Tank Talk

Caleb Diehl
"Madame Tank" with her Chaiseri First Win vehicles

A Portland clean energy CEO meets the matriarch of a Thai armored vehicle empire.

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PATHUM THANI, THAILAND— Inside a militaristic compound an hour north of Bangkok, Nopparat Kulhiran gripped Nyah Zarate’s palm and studied the heart line. 

“You are very independent,” Kulhiran told the CEO of Continuous Solutions, a Portland-based electric motor research and development company. “You don’t let people control you. If you want to do something, you go ahead and do it.”

Kulhiran might have been reading her own palm. The 65-year-old helms a global tank-making empire that exports armored vehicles and components to 43 countries. Her company, Chaiseri Metal & Rubber, rakes in about $30 million annually, and has won numerous Thai design and business development awards. Chaiseri’s trademark “First Win” armored troop carrier garnered praise from the Thai and Malaysian armies. 

IMG 3648Chaiseri founder Nopparat Kulhiran (left) reads Continuous Solutions CEO Nyah Zarate’s palm.

All of her business partners are men; so are her 400 employees. “I am the only woman who does this,” she said proudly, “so in the world they call me ‘Madame Tank.’” 

Zarate jetted halfway around the globe partly to open a relationship with Madame Tank.  The two women were a study in contrasts: Kulhiran comes across as a mix of James Bond and nurturing grandmother, and inhabits a world featuring guards and rows of polished silver Mercedes sedans. Zarate, 32, is a reserved but inquisitive chemical engineering Ph.D, running a small Portland startup. 

But international exchange is all about common ground. Zarate oversees eight full-time employees  — all men. She conducts some business in the defense industry, with clients including the Naval Air and Sea systems commands, and the Army Tank Research, Development and Engineering Center. “Hearing her life story was really inspiring,” said Zarate.

IMG 3675A Chaiseri First Win vehicle drives into the compound. 

On an overcast June afternoon in the Bangkok suburbs, a guard in camouflage fatigues rolled open an iron gate. Zarate and Sunun Setboonsarng, a global trade specialist with Business Oregon, drove into the 140,000-square-foot compound that houses Kulhiran’s home, office and factory.

Zarate was there to explain her integrated starter generator, a device that provides auxiliary electricity when a vehicle’s engine is switched off. Setboonsarng arranged the meeting after hearing that Kulhiran, a college friend, needed additional power for her energy-eating armored vehicles. 

The two Oregonians entered a small room adorned with gold-framed snapshots of Kulhiran accepting awards from the Prime Minister and defense ministry officials. (Everyone in the pictures except for her is a man, she observes.)

Dressed in a brilliant red blazer, gold watch and necklace, the tank-empire matriarch greeted the Oregon team with dessert, a red-bean soup. After chatting in Thai with Setboonsarng, whom she hadn’t seen for 30 years, Madame Tank shifted to English, motoring through the story of her life and company. 

Kulhiran works from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., only leaving Pathum Thani for parties or to visit friends in Bangkok. Inside the compound, she reigns supreme. “I am the leader,” she declared. “I control everybody.” Setboonsarng, an outgoing and jocular Bangkok native, once tried to set her brother up with Kulhiran. But, he concluded, “she’s too bossy.” 

IMG 3661Kulhiran (center) teaches Business Oregon Global Trade Specialist Sunun Setboonsarng (left) and Zarate (right) to make flowers out of palm leaves. 

That fact seems indisputable. Yet what makes the defense industry contractor such a fascinating personality is that she’s far from one dimensional. A former teacher, Kulhiran exudes a warm and inviting demeanor. She laughs often and loudly. When she’s not churning out First Wins capable of blasting enemy forces with a 12.7mm-caliber machine gun, Kulhiran paints, gardens and crafts flower bouquets from palm leaves.  

“Things like that touch people,” Setboonsarng says. “They feel like she’s a harmless crazy woman. That might help her get around and move up.” 

Kulhiran’s hospitality came in handy the day four FBI agents arrived at the factory gate. Kulhiran had landed on a bureau watchlist for her exploratory tours of military bases in Ohio, Minnesota and San Jose, Setboonsarng says, translating from a 2016 interview Kulhiran conducted with the Thai television program 2020 Entertainment. Kulhiran explained to Zarate how she talked her way in, observed tank track components and excused herself to the bathroom to scribble schematics. Her international exploits caught the attention of the Thai National Intelligence Agency—she told Zarate she was presenting to the agency the next day. 

IMG 3654Kulhiran (right) catches up with Setboonsarng (left), a college friend. 

After probing Kulhiran’s factory, the FBI agents reclined under a banana tree. Kulhiran told them to wait, hurried upstairs and returned with a dessert made from bananas and coconut milk. The agents dropped the investigation. 

Back at the compound, Kulhiran showed Zarate  how to twist palm leaves into flowers and relayed more of her life story. After graduating with an education degree in  1976, she taught Thai to refugees of the Cambodian Civil War. She married her husband in an arranged marriage, entering into a large extended family and the family business, dating back to 1939, of manufacturing rubber components for cargo trucks.  

After an hour or so, Zarate, Setboonsarng and Kulhiran piled into a golf cart and drove (Madame Tank at the wheel) past rows of rusting trucks, half-built troop carriers, and brand-new First Wins. In addition to the trademark vehicle, the company manufactures track systems and its patented “run-flat” technology, which enables trucks to soldier through 150 kilometers on a flat tire. 

IMG 3696A Chaiseri First Win on display in the factory. 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kulhiran built up the armory through entrepreneurial grit, charm and luck. She translated English engineering textbooks to her husband, who designed the rubber tank tracks. She amassed technical knowledge on trips to Singapore, Saudi Arabia and the United States, packing light and booking red eye flights instead of hotels.

On one key trip to a failing Ohio rubber company, Standard Products, she purchased 45 crates of unfamiliar parts for decommissioned American vehicles, like the 2.5-ton M35 cargo truck, and later sold them to the Royal Thai Army. “I don’t know what this is,” she would tell her worried husband, “but I think in the future we’ll use it.” 

Almost everywhere she went, she encountered boardrooms and military bases full of men. 

Zarate could relate. “It’s difficult,” she told Kulhiran. “The majority of the meetings I walk into are full of men who are double my age.” 

IMG 3682 
Trucks inside the Chaiseri factory. 

In the United States, female representation in the defense sector has steadily increased, women on the board of the Pacific Northwest Defense Coalition say, but the war is far from over. Only five of the eighteen PNDC board members are women. Many defense industry executives transition into their role from military leadership, but as of 2015, women made up only 15% of active duty military, a modest jump from 11% in the 1990s. Other talent pipelines for the defense industry, including STEM and manufacturing jobs, still struggle to attract women. 

The same could be said for Thailand. The military’s top brass remains predominantly male. The disparity was even larger two decades ago, when Kulhiran laid much of the groundwork for her enterprise. 

Status report: Women in Defense

The dearth of women in the U.S. industry can translate to missed business opportunities, Oregon’s small cadre of female defense industry executives say. “They (men) can go play golf, go boating, whatever they do,”  says Liz Lasater, CEO of Red Arrow Logistics and a Pacific Northwest Defense Coaltion board member.  “We don’t have the social time in order to get deals done.” Times are changing, says advisory PNDC board member Chandra Brown, a former vice president at Oregon Iron Works, and more women are entering into leadership roles in defense. Last year, she noted, the PNDC appointed a woman, Shine Micro CFO Judy Johnson, chair of its board. “The bad news,” Brown says, “is we still have a long way to go.

But the dearth of women in her field conferred unexpected advantages, Kulhiran said. Men remembered her for contracts. Maternal gestures— like telling the Saudi Arabian prince his fortune and cooking dinner for the Standard Products employees—unlocked the gates of top-secret facilities and saved her thousands of dollars. She worked to develop her personal brand, “Madame Tank.”  

“She will get her work done in a different way,” Setboonsarng says.“Being a female she will do it in a way softer than a man would do.”[(To be sure, some of the stories about Madame Tank reinforce female stereotypes, a fact that likely reflects generational as well as  cultural differences.] On second thought, added Setboonsarng, “you don’t mess with her.” 

No concrete deals emerged from the meeting between Continuous Solutions and Chaiseri, but Zarate hopes to keep in contact with Kulhiran’s son, an engineer and the VP of product development. He will ultimately decide if the integrated starter generator is worthwhile. (For her part, Madame Tank seemed only mildly interested in electric motor technology. )

Further down the road, Zarate says she might look for a supply chain partnership or an opportunity to electrify the armored vehicles. Her lab is currently conducting research toward the development of an all-electric tactical vehicle, of interest to the U.S. military for its potential fuel and transport savings. 

Before embarking on any deal, Zarate says she would seek more information about Kulhiran’s customers. Partnering with a company that supplies armored vehicles to at least one military dictatorship raises some ethical concerns. The Royal Thai Army’s Chaiseri vehicles fall under the command of general Prayuth Chan-ocha, installed as unelected prime minister in a 2014 coup. “This is always on the front of my mind,” Zarate says, “making sure I’m making the most ethical decisions.” 

IMG 3698Zarate marvels at Kulhiran’s factory. 

Due diligence, of course, is part of the international deal making process. So is navigating difference. The distance between Zarate and Kulhiran is great, but  they closed the gap talking about engine mechanics, gender politics, floral design — and leadership. 

“Nobody understood me,” said the palm-reading businesswoman, explaining how she built her company through sheer perservance. “I told them: ‘In the future you will see.’”

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