June 5, 2014 12:00 am JST

Family management gives execs insights into customer needs

Vinamilk pushes growth with international expansion

Mai Kieu Lien is the chairwoman and chief executive officer of Vinamilk, Vietnam's largest dairy company. She is also the country's most famous businesswoman, and her leadership skills have helped the company roughly triple its sales and profit before tax over the last five years.

     At its annual general meeting of shareholders on April 25, Lien reiterated her determination to "adhere to the goal of achieving $3 billion in annual sales by 2017." In order to realize this ambitious target of nearly doubling sales from the 2013 level, she chose to focus on active expansion into foreign markets.

     In January, Vinamilk was granted a license from the Vietnamese government for its $23 million investment project to acquire a 51% stake in Cambodian dairy processor Angkol Dairy Products and to build a dairy processing factory in the country. The new Cambodian factory will raise the Ho Chi Minh City-based company's production capacity to 19 million liters of liquid milk, 64 million jars of yogurt and 80 million cans of condensed milk.

     In March, Vinamilk announced plans to establish a wholly owned subsidiary in Poland. Last December, the firm bought a 70% stake in California-based Driftwood Dairy and made a full-scale foray into the U.S. market. While Vinamilk products are already exported to more than 16 countries, including nations in Asia and the Middle East, the company is now looking to tap other markets, such as China. The speed of the company's strategic decision-making represents her favorite motto, "Simplicity in words and resolution in action."

Depth of experience

In 1976, the year after the end of the Vietnam War, when Vinamilk's predecessor Southern Coffee-Dairy was established, Lien joined the dairy producer as an engineer at a condensed milk factory. While accumulating on-site work experience, she went to the former Soviet Union and studied economics. In 2013, she took up her present post as chairwoman and CEO of Vinamilk. Lien is a self-made businesswoman.

     Based on her experience as a mother of two children, she predicted that Vietnam's demand for milk will rise over time, fueled by economic growth. The prediction prompted her to decide to expand domestic factories before her rivals did so. The result was just as she had thought. The country's per-capita milk consumption is expected to increase to 28 liters in 2020 from about 15 liters in 2010. Vinamilk has continued to grow with the marked expansion of the dairy market.

    Vinamilk's CEO pointed out that female executives tend to be more cautious than their male counterparts, leading to better risk management. Even now, she does housework and is able to see things from the perspective of a mother and a housewife, positions that have increased her sensitivities toward the sentiments of ordinary consumers. "As we have been in business for 37 years, I must say that we have come a long way, but I think I have done my best to make the right decisions," she said proudly.

     Lien's management capability once earned her an offer of an official post from the Vietnamese government, but she turned it down to continue her work with the company. "People who are reluctant to work under pressure should not do business," said Lien, brimming with energy and determination.

Narai Intertrade rides high on popular fashion bags

Thailand's Narai Intertrade, a maker of high-quality fabric bags distributed under the NaRaYa brand, opened its flagship store last December at Siam Paragon, a major shopping mall in Bangkok's Ratchaprasong, one of the largest commercial districts in Southeast Asia. Company President Wasna R. Lathouras, 60, calls it "a new challenge."

Tourist spots

The flagship store focuses on selling high-end NaRa brand items, as well as a line of products targeted at male customers. The NaRa brand and the company's product line for men were both established recently. Wasna has fostered the more mass-market NaRaYa, established in 1989, into a world-famous brand by offering the highest possible quality at reasonable prices. These days, tourists from such countries as Japan, China and South Korea can be seen forming long lines to get into NaRaYa stores in Bangkok. Cute designs and reasonable prices are behind the popularity of NaRaYa brand items.

     Wasna was raised by her mother, who sold eggs for a living in a village in central Thailand. She went to a language school to become a tour guide. A turning point came when she was asked by a Western friend to help them purchase as many famous French brand items as possible. So she visited street vendors across Bangkok and bought as many as 53 fabric bags of the same design but of different sizes. This made her realize how much pleasure one can get from collecting name-brand fabric items with similar designs and in various shapes. Out of this experience came the idea for her NaRaYa brand.

     She then set to work designing and producing fabric bags on her own, and began to sell them at a department store in Singapore with the help of her husband, who was a trader. Her brand gradually gained in popularity.

All grown up

Now her company does everything on its own, from designing and producing fabrics to sewing more than 60,000 items so as to maintain product quality and enhance the brand's originality.

     "I owe what I am to my husband and son," Wasna said. When her son was small, she often hurried home after a long day at work to prepare a meal for him. "The company is my second son, and it is your brother. I can keep feeding you only by growing the company," she would tell the crying child. "I understand. You can go to your office, Mom," the son told his mother, to her great relief. She told this tale proudly, and displayed a picture of her son, who has grown up to become a professional race car driver.

     Narai Intertrade now runs 21 stores in Thailand and 14 overseas, including some in Hong Kong, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates. Wasna aims to expand into Japan next. To this end, she recently set up a Japan business planning department, staffed by Japanese designers and marketing managers. She plans to quickly execute this business plan in the near future.

thumbsup co-founder in vanguard of young Thai women

Among people in their 20s and 30s, often called the "digital natives," is a growing cadre of entrepreneurs in online services. A case in point is Oranuch Lerdsuwankij, 34, co-founder of comprehensive IT news site thumbsup, putting her in the vanguard of young businesswomen in Thailand.

     Thumbsup Media offers Thai translations of information technology-related articles published worldwide in English, Japanese and other languages, attracting 3 million visitors annually. Of her goals, Oranuch says, "We will continue to rise to the challenge of expanding our services, offered via online media as well as television in partnership with a terrestrial digital broadcast system that began service in Thailand in April."

Build our own

Thumbsup started in January 2011. For about a decade before that Oranuch worked as a systems developer for a leading Thai mobile communications firm. In those days she often experienced difficulty finding IT-related world news in Thai. "Life is short, so why not take on the challenge? If no services are available, let's build one of our own," she tweeted, leading to the establishment of thumbsup with five like-minded people.

     She absorbed this challenger spirit from her hardworking father, a first-generation immigrant to Thailand from China. He ran a chopstick-processing plant that failed with the Asian currency crisis of 1997. But she says he never gave up, staying positive and continuing to work to rebuild his business.

     "I imagine my ideal self in my 40s and 50s," she says. Women are still in the minority among Thailand's increasing number of young entrepreneurs, and her success brings her frequent calls to speak at seminars in neighboring countries such as Singapore. She is clearly becoming a role model for the next generation of Thai business leaders.

Nikkei staff writers Manabu Ito (Hanoi), Tamaki Kyozuka (Bangkok) contributed to this story.