It is all over the news now. Flash Group, an express logistics company focused on ecommerce, has raised a total of $150 million in both their D+ and E rounds, making them (according to its release) the first Thai unicorn.
Many friends were puzzled– in fact, unless you have been closely following the ecommerce development in Thailand, you might not even have heard of Flash Group, or Flash Express as it was known. Flash Coffee (unrelated to Flash Group BTW), the coffee chain run by a young German, is more famous.
The growth of Flash Group over the past three years has been impressive. People have cited that the door-to-door pickup services were the winning formula. However, we feel that is just scratching the surface. There is more to it – and we shall try to answer some basic questions here.
Who is Flash Group?
Flash Group is an integrated logistics company that is best known for its delivery service, Flash Express. Despite its late start, this Bangkok-based courier has expanded to become Thailand’s second-largest private delivery service.
Flash Express currently owns a fleet of over 15,000 delivery vehicles, 23 sorting centres, 1300 distribution centres, and 10,000 service branches.
Offering a variety of services including free door-to-door pickup and delivery, this startup now (supposedly) handles a daily peak parcel volume of 2 million items. Because of its rapid growth, its number of employees has increased to 27,000, with Flash Express slated to expand its workforce further to 40 000 by the end of 2021.
It is a very asset-heavy logistic company – much unlike a typical venture-funded tech start-up.
Who are its founders?
Flash Group was co-founded by Thai-Chinese businessman Komsan Lee and former Alibaba employee Di Weijie in 2018.
While Lee had earlier stints in freight forwarding and running an international logistics company, Di was involved in the development of Alipay Wallet and its third-party merchant QR code solutions.
Neither founders had direct experience running an express logistics business, but both were convinced that Southeast Asia’s e-commerce would take off in a similar trajectory as China’s.
Who are the main backers?
Flash Group is backed by an impressive list of investors from Thailand and China. Among the investors that participated in the last few series of funding, the notable Thai-based companies include:
- SCB10X (venture capital arm of Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank)
- Krungsri Finnovate (venture capital arm of Krungsri, Thailand’s fifth-largest bank)
- Durbell (subsidiary of TCP group)
- Chanwanich Security Printing
- PTT Oil and Retail Business Public Company Limited (Thailand state-owned energy company)
On the other hand, the more well-known Chinese investors that have invested in Flash Express:
- eWTP Fund (Alibaba-backed technology and innovation fund)
- Cloud Angel Fund
- Gaorong Capital
Gaorong has been an early and strong backer of Flash– many Chinese investors we know have been approached by Gaorong for Flash’s further funding.
Run by the former head of UC Web, eWTP Fund has pretty much invested in ventures across the globe. Over the past year, it has also collaborated with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund PIF to set up a fund in the country.
How could it grow so quickly?
Flash Group’s catapult into Unicorn status has left many observers discussing the factors that contributed to their success, and we would like to add our take to this debate as well.
Was it its low prices? While Flash Express did break into Thailand’s logistic scene by offering a 25 baht delivery fee (its rivals were charging 60 baht per delivery at that time), we believe that this pricing strategy could only drive short-term growth.
As explained in this report, the price wars in Thailand’s logistics sector has already reduced the average shipping rate per parcel from 39 baht to 19 baht. Simply put, the slashing of prices would only encourage its rivals to follow suit, eliminating any pricing advantage that Flash Express might have had.
Instead, Thailand’s logistics market had become ripe for the taking, and the well-funded and well-managed Flash Express was simply one of the quicker hands to seize it.
As logistics are inextricable to online retail, the rise of ecommerce in Thailand – which has also been boosted by the COVID-19 restrictions – has fuelled the growth of the express logistics industry.
The location also plays its part here. Flash Group is closely associated with Lazada, which still retains a significant presence in Thailand; Flash’s story might have been much different if Shopee was the ecommerce platform in question, considering how Shopee is planning to build its own logistics platform.
With Thailand’s logistics industry expected to have grown by 35% to 66 billion baht in 2020, the firms that could expand the quickest and the most efficiently would be the most likely to increase their revenue, and more importantly, seize market share.
Since its inception in 2018, Flash Express has continually received the generous backing of investors such as Gaorong Capital, providing it with the funds to quickly expand and take advantage of these opportunities.
Flash Express could also count on an experienced team to guide it through this expansion. Besides their COO Di Weijie, the company’s management team also comprises former Alibaba, Baidu, and SF Express executives.
Because the ecommerce logistics industry is arguably more developed in China, the management team’s experience can guide them towards making more well-informed and efficient business decisions. These also include processes, systems and people management.
Finally, the Thai-born founder ensures that its business operations are more likely to be better tailored to the unique characteristics of Thailand – an advantage other Chinese logistics firms do not have. (You can’t hire a co-founder easily).
Who are the competitors?
As Flash Group gets used to its newfound status as a SEA Unicorn, it would also have to fend off the advances of its competitors in the ecommerce logistics industry.
Of these competitors, the company will probably be most watchful of Kerry Express Thailand. A subsidiary of Kerry Logistics Network, Kerry Express remains the largest private courier in Thailand with approximately 15,000 service branches. After raising US$270 million from its IPO in 2020, the company reported a net profit of 303 million baht in 2021 Q1.
However, Kerry has been in Thailand for a while; if it were serious about deterring the market share expansion of Flash, it would have done so long ago. Furthermore, being public may allow Kerry to tap into more funding, but also pressures it to be profitable – a double-edged sword.
The group’s other existing competitors include Thailand Post (a state-backed courier service with more than 150 years of history – so unlikely you can take them seriously), Ninja Van (Singapore startup that is currently fundraising), and J&T Express (which raised $2 billion in its latest funding).
Since Ninja Van has an important market – Indonesia – to defend, and J&T Express’s attention is probably in China, Flash Group actually stands very good chances in Thailand.
Next up, ASEAN
As for expansion, Flash Group is likely to expand to one or two neighbouring countries, with the Philippines being its most likely destination. Similar to Thailand, the country is another fighting ground where Lazada has fended off the advances of Shopee.