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Giving up his US citizenship helped an entrepreneur become one of Thailand's richest men

Karen Gilchrist
September 5, 2018

Bill Heinecke was 42 when he did something drastic: He walked into the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, handed over his passport and renounced his citizenship.

It wasn't a moment of madness, nor was it strictly necessary: The American-born entrepreneur had by then been living and working in Thailand for almost three decades. But it did showcase what he says is one of the most important skills in business — commitment — and, as a result, propelled him up the ranks of the country's rich list.

"I remember the time very well," the now-69-year-old self-made billionaire said during a recent episode of CNBC's "Managing Asia."

"I remember the counselor who said to me: 'I think you have to rethink this, you know. I've never seen or heard of anyone who wanted to give back their citizenship.'"

But Heinecke was resolute: "I said: 'Well I've made up my mind and I, you know, I don't need to wait.'"

Heinecke is the chairman and CEO of hospitality group Minor International, the company he founded as a cleaning business when he was 17 — still a minor — four years after relocating to Bangkok with his family. Throughout his 20s and 30s, it evolved into one of Thailand's leading hospitality chains, and Heinecke said he felt he owed it to the country that "adopted" him to show his dedication to doing business there.

By giving up his U.S. citizenship, Heinecke relinquished certain benefits afforded to U.S. nationals, such as his right to vote in U.S. elections and enjoy unrestricted travel into the country. But he also exempted himself from U.S. tax implications.

"You know, we've had so much good support from whether the Thai banks or Thai business people or the community in general," said Heinecke. "They've embraced us and embraced our company and, you know, we're proud to be a Thai company."

Committing to working in an emerging economy was not without its challenges: Heinecke's hotel chain has battled tsunamis, the Asian financial crisis and near-bankruptcy. But it also proved to be a savvy business move, which helped him win favor over other major international corporations.

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