Corporate guests in Vietnam are usually offered coffee, tea or fruit juice. But when Mai Kieu Lien receives visitors in her towering Ho Chi Minh City office, they are plied with Probi. It is a yoghurt drink that her company started making in 2008 to ward off competition by the popular Japanese probiotic beverage Yakult.
“Probi,” she smilingly tells them, “is good for the digestive system and provides strength.”
It and other fellow products have certainly empowered the 58-year-old. Forbes this year named her as among “Asia’s 50 Power Business Women”.
Two years earlier, the American magazine had paid a tribute to Vinamilk, Vietnam’s biggest dairy where Lien is both chairperson and chief executive officer, bestowing on it the Best Enterprise Award out of a shortlist of “Top 200 best Asian enterprises”.
“I felt very happy and proud at the announcement,” says Lien. “Mostly for the company, because this means more people will know about Vinamilk. It will make the company’s reputation stronger in Vietnam and worldwide, which will lead to more business opportunities.”
In the 1970s, no one could have guessed that the humble milk would build Lien’s formidable career one day. Medicine was the family’s forte with both her parents being doctors. Following the turmoil in Vietnam, they were living in Paris where she was born in 1953. When Lien was four, following President Ho Chi Minh’s call to the Vietnamese living abroad to return home and help build the nation, the family came back. However, when she graduated from high school in 1970, instead of studying medicine, she went to Moscow to learn meat processing and dairy technology.
“At that time, Vietnam was in a very difficult situation because of the war,” she says. “Every year, a few meritorious students were sent to developed countries to acquire new knowledge and technology so that later they could contribute to the country’s economic development. I realized Vietnamese lacked essential nutrients due to the underdevelopment of our milk industry and I decided to major in dairy technology and make it my career.”
It was an apt decision. When she returned to Vietnam six years later, she was employed as an engineer at the Southern Coffee-Dairy Company, a subsidiary of the state-owned Food General Directorate. It had just two factories in operation then but during the 1990s, after several transformations and mergers, it was formally renamed Vietnam Dairy Company, coming under the direct management of the Ministry of Light Industry. Finally in 2003 it became a joint stock company – Vietnam Dairy Products, popularly known as Vinamilk.
Along with the company, Lien’s stature too underwent a series of transformations. Directly involved in each manufacturing process and coming up with innovations to improve technology and product quality, she was promoted to vice-director at the age of 34 and general director at 39. In 2003, when Vinamilk was privatized, she was elected chairperson and subsequently appointed CEO. This March, she was re-elected for another five years.
So now she has set herself a new target. “I am going to put all my efforts into developing Vinamilk as one of the 50 largest dairies in the world by 2017 with a revenue of $3 billion,” she says. “In 2011, with $1 billion revenue, (a 38 percent increase on 2010) we were the 68th.”
Last year saw Vinamilk’s export turnovers rising 72 percent year on year to $140 million, the highest since the company’s inception.
“At first, we exported our products to a few countries through government programs (based on bilateral relationships),” says Lien. “Today, we export to more than 15 countries, including the United States, Australia, Turkey, South Korea and Thailand.”
Vinamilk’s main products are liquid milk, powdered milk, yoghurt and milk-based beverages, soya drink and fruit juice. Though its competitors are formidable names like Dutch Lady, Abbott and Nestle, it holds about 50 percent marketshare, propping its position with a wide distribution network and eye-catching ad campaigns. The launch of its charitable Milk Fund program was announced with the release of thousands of colorful balloons nationwide, which reportedly boosted sales by 167 percent.
Lien’s philosophy is perhaps most felt on the company’s milk policy, compounded partly by a nationalistic desire to see Vietnam become self-sufficient in milk production, and partly to make farmers partners in Vinamilk’s success.
“We collect approximately 450 tons of fresh milk from our farms and farmers daily for our products,” she says. “At the moment, Vietnam can produce only 30 percent milk for consumers’ demand.”
Vinamilk could have easily bought powdered milk from overseas, which would have also been cheaper. However, Lien has set her sights on breeding cows in Vietnam. Vinamilk has five farms at home. It has also signed contracts with about 5,000 cow breeders. In the past, the farmers owned about one or two cows each. Now some have as many as 200. She estimates that each breeder would have to own 10 to 20 cows to obtain a good profit margin and so, her company would continue buying cows to spread profits around.
Her self-sufficiency dream for Vietnam has received two recent boosts. Last year, Vinamilk made its first overseas acquisition, buying stakes in Miraka, a New Zealand dairy processing factory. Next year, Vinamilk’s new $120 million factory near Ho Chi Minh City, to be the largest in Southeast Asia, will start operating. “Our mega factory with the latest technology will allow us to produce 400 million liters of milk per year,” she says.
Besides Vinamilk’s success, Lien also draws satisfaction from the corporate social responsibility projects it runs. The mother of two has been spearheading a scholarship project in elementary schools for almost a decade now, providing almost 1,000 children a year with a stipend of nearly $50 each. It could be peanuts outside the country but is a sizeable sum in Vietnam.
The company also provides lunch milk for underprivileged children in Vietnam through the annual Milk Fund program and in May launched an initiative to plant one million trees in Vietnam in five years.
Though not a trophy hunter, Lien is happy about the Forbes recognition on a personal level because it recognizes Asia’s women as “part of an increasing force in the region’s remarkable economic rise”.
“In Asia and Vietnam, women face a lot of hurdles in their careers,” she says. “From their childhood, women in Asia are taught that their most important role in life is to raise a family, take care of their husband and children, and not favor business over family happiness. Therefore, most of them choose to go in that direction, which (of course) is a very fine thing too.”
However, she is now finding more and more women becoming more independent: “They travel around the world, earn a high degree and achieve high positions in business. This shows that women can do anything they want to. Though women CEOs are still a relatively small percentage compared to men, nevertheless, the number has been increasing and will continue to do so.”
Married to her school sweetheart, Nguyen Hiep, who is with the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, the chairwoman of one of the 15 largest companies in Vietnam however has an equal partnership at home.
“We used to be schoolmates, so actually, I and my husband share everything,” she told the local media in Vietnam. “While my husband cooks, I clean the house. I’m the charwoman at home.”
MAI KIEU LIEN
Chairperson and CEO of Vinamilk
March: Re-elected chairperson and CEO of Vinamilk till 2017
Feb 2012: Forbes names her among Asia’s 50 Power Business Women
2003: Elected chairperson of Vinamilk and appointed its CEO
1976: Joins Southern Coffee-Dairy Company, that eventually becomes Vinamilk, Vietnam’s largest dairy
May 2012: Named one of the winners of the 3rd Asian Corporate Director Recognition Awards 2012 by the Hong Kong-based Corporate Governance Asia magazine
2006: Receives Vietnam’s State Labor Medal
2005: Declared Labor Hero of the Doi Moi Period (the period of reform policies started in 1986)
2001: Receives State Labor Order
Your biggest asset:
My biggest asset, and I think also the company’s, is our employees. They are hardworking, smart and eager to learn new technology. They are proud of the company and despite difficulties in the market and economy, do their best to produce high-quality products.
How does your husband feel about you being more famous than he is?
He was actually the first person to tell me about the Forbes list, not they. He has always supported me in my career and the recognition has not made any change in our personal life at all.
Ever thought of writing your biography?
Though I never had the intention of writing a biography, a Vietnamese publisher collected information about me on their own and published a book, Mai Kieu Lien — the Powerful Asia Business Woman.
Your work philosophy?
Never keep for tomorrow what can be done today.
Born: Sept 1, 1953