Sue Ultmann – Iron Lady with a silk heart

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You would struggle to find an expat in Phuket who has never heard about Sue Ultmann. She’s an iron lady with soft heart, who is passionate about her job as Executive Manager & Marketing Director at Kalim Beach’s iconic Baan Rim Pa Group. She’s also the Chairman of the charity, Phuket Has Been Good to Us Foundation. In a small talk with RL Magazine this outstanding energetic and witty woman shares her attitude towards charity, success and bad language. She’s also upfront and honest about failed businesses in Phuket.

Since her youth Sue Ultmann was very much involved in media, so you might presume she was never at a loss for words. “Since I was 18, I was actually handling all the sales and marketing in TV, radio or magazines. As an associate publisher of Travel Week Australia I traveled enormously”. And at some point Sue and her husband Tom decided to settle down in Thailand. “I remarried almost 25 years ago and my husband Tom was a hotel GM based in Australia and he always wanted to work in Asia. He was offered a job on Koh Samui 25 years ago and we started our Asian adventure from there. Then moving to Kuala Lumpur and the Manila. We came to Phuket for 3 months while he was looking for another job and fell in love with Phuket and decided to stay for a while. I often say, we just forgot to leave. We lived in Naiharn first, we were there for six years and than we bought a house in Rawai, 13 years ago”.

For more than 15 years Sue has been working for Baan Rim Pa Group, originally as Marketing Director and in more recent years also added the role as Group Executive Manager and was then involved in the charity project Phuket Has Been Good To Us. “I was here when the tsunami happened; our restaurants were damaged. The Kalim school which is down the road of Baan Rim Pa was totally destroyed. The school was rebuilt wonderfully but we realized that there was no English being taught so we decided to start to teach children English for free. The children attending this school would otherwise never have had the opportunity to learn English. After a year or so the then Principal from the large Government school that was completely destroyed in Kamala, came to us and they said we want you to come and teach English in their school. At that point we had to raise additional money to pay for the new teachers, which incorporates, salaries, work permits and the visas. It’s an ongoing struggle which continues today.”

Phuket Has Been Good Foundation was founded in 2005 by Tom McNamara and Sue has been there since the beginning as chairman of the board of managers.When talking about charities Sue is upfront and honest. “Unfortunately there’s been a lot of people who have come and made money out of raising money and pretending to do positive things. There is a handful of good charities. I think Soi Dog’s, Life Home Project and a few others have done a very good job. Often we ask for simple things for kids, like used shorts, and people always have an excuse”.

Sue believes that education – which is what Phuket Has Been Good to Us provide Thai children from less fortunate families – can change their lives. “Education is what makes every nationality better and the level of good education for poorer people is very low”.

Working and living in Thailand has changed Sue a great deal. Back in the days of life in the Australian media she could scream and yell, but it’s just not the way it works here. “You have to change to fit in the rules and regulations of those places and show respect. Back in my old media days we had a big newspaper office and we’d be yelling and screaming and using bad language all the time…really bad language was used all of the time. And then you come here and you can’t yell and scream because a wall goes up so you have to learn patience and tolerance and I think that’s and area in which I’ve changed a lot. Some might disagree! And even though sometimes you want to yell and scream you can’t do it because it’s just not the way it’s done here.

 Having an impressive background in the hospitality industry, Sue Ultmann shares her attitude to that very high number of unsuccessful businesses in Phuket, which can also be taken as a tip. “You get these guys who have made money in their own country, they come over here, they’re not that old and they have a bit of money and they fall in love with young attractive girls and they buy a bar. Good business people with good strategies and good business plans are ok. But a great deal come and think - Well, I’ve got a couple of million baht I’m going to buy a bar. I mean, good luck to them if that’s what they want to do. It’s the same when I hear that a Thai girl has ripped off a foreigner. Why has a Thai girl ripped off a foreigner? Because she got into a relationship with him, because he was stupid enough to put his business in her name and put his money into her bank account. Would he have done that back home? No. So if they lose – bad luck. Do I feel sorry for them? No, not really”.

“Thailand has been very good to me, I feel fortunate to be able to live and work here. The team I work with at Baan Rim Pa are like a big family and considering I am the only foreigner working in the four restaurants, I feel grateful to be part of that family. How much longer will I keep working … we will just have to wait and see. But, the way I feel now, it could be a while”.

 Q&A

Favorite Food?

I love all types of food. We have so much to offer in Phuket these days it’s hard to choose. Probably Italian and Thai

Favorite place on the island?

My home.

The person you admire?

I admire my husband for putting up with me for 28 years. I admire people who make a difference in the world and who do it from their heart, not for recognition. There are many of them.

The funniest thing that happened to you?

I know there has been many things, but can’t remember them. There was a time many years ago in Melbourne when I raced out from a shop and opened my car, jumped in, started the engine and was just about to drive away when I noticed in my rear view mirror that the back seat was full of stuffed toys. I turned around and looked in shock. This was my car, but not my toys. Actually it wasn’t my car, my car was parked behind. The key had worked on everything. I re-parked the car, jumped out, jumped into mine and took off. I am glad there were no security camera’s in those day.

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