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John Magee, the high-flyer who landed in Phuket

John Magee is well known as the American entrepreneur who in 1993 founded the ’Phuket Gazette’ and published it for 25 years. It was the island’s first English-language newspaper and it had an enormous impact on the development of Phuket – not just as a tourist destination but also as a cosmopolitan and much sought-after place to live.

By Bruce Stanley

Sunday 6 March 2022, 02:00PM

’The Gazette’ quickly became a staple in expat life and a must-read among the then rather sparse but also promising corps of tourists to Phuket. It informed these readers of significant goings-on that were not readily apparent to foreigners.

 The newspaper was a voice that promoted responsible development and provided factual reports, “not only on the pristine beaches, but also about some inconvenient truths that needed to be dealt with to enhance the island’s credibility overseas,” John says.

The issues included crime, corruption, environmental degradation and abuses of tourists. 

“There was a belief among some local tourism operators and in officialdom that this darker side of the island could be kept from public view, and that the half-truth of ’Paradise’ could be spun successfully forever. But international tourism markets were more sophisticated than that, even at that time. 

“So we waded in, and it was not always universally popular here. We had threats – even personal ones – and our offices were raided three or four times. But we also had good encouragement and support in places where we needed it, and over time we were vindicated,” John says.

So what brought the former Senior Director for the banking and corporate finance divisions of American Express and Shearson Lehman to the boondocks of Phuket? A story featuring him in the July 18, 2005 issue of Fortune magazine gives the answer. 

Phuket had, in the short space of a decade, evolved from a quaint fishing village to soaring fame as an international tourist destination. And with that came the realisation that it was also an eminently desirable place for retirement in both economic and lifestyle terms.

John had foreseen it. 

“I first came to Phuket in 1976 on the only flight serving this place, a daily prop-jet from Bangkok. I was on holiday from Hong Kong. We landed on a grass strip and took a bus over the mostly dirt road from the airport to the Phuket Island Resort in Rawai.” 

He told me it was “not necessarily love at first sight, but it certainly was after a week of exploring the island on a motorbike.” 

By 1989, after several years of at least monthly visits to the island from Hong Kong, he had acquired land in Kamala that would eventually become Kamala Beach Estate where he lived from 1992 until 2002.

“When I first set up here, there was no internet on the island and Kamala had no electricity. My first home was powered solely by a jury-rigged diesel generator that was always in a bad mood.

“Conditions for a business start-up were not ideal. There were only Mom-and-Pop shops for most things. No computer stuff. I had to bring my Olivetti 386 floppy job from Hong Kong, along with most else for my new home. 

Art-Tec Design

“There were almost no roads. The only workable thing connecting Kamala to town was a perilous boulder-infested dirt track over the hump to Patong.

“But with the help of good friends and a cadre of talented and willing freelance writers, we got the first issue of the paper into circulation in May 1993.”

After graduating from Chicago’s Northwestern University, John joined JP Morgan Chase while a graduate student in Finance at New York University.

“After 2½ years of formal training in financial analysis, I was assigned to the bank’s international division. I had no idea that this would lead to 52 years of unbroken residence outside of my home country.” 

In 1968, John was approached by a headhunter to join American Express whose enormous travellers cheque and credit card businesses were driving it into expansion of its little-known wholesale banking operations outside the US. 

“The company was not, and for strategic reasons did not wish to be, a commercial bank inside the United States,” John tells me.

“In 1970, I was packed off to Copenhagen to set up Scandinavia’s first foreign bank, from concept to profitable operations in 1973.”

In 1975, he was sent to Hong Kong where he remained until 1992 when he took the leap to Phuket. 

So what has he been doing since retiring five years ago at age 78?

“The idea of retirement was always a bit terrifying for me, but I’m surviving by just doing the things I enjoy most. One of these is the fulfillment of a self-inflicted commitment to literacy in Thai. I do this through formal study. Including ’homework’, it takes about eight hours a week. Great fun and keeps the brain basket churning. 

“I also spend a lot of time reading things that are inspiring and well written; enjoying music – mainly jazz; monitoring financial markets overseas; and of course hanging out at the Airpark to indulge my love of flying. 

“Finally, and most gratifying, is observing the career development of my two sons, one a commercial pilot and property broker, the other a content developer with a Bangkok-based media group.”  

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christysweet | 07 March 2022 - 12:59:49

I met Mr Magee at the opening  of the Airpark How his face fell when I told him my name, perhaps he was a detractor on Thai Visa forum?  Was sorry to see PG go, as I was PhuketWan. The more info, the better. 


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