Mai Kieu Lien, CEO and chairwoman of Vinamilk - Vietnam’s largest dairy producer – ranks 35th in the Asia's 50 Power Businesswomen list of the US business magazine Forbes.
The only Vietnamese woman to be listed, Lien, 58, was described as a dynamic CEO that has built the company “not only into one of Vietnam's most profitable brands but also a respected name across Asia.”
“Dairy promoters have long touted the nutritional qualities of milk, saying it has something for everybody. In Vietnam they have another trump card: Mai Kieu Lien,” the report remarked.
Forbes said that the inaugural Asia's 50 Power Businesswomen focuses on honoring businesswomen who are actively engaged in profit-seeking businesses.
“These women are part of an increasing force in the region’s remarkable economic rise,” it said.
Lien was born in France and educated in Moscow. In 1976, she returned to Vietnam and joined Southern Milk & Café, which is Vinamilk's predecessor, helping to modernize the old state dairy collective. She became chairwoman after privatization in 2003.
In 2010, Vinamilk also received the Forbes Asia’s 2010 Best Enterprise award among Top 200 best enterprises in Asia.
It was the first time that a Vietnamese enterprise to be acknowledged among 151 new others and awarded the title "Best Under A Billion" for small and medium-sized businesses, with capital worth less than $1 billion by the professional financial magazine.
Last year, Vinamilk achieved its revenue target of US$1, a year earlier than expected. The diary producer posted total revenues of VND22.279 trillion, up by 38 percent against 2010.
Vinamilk also passed its target in export turnover, with total export turnovers last year rising 72 percent year on year to $140 million; the highest rate the company has ever enjoyed since its foundation.
The company said it targets to become one of the world’s 50 largest dairy producers with annual revenue of $3 billion by 2017.
VietNamNet talked with Lien after the Forbes released its Asia's 50 Power Businesswomen in March 2012.
VietNamNet: Congratulation! You are the only Vietnamese woman who enters the Asia's 50 Power Businesswomen of the Forbes. What did you feel when you was informed of the news and whom did you tell about the news first?
Mai Kieu Lien: I was completely surprised of the news. Several days ago, a reporter of the Forbes in New York asked for a portrait of mine from my company’s Foreign Relations Department. We asked them why they needed the picture, but they said they were not allowed to disclose the purpose. They told us to be not worried to give a portrait of a businesswoman to a famous magazine like Forbes.
Until yesterday, I didn’t know why they needed that picture. A friend of mine told me the news on the phone. I can briefly describe my feeling at that time by the worlds “very happy”. The first who I called to inform this news is my husband (smile).
When Vinamilk was named in the list of 200 top Asian companies in 2010 of the Forbes, we were not informed ahead of time.
VietNamNet: Among the criteria set by the Forbes, which criterion that you satisfy the best?
Lien: The first criterion is capital, with at least $100 million of turnover. Vinamilk’s revenue is $1 billion.
The second is making profit and being listed on the stock market. Vinamilk is among 15 companies which earn profit of more than VND1 trillion ($500 million).
The third is the leadership and community activities…
VietNamNet: While a lot of companies are in crisis or facing the threat of bankruptcy, your company develops strongly. What is your secret?
Lien: The extremely important thing is creativeness. The more businesses are creative, the bigger success they have.
VietNamNet: Does this title place pressure on you and what does it benefit your company?
Lien: I think that the Vinamilk brand will be known in the world, especially among the community of businessmen.
Pressure is always present to maintain the company’s growth, to meet the expectation of our shareholders and customers.
VietNamNet: Have you ever faced failure and how did you deal with it?
Lien: Previously we planed to expand our business to other kinds of food, not only milk. Multinational groups often do business in various fields, for example milk with confectionary and drink.
We invested in the new products for two years but the new business was not very promising so I sold it. I did not get loss but it was a lesson for me. Now I focus on dairy products.
However, if we find any lucrative product in the future, Vinamilk will re-purchase it for business.
VietNamNet: You have said that your biggest inner wish is developing a dairy cow breeding zone in Vietnam to create jobs for farmers and to not have to import dairy anymore. However, Vietnamese milk producers still have to import powdered milk while farmers have to pour fresh milk to ponds because they cannot sell milk to milk producing companies. What does Vinamilk do to balance its interest and the interest of farmers?
Lien: Many asked me--why I breed cows? I only need to import powdered milk to produce milk products.
Vinamilk began cooperating with farmers since 1990. However, Vietnamese farmers lack capital and land to develop large-scale cow breeds, while we need large-scale production to be competitive in the market.
Vinamilk still shares difficulty with dairy cow breeders by purchasing fresh milk from them at higher prices than the prices paid by milk producers of the US, Australia and New Zealand. Profit from fresh milk products is not as high as others but we still accept it.
Vinamilk has signed contracts with 5,000 cow breeders (around 61,000 dairy cows). In the past, each family had only one or two cows but many of them currently have from 10 to 200 cows. To earn high profit, each family should breed at least 10-20 dairy cows.
To take initiative in material, Vinamilk also has its own cow farms. We recruit excellent students from agriculture universities to send to Russia for training of cow breeding.
We hope to expand our dairy cow farms in the next seven years to be able to be self-sufficient of at least 40 percent of material.
VietNamNet: What is the advantage of a businesswoman?
Lien: Women often pay attention to details. Leaders must be visionary but they also need to be detailed to implement their vision. However, I only pay attention to details of work, not relations.
Secondly, I’m provident about the future. I always assume the worst case and what will we do if it happens.
But the most important thing is that I can unify all members in my company into one block to bring into full play the strength of us.
VietNamNet: How do you balance between your busy job and your family? I’ve heard that your family does not have a charwoman.
Lien: My family is similar to other families. I and my husband were schoolmates. I have two children. The first child is a pediatric doctor who is performing post-doctor research in the US. The second child has a financial degree and has gone to work for several years.
I’m a charwoman at home (smile). We used to be schoolmates so actually I and my husband share everything easily. In the evening, I do both housework and process work emails. While my husband cooks, I clean the house. We do not hire a charwoman but do housework together.
Thank you for the interview! Wish you to lead Vinamilk to become a world famous brand!
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