Thai firms are rolling quietly across Southeast Asia and beyond
For the past decade we have assumed that Singapore and Malaysia are the main sources of pan-Asean corporate expansion.
Analysts and business journalists have followed closely as DBS Bank, SingTel, CIMB and Air Asia rolled out across Southeast Asia.
What has been less well-documented is a similar wave emanating from Thailand as the country's corporate giants - Charoen Pokphand, Siam Cement Group (SCG), PTT and Thai Beverage have embarked on similarly ambitious roll-outs.
Indeed, Thai investments in Indonesia have been surprisingly large and to a large extent extremely low-key, despite their size.
Nonetheless, this is certainly about to change.
For example, one sight that has caught my attention during my frequent trips to and from Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta Airport is a massive sign advertising SCG.
Representing Thailand's largest cement company, the SCG elephant depicted on the vast signboard really stands out.
With a market capitalisation of about US$13.79 billion (Bt418.49 billion) and over $864 million in profits last year, SCG has been very active in Indonesia lately.
In September 2011, SCG purchased a 30-per-cent stake in Indonesia's Chandra Asri Petrochemical Tbk (the republic's largest petrochemical company) for $442 million.
In the same year, SCG also acquired 93.5 per cent of PT Keramika Indonesia Assosiasi and 99 per cent PT Kokoh Inti Arebama for undisclosed sums.
In February 2012 too, SCG acquired the Indonesian construction materials subsidiary of Australia's Boral Group for US$135 million - citing renewed confidence in the republic's booming construction sector.
SCG's Indonesian activity represents just one part of a wider, significant trend: namely the growing tendency for Thai firms to venture abroad.
Having more or less reached the limit of their domestic market, these companies are now heading to Southeast Asia (and beyond) in search of new business and better returns.
Kan Trakulhoon, SCG's president and CEO, told the press in March that the company is planning to invest $5 billion in ASEAN over the next five years, including $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion this year alone.
Besides SCG there's the ongoing multibillion-dollar battle for control of the iconic Fraser & Neave (F&N) drinks manufacturer.
Thailand's champion here is the $8.1 billion market capitalised drinks manufacturer and distributor Thai Beverage (ThaiBev), makers of Chang Beer.
Also, Thai tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont's Charoen Pokphand Group in December purchased a 15.5-per-cent stake in China's Ping An Insurance for $9.39 billion from HSBC. This is a major coup as Ping An is China's second-largest insurance company.
Meanwhile the state energy company PTT Exploration & Production (PTT) has also been expanding abroad aggressively. In November 2010 it purchased 40 per cent of Statoil ASA's oil sands project in Canada for $2.28 billion. In August 2012, PTT made a $959-million offer to buy out 55 per cent of Singaporean coal miner Sakari Resources, of which it already owns 45 per cent.
More significantly, in July 2012 PTT beat oil giant Shell to purchase UK-listed Cove Energy for $1.9 billion.
Cove's major asset is an 8.5-per-cent stake in the massive Rovuma 1 gas field in Mozambique. This represents a huge victory for PTT - who's president and CEO Pailin Chuchottaworn I met earlier this year in Davos. Indeed PTT's most substantial overseas foray has been in Myanmar where its total investment is well over $6 billion when you add up its operations in the Yadana and Zawtika gas fields.
At the same juncture, PTT is also planning a further $3-billion investment in Myanmar. Myanmar is a clearly a critical chunk of PTT's business as Pailin explained to me in Bangkok back in June: "Gas from Myanmar fuels 25 per cent of our Kingdom's requirements."
Thailand is Myanmar's second largest trading partner. In addition, the well-known infrastructure construction giant Italian-Thai Development (ITD) is developing - along with the Myanmar Port Authority - an $8.6-billion deepwater port in Dawei, the capital of the Tanintharyi Region.
Thai companies are clearly going where the money is. They're going to countries with large natural resources and markets.
Malaysia clearly meets neither criteria and this is why Thai investment here seems rather minor.
At the same time, it is unlikely that Thai companies will be able to fly under the radar for very long. Their investments in countries like Myanmar are likely to come under increased scrutiny as the latter opens up to global attention. The Dawei project, for instance ran into controversy in December 2011 when local villagers who were being forced to relocate protested their eviction.
All in all, business in Southeast Asia is likely to get more interesting moving forward.