Globally, Vietnam may not be synonymous with coffee but making it so is the task of TNI Corporation, which owns the popular King Coffee brand. In this interview, we speak with TNI’s CEO, Ms. Le Hoang Diep Thao, who discusses her company’s plans to bring King Coffee global and gives her insight into Vietnam’s coffee industry and its potential to “enrich” the nation’s economy. From her position as one of the nation’s top female CEOs, Ms. Thao also discusses the strengthening role of women in the Vietnamese economy and explains more about the innovative ‘Women Can Do’ initiative, an empowerment program which aims to support the establishment of 100,000 female-run SMEs in the country.



Where do you see the best opportunities for King Coffee in the global marketplace?

Vietnam is the world's largest exporter of top quality robusta. Moreover, we’ve had a unique culture of enjoying coffee for hundreds of years. Therefore, we believe that coffee can enrich our economy and bring great pride to our brand, King Coffee, and to our country.

My ambition is to make the coffee industry one of the key sectors of the Vietnamese economy. Globally, we are aiming to develop King Coffee into one of the top ten coffee brands in the Asian market as well as one of the key players in the agricultural industry of Vietnam in the next five years.

As Trung Nguyen Group’s co-founder with over 24 years of experience building up Trung Nguyen and making the G7 brand famous all over the world, I have a strong belief that the new and best opportunities for King Coffee are in the global market.

If coffee grows to become a major industry of Vietnam, I believe that King Coffee could be an excellent representative of Vietnam's coffee industry all over the world. It would also help our coffee farmers achieve greater prosperity and enshrine coffee as a part of our history and culture. We want to use coffee to shape the Vietnamese brand like Italy has shaped its brand with pizza.

 

As you grow the King Coffee brand internationally, what are the key challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?

As you can imagine, the coffee industry is one of the most competitive fields with a lot of players compared to other industries. Thus, we’ve had to face several challenges due to such a vibrant market and fierce competition.

The first challenge we had to face was how to produce standardized premium coffee products at a mass scale to serve the emerging middle class in the Vietnamese and international markets. The second one was that in a highly globalized world and with an international drink like coffee, how could we provide our customers with the three most important things: convenience, flavor, and value. Our success today has been proven to be our best strategy.

Taking G7 as the starting point: It was in 2001, after a trip to Germany, that I realized the value of the instant coffee market. We immediately started experimenting with our first instant coffee product. I knew this task would require a robust marketing campaign to compete against one of the most popular brands of the instant coffee market in Vietnam which had nearly 60% of the market share at that time. In 2003, I created an in-house marketing plan. At the center of this campaign was an event in which we invited 20,000 people to downtown HCMC for a blind taste test. The results were amazing. 89% chose G7 over Vietnam’s biggest selling instant coffee brand at the time.

At that moment, I knew we could launch the brand using a marketing campaign that promoted the authentic taste of Vietnamese coffee and the convenience of our products.

Now, with my new brand King Coffee, I have decided to focus on the unique quality and amazing flavour of Vietnamese coffee according to the highest international standards. I believe that this strategy has helped us to promote our new product successfully.

 

The coffee industry globally, but particularly in Vietnam, is often seen as highly volatile. Price fluctuations are common and this can have huge impacts on producers. How does TNI mitigate against this impact on its own operations but also ensure it supports primary producers?

A lack of raw materials (fresh coffee beans) could create a crisis in the global market. This is a high potential risk and has been planned for. The issue of "material security" is not only a problem for coffee processing and exporting enterprises like us, but also affects the value of the country's export turnover.

In Vietnam, the coffee market in Q3, marking the end of the 2019-2020 harvest season saw the global harvest yield an estimated 169.34 million bags. This represents a decrease of 2.2% compared with the previous harvest season.

The 2019-2020 harvest season was very difficult for many entrepreneurs who were facing droughts, storms and floods, and the COVID-19 epidemic. Despite the shortage, Vietnamese coffee prices have remained low, and Vietnam still mainly exports raw beans. This is the segment that has the lowest value in the value chain due to the global coffee market. It’s because of this that there is a need for a price and subsidy mechanism for coffee farmers to create a sustainable and fair-trade product.

The project "Happy Farmers" was started with the desire to help the people of the Central Highlands learn new techniques in production, stabilize farming, and ensure social security. It focuses on subsidizing the purchase price to increase the economic benefits of coffee farmers.

 

Can you break down for us what the ‘Women Can Do’ initiative is and what inspired you to establish it?

In the early years of the Doi Moi period in Vietnam, at Trung Nguyen, we rapidly developed, supporting many farmers, workers and customers to build stores and sales systems, giving them business knowledge, thereby becoming key leaders in Vietnam with a strong commitment to society.

This year, due to the impact of the Covid epidemic, up to now, more than 78,000 businesses have closed. The number of unemployed people is nearly 1.2 million people. These numbers made me think a lot and I urged myself to do something for my country like what we did for Vietnam 20 years ago.

‘Women Can Do’ is a part of the 4.0 ecosystem in which we exchange experience and knowledge and learn from each other. In concert with the Vietnamese Women's Union, ‘Women Can Do’ connects 22 million women in its network, supporting 100,000 women to start their own business.

The goal is to set up 100,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) after the COVID epidemic crisis ends. This is considered the best solution for an early recovery for the economy. It will also create new jobs and reduce unemployment. The female participants will start with us from the smallest of businesses and grow better and bigger together.

When women have jobs and are financially independent, they take control of their lives and that is what I am most passionate about.

 

Do you think gender plays a significant role in the business world in Vietnam? And if so, why?

One of the best qualities, in my opinion, in fact, the predominant characteristics of women are tolerance and softness. Tolerance is when they overcome the toughest pain and obstacles. We call it experience.

We like to say that the sea is wide open and can accommodate hundreds of thousands of rivers. With tolerance and intellect, it gives us enough strength to overcome all challenges in the most resilient way.

In my opinion, businesses in Vietnam have had an increase in the proportion of female business leaders. This point is encouraging, and we should expect even more dramatic change with the participation of women in the business leadership, not just in the private sector.

 

Vietnam leads many of its SEA neighbours when it comes to women in senior management positions. Why do you think that is?

In Vietnamese culture, the concept of the ‘mother’ is very sacred. A Vietnamese mother can be both tolerant and brave, soft and strong, good at caring for her family but also great at work. In our history, Vietnamese women are also famous for their heroic personalities. They are always engaged and dedicated to their families, and treat their nation with the strongest love and most valuable actions to make society better and more equal.

I am fortunate to be born and educated in a respectable feminine family. My mother was a very successful businesswoman and I have inherited her most wonderful traits. Looking wider to see better, I understand that a government with policies to respect, protect and create comprehensive development conditions for women can create a higher ratio of female leaders in higher ranking positions. This will help to attract foreign investors to Vietnam.

 

The rise of industry 4.0 is presenting a vast spread of opportunities for businesses in all industries to make their operations more effective and efficient. Thinking about new technologies, where do you believe TNI can get the best value for money?

King Coffee has an extremely extensive product portfolio from instant coffee to ground coffee to roasted coffee to premium coffee lines to the dynamic new generation Ready-To-Drink (RTD) coffee. Every single step has always been based on modern technology. Technology plays really an essential role in our product processes.

For example, recently King Coffee RTD Coffee, our new product, has been launched in the market based on the pioneering Applied ASEPTIC Sterile Cold Extraction technology. By launching it, we have contributed to bringing the art of enjoying Vietnamese coffee to a new group of consumers, creating trends and changing the way modern Vietnamese enjoy their coffee anytime, anywhere.

Additionally, based on modern technology, I believe that we absolutely can help the Vietnamese coffee industry by educating farmers about water recycling and waste-reduction techniques, installing advanced drip irrigation systems to reduce water consumption, providing better services, and fair-trade solutions and so on. I believe this technological investment can maximize our profits.

 

COVID-19 lockdowns dramatically and rapidly changed how people work. What challenges did this present for King Coffee and how did you overcome them?

Coffee is an essential food. Whatever happens, the demand for coffee continues to maintain and grow year by year.

This year, the Covid epidemic is a sad picture with a double crisis affecting all aspects of our life. This forces everyone to live differently, learn differently, think differently and play differently. We can't change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust the sails to always lead the boat to its destination.

In my company, I guaranteed that all of my employees kept their jobs and continued to contribute to King Coffee. I did not reduce our staff, but called for cooperation and understanding to get through the difficulties together. I highly appreciate their understanding and cooperation during this time.

King Coffee chooses to preserve its internal strength, from our health to our current values, ​​to create a strong foundation to successfully meet upcoming opportunities and challenges. Despite such economic difficulties, we have launched the aforementioned “Women can do” project and in cooperation with the Vietnamese Women's Union are supporting 100,000 Vietnamese women to start their own business.

Besides that, we are going to join a project with the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association to build national strategies to improve the situation for all links in the Vietnamese coffee supply chain and increase awareness of the advantages of Vietnamese Coffee.

King Coffee continues to create smarter and faster and more dynamic approaches to seize opportunities and to move forward sustainably. We want to inspire society to get stronger after the pandemic. We feel that if all enterprises take this approach then there, our society will recover more quickly and better than before.