Her hairstyle makes you wonder if she’s a huge fan of Sailor Moon from Japanese shōjo manga series. Make no mistake though – 45-year-old Vietnamese Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao is on her way to become Southeast Asia’s first self-made woman billionaire. If her airline goes public (IPO) by selling 30% stake (scheduled in second quarter of 2016), her fortune will balloon to US$1.36 billion.
She’s the founder and chief executive of VietJet, Vietnam’s only private low-cost carrier that has grown so quickly that within less than 5-year since operation, its passenger volume is on track to surpass that of Vietnam Airlines, the country’s national carrier. If Malaysians have their Tony Fernandez, Vietnamese are proud of their Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao.
Unlike Malaysian Rayani Air which boasted as Malaysia’s first “Syariah-compliant” airline but was forced to close shop after only 110 days into operation, VietJet’s business has been fantastic by doing the opposite – dressing up it’s flight attendants with sexy bikini outfits. Oh, come on! Stop the holier-than-thou attitude.
If airline business is as easy as slapping a “Syariah-compliant” sticker, Malaysian Airline System would not have had gone belly up, would they? Here’s the secret recipe that Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao can offer – research and timing – but never about depending on cronyism for financial assistance, let alone applying religion gimmick.
And we’re not talking about days or weeks of research. The VietJet boss says she had spent 10 years researching aviation and meeting the CEOs of different LCC’s like Jetstar, Air Asia and Southwest Airlines. Besides seeing a business opportunity, she also saw it fit to make her airline’s presence felt by staffing its flights with bikini-clad attendants, at least for a while.
VietJet’s first flight was in December 2011 but amazingly prior to her success, Miss Thao made her first barrel of gold in other industries. She earned her first million at the age of 21 by trading fax machines and latex rubber, after which she ventured into trade steel, machinery, fertilizer and other commodities.
Her first adventure in the business world, however, started when she was a second-year finance and economics student in Moscow in 1988. With little money, she received her goods on credit from suppliers in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea before selling them in Russia for profits. And suppliers trusted Miss Thao due to her honesty.
When she returned to Vietnam, she splashed her fortune investing in Vietnam International Commercial Joint Stock Bank and Vietnam Technological and Commercial Joint Stock Bank (Techcombank). Leveraging on Vietnam’s communist government’s market economy, which started in 1986, she filed an application to launch the nation’s first privately-held airline.
After receiving government’s approval in 2007, Miss Thao launched VietJet in December 2011 with flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. In its first 4-year of operation, the airline carried 25 million passengers including 9.3 million in 2015 alone. By 2015, VietJet registered revenue of US$488 million with net income of about US$50 million.
Today, Miss Thao’s 95% stake in VietJet has captured a 40% share of Vietnam’s domestic market. Armed with a fleet of 42 aircraft, the airline flies 28 domestic routes – Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Da Nang, Hai Phong Cat Bi, Vihn City, and Tuy Hoa – as well as 5 international destinations – Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei, Yangon and Seoul.
In conjunction with President Obama’s visit to Vietnam, a historic agreement between Boeing and VietJet witnessed an order for a fleet of 100 B737 Max 200 worth a staggering US$11.3 billion. During the signing, Miss Thao said – “Our investment in a fleet of B737 Max 200 will accommodate our strategy of growing VietJet’s coming international route network including long haul flights.”
To be delivered from 2019 through 2023, it was the largest purchase of its kind in Vietnam aviation history. There’s little doubt that VietJet is set to give the regional airline players a run for their money. But having a large fleet of planes wasn’t the only answer to VietJet’s success. And the Queen of Vietnamese airline isn’t shy about the role played by her fleet of sexy girls.
When questioned about her sexy girls, she has offered the following – “You have the right to wear anything you like, either the bikini or the traditional ‘ao dai’ (traditional Vietnamese loose tunics worn over pants). We don’t mind people associating the airline with the bikini image. If that makes people happy, then we are happy.”
If the sexy bikini attire makes you mouth-watering, or crazily mad, there’re more. The brilliance of the company’s campaign, which boasts the motto “Enjoy Flying!” is further boosted by its very effective marketing tool: steamy calendars featuring the sexy attendants. But you’re wrong if you think the Vietnamese business woman knows only in selling sex for profits.
She also owns 90% of Sovico Holdings, which has a 90% stake in Dragon City, a 65-ha real estate development in Ho Chi Minh City.. Sovico has a 20% ownership in HD bank, with assets of about US$4.6 billion (225 branches and 10,000 employees). On top of that, Miss Thao has majority shares in 3 Vietnamese resorts – Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang, Furama Resort Da Nang, and the An Lam Ninh Van Bay Villas.
Interestingly, what actually inspired her was her admiration on the track record of Dubai-based Emirates Airline. Iron lady Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao wants to turn VietJet into the “Emirates of Asia.” She says – “They have a global vision. Emirates is the airline of a small country that wants to conquer the world. We can build up our cost-effectiveness and provide high-end service.”
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