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Asian hub

A Flash worth a billion

Published 23 June 2021 in Asian hub • 7 min read

At the start of June, Bangkok headquartered delivery firm Flash became Thailand’s first unicorn. After a fund-raising round that added US$150 million to its coffers, the four-year-old company said its value had passed the US$1 billion mark. 

Flash, founded in 2017 by Komsan Lee, a young businessman born into a poor family of Chinese descent in a remote mountain village in northern Thailand, is the country’s top private courier firm, delivering up to 2 million packages daily. 

Total investment in the company now stands at US$550 million. That puts it in the same league as Hong Kong’s Lalamove or Singapore’s Grab, and part of an Asia-wide growth in express delivery that recently has surged on the growth of online retail during the coronavirus pandemic. 

 

Chinese leaders 

At the forefront of this expansion are a string of Chinese companies, headed by Alibaba-owned Cainiao Smart Logistics Network, which is seeing faster revenue growth than any other part of Alibaba Group Holding’s vast empire.  

Also growing hand over fist are JD Logistics, owned by Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, which in May raised $3.2 billion in an initial public offering in Hong Kong, and SF Holding, the Shenzhen-based owner of China’s biggest courier firm, SF Express, and which earlier this year offered US$2.3 billion to buy control of Hong Kong’s Kerry Logistics Network to expand its reach into Southeast Asia. 

Yet, as Flash shows, it’s not just Chinese companies that are expanding rapidly. Lee, now 29, entered the market in 2017 with a bang, slashing average delivery prices at Flash to as low as 25 baht (US$0.8), way below the 85 baht (US$2.7) then charged by its competitors. 

The company now operates 7,000 drop-off and delivery points, with another 7,000 run by Flash Home, its franchise programme. It has 27,000 employees – 70% of them delivery workers – with plans to add another 10,000 by the end of 2022. 

Helping this growth is the high rate of digital adoption in Asian societies. That in turn is driving advances in data analytics and other digitally driven innovations, especially for logistics and related delivery services. The operational efficiencies this bring both lower costs, allowing firms such as Flash to cut their prices, and reduce the environmental impact of their services, thus making them more sustainable.  

Earlier this year, the company announced three additional services: zero return delivery fees, an increase of insurance on goods valued up to 2,000 baht (US$65) and guaranteed delivery services. It also hopes to begin delivering items weighing more than 200 kilograms. 

Business users like Flash’s free technology suite, Flash Radar, which allows online merchants an analytical view of their sales, the ability to manage inventory and print labels with its Flash Printer or its portable Flash Toy 

The company is now looking beyond delivery to other online services, with plans to launch Flash Pay, a financial service for online lending and payments that will be located at PTT Oil and Retail gas stations. 

 

Local backing 

To date, Flash has mostly taken funding from local businesses, helping the company embed itself in the local market. Although one its early investors was Alibaba-backed eWTP Capital, included in its latest round of financing are Siam Commercial Bank’s venture arm, SCB 10X, Chanvanich Security Printing and Buer Capital, all from Thailand, while returning investors from previous rounds were TCP Group, owner of the Red Bull energy drink, petroleum distributor PTT Oil and Retail Business and Bank of Ayudhya unit Krungsri Finnovate, also all local businesses. 

The company now aims to put its new funds to use increasing its domestic market size to more than 500 billion baht (U$16 billion) and start establishing a presence in other countries in Southeast Asia. 

Doing so will open it up to major competition. According to DealStreetAsia, logistics and delivery firms topped Southeast Asia’s fundraising in the first quarter of this year. Indonesia’s J&T Express in April raised US$2 billion from private equity firms Hillhouse Capital and Boyu Capital, and Sequoia Capital China – giving it a valuation of US$6 billion. And SiCepat Ekspres, a delivery firm focused on e-commerce and social commerce, raised US$170 million in March. 

Even at home, Flash can’t afford to rest on its laurels. Within Thailand, it competes with Kerry Express, Thailand, which boosted by US$270 million raised in an IPO last year now delivers 1.2 million items daily through 15,000 service points. 

For now, Komsan Lee may be ahead of the game. But in the heady world of Asian express deliveries, even a US$1 billion valuation is clearly just a starting point.  

Authors

Mark Greeven

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Mark Greeven is Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD. Drawing on a decade of experience in research, teaching and consulting in China, Mark explores how to organize innovation in a turbulent world. He is the co-director of Asian Innovation strategies program.

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