Conversation with Vietnamese billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong

Thứ năm - 07/02/2019 23:06
Conversation with Vietnamese billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong

Conversations with Vietnamese billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong

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Conversations with Vietnamese billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong - Part 1

Monday, February 04, 2019, 11:05 GMT+7

Pham Nhat Vuong, the chairman of Vietnam’s largest homegrown conglomerate Vingroup, sat down for an interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper to discuss how he has expanded the company’s umbrella from property development to car-making and smartphone production.

Vuong spent several hours speaking with Tuoi Tre about topics ranging from the conglomerate’s new ventures, its attraction of talent, Vingroup’s corporate culture, and his own family and ultimate purpose in life.

2018 was a big year for Vingroup, one of Vietnam’s leading private enterprises in several fields including agriculture, real estate, entertainment, technology, health care, and education.

Just in that year, the conglomerate opened Vietnam’s tallest skyscraper, Vincom Center Landmark 81, in Ho Chi Minh City, introduced VinFast cars in Paris, and rolled out VinFast electric motorbikes.

It also began building VinUni, a university on a par with international standards, and released Vsmart smartphones on the domestic market in December.

During the first part of the interview, Vuong explained why Vingroup chose to expand into new and unfamiliar sectors, such as technology and education, as well as why he is confident about being able to attract Vietnamese talent currently working abroad to return home and work with him.

Vingroup has made serious steps toward establishing itself in various tech-related sectors by setting up VinTech Technology Development Enterprise, the Institute of Big Data, and the Vin Hi-Tech Research Institute. What motivated your decision?

These things are still a little bit new. Our company leaders always take a week-long holiday together on August 8 – the birthday of the corporation – and again during the Lunar New Year. These trips give us a chance to generate and discuss new ideas, as well as review the conglomerate’s performance in a careful and inclusive fashion.

That time is also used as a moment for us to reflect on the new things we’ve done over the year and how we can do more to benefit society. 

The idea to develop our technology businesses emerged from these reflections. I believe that with our current stature, Vingroup can gather enough talent to ensure success in the tech industry.

In terms of societal contributions, isn’t Vingroup’s involvement in industrial production, chemical-free agriculture, high-quality education, and healthcare enough? Why do you need to step into technology?

Our decision to develop our tech businesses doesn’t mean we will neglect any of the other sectors we’re involved. For our 25th birthday last year, we announced a 10-year plan that will prioritize technology, followed by industry, and then commerce and services.

But placing commerce and services in the third position doesn’t mean we’ll ignore those businesses. We still plan to considerably increase our investments in that sector. Commerce and services generate a major source of income which feeds many of our ideas and new projects. Where will we get money to offset our first losses in automobile and smartphone production if we give those up?

Once we’ve secured our position in technology and industry, we can give a better life to a large number of people. Take poor people and those with modest monthly incomes, for example. If we can give them jobs as workers with technological skills, their salaries will be much higher. However, this is only possible if we create a technological ecosystem. The ecosystem we plan to create is related to AI [Artificial Intelligence] and big data will involve several software companies and contractors that will gradually develop.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to see that our foray into technology was made in the hope of contributing to an improved quality of life for many Vietnamese people. Our motivation is as simple as that.

You’ve managed to lock down several big names to join Vingroup. How did you go about convincing someone like former Yale University Professor Vu Ha Van to join Vingroup as director of the company’s Big Data Institute?

Well, it’s actually very simple. All I need to do is tell them our ambitions and vision. They choose to support us also because they see that we do business in a selfless way that benefits the general public. When they recognize our foresight and see our ability, they are eager to come aboard despite the risks of leaving their successful careers at major institutions.

Could you tell us more about this, or more precisely, about how you persuaded Prof. Vu Ha Van?

When our deputy head of information technology told me about Van’s skill set, I was intrigued. I knew he had just returned to Vietnam and was on a vacation in Da Nang, so I told the deputy head to get down there and make him an offer.

She later informed me that Van wanted to meet in person for more information and I immediately agreed. When Van went here to Hanoi, I explained what we wanted and shared our vision for our technology businesses.

“Do you dare to do it?” I asked him at the end of the talk. “That clinches it,” he answered.

He was so enthusiastic. “I’ve always wanted to do something for the country but haven’t had a chance. Now I can make that come true,” Van told me.

Van is considered a pretty heavy hitter in the field of big data. Are you bringing in any other experts?

Professor Vu Ha Van is just one of the many professors and scientists currently cooperating with Vingroup. The corporation has founded a science board boasting several renowned professors, including:

Professor Duong Nguyen Vu [Air Transport, Air Traffic Management and AI, at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University]

Professor Ngo Bao Chau [Mathematics, from the University of Chicago]

Professor Phan Duong Hieu [Cryptography, from France’s University of Limoges]

Professor Tran Duy Trac [Electrical Engineering, Machine Learning and AI, from Johns Hopkins University]

Professor Do Ngoc Minh [Electrical Engineering, Machine Learning and AI, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign]

Professor Nguyen Thuc Quyen [Biochemistry, from UC Santa Barbara]

We’re also planning to set up an AI institute led by a Vietnamese with a PhD in AI who is renowned in Vietnam and other countries. We also plan to take on several highly-qualified Vietnamese nationals currently specializing in corporate cloud computing for Microsoft who will also work with us in the research and creation of Vietnamese software products that meet international standards. In Professor Van’s Institute of Big Data alone, we are already working with several professors and scientists and plan to continue growing that number.

The desire to do something for Vietnam seems to be a common theme for Vingroup. Do most intellectuals share this wish?

Of course. Vietnamese intellectuals who have lived abroad explicitly tell us they’ve returned to Vietnam not for money, but because they want to make a name for themselves.

The salaries Vingroup offers many of these people are often much lower than what they were receiving abroad, but we give them many more opportunities.

Some experts were doing an awful lot in foreign countries but the credit for their research typically followed foreign authors. They want to collaborate with us so that they can begin getting the credit they deserve.

It’s usually the case that Vietnamese intellectuals living abroad are loath to come back due to procedural restrictions from the Vietnamese government. Could you tell us how you’ve empowered them and facilitated their effort?

We do that in the same way as we operate Vingroup in general. For example, the conglomerate’s subsidiary companies operate completely independently but under strategic guidance from the overarching leadership.

Specifically, when the Vingroup leadership has approved a strategy, plan, financing scheme, KPI, set of standards, or regulation for the entire system, the subsidiary firms put them into practice by themselves.

We only supervise, evaluate, and give assistance if necessary. 

We refrain from directly engaging ourselves in their jobs unless they’re on the verge of collapse.

(To be continued)

Conversation with Vietnamese billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong - Part 2

Wednesday, February 06, 2019, 09:57 GMT+7

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An artist’s impression of Vingroup’s VinUni, currently under construction in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Pham Nhat Vuong discussed Vingroup’s ambition in the tech and education sectors, as well as a little about his private life in this second instalment of a three-part interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

Vuong is Vietnam’s richest man and chairman of multifaceted conglomerate Vingroup, which operates in the fields of realty development, retail, tourism, and auto manufacturing, and smartphone development.

Read the first part of his interview with Tuoi Tre here.

In Vietnam we say “a farmer who sows seeds knows when the harvest season comes.”  If Vingroup’s foray into technology and industry are your ‘seeds’ when do you expect your ‘harvest’?

Well, some of our companies have already started producing software and we expect them to roll out the first programs within the next six months. We also have programs in our pipeline that will take much longer. For example, [director of Vingroup’s Big Data Institute, Professor Vu Ha] Van told me that we can expect our first AI products in two years.

Each of our companies has a planning group and we expect them to use their own initiative to provide an outline of what they hope to achieve over a certain period.

One of the companies is trying to write a program for Vinpearl [Vingroup’s hotel and resort brand]. The hotel system now has nearly 60 software programs to manage its operations.  Each minor task in the system needs a program. It’s very complicated.  We’ve even purchased the world’s-best hotel management software but it still needs to be supplemented with over a dozen other programs.

Right now we have a firm working on a program that will combine the dozens of other programs we use into one.  An advantage that Vingroup offers to software enterprises is its ecosystem of services. Suppose a company writes a program for a hotel.  The first step is for the company to learn how the hotel works and understand its procedures. But if the hotel belongs to our conglomerate, the company doesn’t need to learn anything. They just need to send teams to the hotel. The software and operation teams can interact every day to sort out the inputs, procedures, and outputs. Things run really smoothly that way. We want to build a piece of hotel management software that works effectively for both Vingroup and other hotel chains across the world. We believe our companies will achieve actual outcomes in a maximum of five years.

Vincom is also making waves in the education sector.  Can you tell us more about your VinUni?

This is the undertaking that we’ve planned for a long time. It’s evolved in lockstep with Vingroup’s changes in vision and growth.  While we originally intended to build a good university in Vietnam, it’s now become our mission to ensure it meets international standards. We hope to make it among the world’s top 30 to 50 prestigious higher-education institutions 20 to 30 years from now.


Colleges typically have their own particular strong points, for example exellence in fundamental research, technology, medicine, or business study. What strong points do you expect VinUni to possess?

We want to focus on science, technology, medicine, and business administration.

Is it true that VinUni will be non-profit?

That’s right. If we want to build a prestigious university, we need to take a non-profit approach.  Our own money will be the sole investment.  If we want to build prestige on an international scale, our investment in research should be very large so that the school isn’t disqualified by ranking organizations for not meeting certain criteria.

Where will Vingroup source the capital for this?

To be honest, Vingroup doesn’t have enough money to fund so many large projects. We’ve had to apply for loans and focus on using profits from certain businesses to offset losses in others. The fact that we’re able to take out loans of VND50-70 trillion [$2.15-3.01 billion] speaks to the potential of our projects.

We’ve been talking about big issues. Let’s move on to something more personal. We’ve heard you’re an avid reader.  Are there any particular books you can recommend to our readers and what important lessons have they taught you? 

 It’s true that I read a lot, but my way of reading is very different. I usually take a look at the index to find interesting topics and then only read the corresponding content.  Sometimes I read an article two or three times until I’m sure I’ve understood it.

I loved learning history and reading history books when I was young. My father was very proud of me because I knew the Dinh, early-Le, Ly, Tran and later-Le dynasties [Vietnamese dynasties] very well. But when I grew older, my interest shifted. I loved reading fiction novels during my college years but right now my favorite books are related to business administration and technology. I don’t look for technical details in technology books.  Instead, I try to find trends and reviews on current technologies.

With your position at the helm of such a large business, how do you find the time to read?

It depends [smiling]. If I get home and am not very tired, I read or just watch TV with my daughter before going to bed. My way of working is like this: once I’ve started doing something, I concentrate on it as intensely as possible. I hold a lot of meetings but they last a very short time, typically just 10 to 15 minutes. The maximum length is half an hour. My workload and intensity wears me out by the end of the day.

Do you think reading can turn someone from a good person to a great person?

[Smiling] Your question is similar to the name of a book [Jim C. Collin’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t] that I gave my employees. I’ve included part of its ideas in training sessions because it discusses Vingroup cultural features: disciplined spirit and disciplined thought. It says clearly that success requires disciplined action and thought. The Vingroup culture is built with three values: patriotism, discipline, and civility. These three words are enough.

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma recently visited Vietnam. The admiration many young Vietnamese people have for him made us wonder why they don’t seem to show a similar admiration for you.

I’m only a person who likes to do. I’m a man of few words, even in my corporate meetings. I’m not talkative. I also don’t like making public appearances.  I let my work speak for itself.

There’s an urban legend that you’ve used the same belt for 29 years.  Is it true?

Oh no it isn’t. I think it couldn’t last me 29 years because it’s too old [smile]. But it may be true that I used it for around ten years [Vuong looked down to his belt while saying this.] Its brand name is blurred now. I have the habit of wearing simple clothes since my youth.

Conversation with Vietnamese billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong - Part 3

Vietnamese billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong discusses his past life and ultimate life goals in this last instalment of a three-part interview with Tuoi Tre(Youth) newspaper.

Vuong is Vietnam’s richest man and chairman of multifaceted conglomerate Vingroup, which operates in the fields of realty development, retail, tourism, and automobile manufacturing, and smartphone development.

It has been 17 or 18 years since you first earned fame in Vietnam.  Still, nay wonder: Who is Pham Nhat Vuong?

A citizen [smile]. When I first started my career in Vietnam there was a rumor that I was a Mafia member coming back home from Russia. When people saw that I had no visual signs of being stabbed or anything like that, they started spreading rumors that I was a drug trafficker. When no one found evidence of drug trafficking, rumors began to circulate about my death. Every year there are several rumors that I’ve died!

I’m just an ordinary citizen. I studied in Russia and stayed to work. I started doing business during the third year in college. I rented a room at Dom 5 in Moscow in order to sell goods. The business was in the doldrums. The more I kept doing, the more losses I suffered.

Then I opened a restaurant at Dom 5 and later imported products from Vietnam. Trading jackets was most profitable. At first I made a lot of money but eventually lost everything and went bankrupt because I responded poorly to changes in market trends. After all, I was just a college student with no business experience. I carried a $40,000 debt with me when I left Moscow for Kharkov [now a major city of Ukraine].

What lesson did you learn from that failure?

I learned to react quicker to market changes. I took a lot of blows, but I’m wiser because of them.

What do you think about money?

It’s a means to an end. I never carry any money with me. I borrow it from my chauffeur when I need to buy something.

How important is family to you?

Family is certainly very important.  Family has helped me achieve a balanced life. It can be a source of happiness in old age, when what counts is not how much money you have, but the the people around you.

They are first and foremost your family. Next they are your sibling and friends and those who helped you and you have helped. This is a view I’ve held for a long time. For me quality outweighs quantity.

Are you religious?

I’m deeply relgious. I have a firm belief in the Buddha and Dharma but I don’t follow the formalism. I don’t go to the pagoda and religious ceremonies. I’m not superstitious but my mind always moves towards goodness.

We’ve talked at length about the education undertaking by Vingroup, but how do you educate your own children?

My view is that they have to be hard-working, love working, and strive to improve themselves. Take my first-born son for example. When I lived in Ukraine there was a very wide front garden where I put a truck of bricks in summer. He and his friends moved them from one end to another there and got $100 whenever they finished. They kept doing this for the entire season.

I still always ask my children to work. My youngest daughter, for example, has to wash the dishes and do housework after mealtime.

I don’t force them to follow in my footsteps. They’re allowed to pursue any job they like. I accept their performance and their abilities. If they don’t want to take on my job, that’s OK.

It would be impossible for me to allow my children to destroy this corporation that many people have tried hard to build. Even this man [Vuong pointed to his first-born son, sitting next to him] has to slave over assignments and work in the corporate office. I don’t tolerate laziness.

You’ve chosen to have your son join us.  Why?

My intention is teach him.  This is an opportunity for him to learn by listening to how older people work. As most of the staff members he works with are younger than him, there’s little room for improvement.

What is your goal? Are there any differences between your goals when you were a jacket seller and your goals now?

In this past my concern was livelihood. I worked to earn money to relieve the financial burden on my parents. When I had more money, I wanted a comfortable life for myself and my family. As I grew older, I considered my job as a passion. And now the ultimate goal is related to what I can do for life.

To be specific, now I aim to build good industrial brand name. Hyundai and Toyota can do that. Why can’t Vietnam? The US has Microsoft and Apple. Why doesn’t Vietnam have anything similar?

Even if Vietnam can’t have the world’s best company, it should at least have a company amongst the world’s top five or ten. I really just hope to make the country internationally famous for its brainpower and stature.



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