Local Personalities: Ib Ottesen

by Dr. Iain Corness

One of the more interesting people in the local hospitality business is Ib Ottesen. A man who discovered that his sailor father wasn’t really his father, but a pig farmer he had never met, was! From that extraordinary background, Ib Ottesen is a fine example of what you can do in this country with a little luck and a lot of common sense.

Ib was born in Denmark, and the man he called “father” was a ship’s engineer. His mother died when he was 10 years old and he and his two brothers received little parenting, boarding school being the substitute.

Dreaming of being a sailor and going to the Far East, Ib dropped out from school aged 16, forging his father’s name for permission to begin life on the sea. He remembers his father saying to people, “Don’t worry, he’ll be back in 14 days.” Ib laughed recalling the event, saying, “I showed them! I was back in seven!” He had unwittingly joined a ship that spent its time in Danish waters and called into his hometown at the end of the first week. So much for the mystic Orient!

He was more careful next time, joining as a cabin boy and going to America. “This was big stuff for me. San Francisco and flower power!” He then enrolled for Wireless Officer’s training, but was told by a senior officer to forget it as Wireless Operators would be phased out, and go to Officer School instead.

This he did and began working his way up the ranks. However, on one trip he visited Thailand. This was to change his life. “I didn’t feel like going back (to Denmark), and there were jobs being offered in Thailand.” So junior officer Ottesen was discharged with 2,000 baht in his pocket and his guitar over his shoulder, to play music in a bar in Patpong 2. “Those were exciting times. Shady characters would come up to you in a bar and offer you a job as a pilot flying over Laos. They even offered ten hours flying training as well!” Ib said, laughing.

After this brief period in the kingdom, rejecting Ambiguous Airlines pilot training, he returned to Denmark to complete navigation training. “I might get drunk sometimes, but I’m not stupid,” said Ib.

He completed his officer training and began working the ships again. His “father” died just before he was finished, but then a few months later he received notification from the Danish authorities to say that his father had just died! He wrote back to suggest they check their records, but they wrote back with the news that he should check his, as his ‘real’ father had just died and he also had several brothers and sisters he had never met! “I asked for a photo as I wanted to see if he was bald. I was always very proud that my “father” had a full head of hair!”

Ib jumped on the first ship out of Denmark and headed towards Thailand, making this his base while he continued the rover’s life at sea. During this period he also invested, with a partner, in a small restaurant and guesthouse on Soi 8, Sukhumvit, in Bangkok. Perhaps he was thinking of the future, calling it the Mermaid’s Rest - Copenhagen’s mermaid on the rock finally finding her resting place?

After a couple of years of being absentee landlord, and finding that somehow the expected profits didn’t quite make it to his bank account, he decided he should settle down in Bangkok and devote more of his energies to his land-based business.

The connection to the sea was not lost, however. With his sea captain’s qualifications he acted in a consultancy basis as a marine surveyor and also carried out safety surveys. This is where Ib showed that he certainly was not stupid. Finding out that defects in the vessels could not be repaired, or replaced here, was a perfect opportunity to fill a niche market. “I saw the need, and together with my partner borrowed 200,000 baht, and made a company to supply safety equipment.”

This worked and they expanded to include underwater repair work. He had been undergoing training himself and in the beginning just paid his own teachers to do the job, but later did it themselves!

While all these sea-based operations were going on, Ib had not forgotten the Mermaid’s Rest either. Opportunities came along to purchase the building opposite. “It was an outrageous amount of money we didn’t have. We refinanced our cars, house and borrowed the rest to convert it into a 40 room hotel.” This was another success, being full from day one.

The mid 1980’s was boom time in Bangkok real estate. Ib’s company was lucky and some land purchases could be re-sold after 6 months at a handsome profit, but this money was not used for the high life. It was used to build a new venture in Jomtien, with his partners, called Mermaid Beach Resort.

Now the early 1990’s and Ib began the final relocation to Jomtien and sold his share of the Bangkok hotels and the local resort. He opened Mermaid’s Dive School in Jomtien together with the local dean of diving, Stephen Blumenthal, while wife Kannikar had her fashion shops. It should have been ‘easy street’ and a welcome break, but it wasn’t. “We had nothing to do. It was killing us!”

The answer was to go back into debt and build the Residence Suites, followed by the Captain’s Corner, into debt again and build the Residence Garden and now the Jomtien Boathouse. These successful enterprises have a simple formula. “Give people a good product and good service at a price people can afford,” says Ib. And he should know.

The Danish ship’s officer has now been away so long he is a stranger back “home” and watching Denmark and Thailand playing sport - “I find myself barracking for the Thais.” The mermaid is home to roost!