectively, it doesn’t make much sense. So, he and I can look at a project from two different perspectives and come to a compromise.
What is your perspective?
I mainly focus on concepts, visualizations, that sort of thing. I’m a bit of a computer nerd, that’s what I’ve learned at school – 3D modelling and such.
And you teach your father that – Is he a good student?
I taught him Photoshop over the past few years and he’s actually become more prolific than I am. I feel that as long as you have the creative mindset, you can learn how to utilize the tools. He was originally a painter and a sculptor and now he fits that all in the digital paradigm, and it’s such an organic fit with him.
What did you learn from him?
What dad is really good at is making the machine that makes the production possible. We call them Jigs which is the machine that makes the machine. What we do here is we make templates to aid the process, which helps our Thai craftsman keep the quality high and consistent.
Still, at times you see your idea getting reshaped right in front of your eyes. How do you react to that?
It’s humbling, I guess. You learn not to be too precious about things. Sometimes it’s about stepping back from what you’re doing, getting some perspective. It’s worth it when the end result is something that really shines, that makes the client happy and that you’re proud of. You have to take the limitations of the machinery into account, maybe I’m at times naïve in terms of our capabilities to build these marvels, but dad has the experience in turning the concepts into a reality. But I’m a fast learner.
Do you have an idea for what comes next? After all, you will probably be the one to take the company into the future.
How does that saying go? “The first generation builds the business, the second makes it a success, and the third wrecks it.” I hope it doesn’t skip a generation! (laughs). But really, we have super exciting projects in the pipeline, like our current one in Mauritius where we are developing a whole turn-key resort. Taking care of everything from the structures to the interiors and everything involved with it. This is our future. I still really enjoy designing things on a much smaller scale, but what we want to do is to incorporate those into the bigger package of the building resorts. But yes, I still enjoy making those funky, quirky things.
What was the last funky thing you designed?
Currently we’re working on a project in Dubai, building this decorative birdcage which is absolutely huge and also incredibly detailed.
I see that, just as your father, one of the things that get you going is creativity. What other things did you inherit from him?
As much as you don’t like to see your parents in yourself when you’re young, as you grow up, you start noticing a lot of similar traits. It’s a scary realization, but it’s something you have to approach with a certain level of introspection. For example, I’m realizing that we share the same passion for creating art. I’m probably also just as stubborn as he is.
Do you think you’re ready to take the business over?
The longer I’m working the more I realize that it’s not so much about being ready as it’s about being willing to take up the challenge.
Are you? How would you feel about telling your dad to chill out, go, let’s say, fishing, and running this place yourself?
The thing is I know him too well, he loves the work, this is what he wakes up for in the morning. So, I can’t imagine doing that to him, it would be too cruel.
Over the last couple of years, the responsibilities have shifted, I take care of all the headaches of the organization and production side of the factory while he does all the shop drawings. We’ve found a nice way to combine our skillsets. He’s been doing this for decades so I feel like he deserves to have a break from all the nitty-gritty of running the factory.
The factory is what gets him out of bed, what gets you out of bed?
Gosh, Caffeine! (haha)