[bizstory] CEO Kim & Kim: Business with enthusiasm, responsibility and passion
[bizstory] CEO Kim & Kim: Business with enthusiasm, responsibility and passion
11 years ago, a young married couple Kim Tae Kon and Nguyen Thi Kim Hanh started their own business by consigning 20 kimchi boxes to the Maximat supermarket on 3/2 street, and now Mr. Kim’s kimchi is available at almost every chain of supermarkets and retailers all over 42 cities and provinces in Vietnam.
During the globalisation of Korean culinary, Mr. Kim’s kimchi attracted the Korean corporation CJ and this M&A transaction was considered highly successful, worth millions of dollar after 5 years of negotiation.
After selling Mr. Kim brand to CJ, Ms. Nguyen Thi Kim Hanh went on to conquer a second start-up with a luxury coffee brand named Yellow Chair Specialty Coffee, which she referred to as the one with a much brighter future and potential.
Could you tell a little about your childhood in Tay Nguyen? How family education has influenced your personality and your way of life?
My father is from Go Cong, he came to Buon Ma Thuot as an entrepreneur in 1967. In 1972, he married my mother in Saigon and took her back to Buon Ma Thuot, we as 5 brothers and sisters were born there in Buon Ma Thuot, the land with basalt soil.
My father is technician and a businessman, my mother has got a double highschool-diploma in Gia Long-Sai Gon, she was working for an elementary school when she came with my father to Buon Ma Thuot.
Like every family in Buon Ma Thuot at that time, my family has always been in love with farming and gardening. My father had to start working when he was very young to learn how to grow coffee and to run a farm.
Having had to take all sorts of job to make a living and to raise us children, my father is very determined to invest in our education. As a businessman himself, he has always had the idea that we have to live with dignity and morals, and that trust always comes first. He taught us to be hard-working at home, he gave his best to support us in school. That idea has been seeded inside each one of us, which I carry with proud until now and ever after.
What was your dream when you were young? What made you change your way
The dream that I had in my childhood was drawn by my parents, they wished me to be a doctor or a teacher, but time was changing and I started thinking of studying Economics or as the trend at that time was “English first, IT second, Economics third and Law fourth” , so I opted for Foreign Trade Economics and English Language Teacher Education. I dreamt of doing business when I was young and thinking to myself if I failed doing so, I would return to the village and work as a teacher there. Though I would not have made much money, I would have had so much love and knowledge. I think I am destined to business by fate.
At the early stages of being entrepreneurs, what failures have you been through? What experience and start-up capital did you have that made you choose the product kimchi?
The reason why we failed at the beginning was because we invested all resources and capital into a campaign that was not suitable at that time (based on market analytics and insufficient information on customer behaviour).
It resulted in having to throw away more than 5 tons of kimchi in the first 5 days and starting over with another 50kg. But we considered it a fortunate start-up because we found a silver lining in it.
What resources had helped us to go for kimchi? My husband is Korean, Koreans bring homemade kimchi with them wherever they go. They shared kimchi with Vietnamese employees, and then we were hooked on kimchi, everyone wanted to eat it. So my husband had to make kimchi by himself, he asked for my help buying the ingredients.
It was his first time making kimchi in Vietnam (his mom made it for him in Korea), so he had to searched for information on how to do it on the Internet and trying to remember how his mom used to make kimchi, then he tried to do it on his own.
As for myself, I eat kimchi everyday and by helping to make it and buying the ingredients, I recognised that kimchi is delicious and healthy.
Observing the ingredients as well as the process of making kimchi, I reckon that this is a culinary culture that is needed to be shared with Vietnamese. That’s how Mr. Kim’s kimchi was born.
What were the most memorable difficulties that you have struggled to create Mr. Kim’s kimchi brand?
We started in a lab on a terrace in district 3, which was also the working office for my husband and his e-commerce team.
During 3-4 months of researching, we had to stay up until midnight fermenting the vegetables to figure out the best ingredients and the best kimchi.
Then there were the deliveries of the kimchi that we drove ourselves, all the calls that we made to the students, who were working part-time to get the feedbacks from the consumers on the first sampling campaign for 3 months long.
I can never forget the contributions from my team during the hard time that we had been through.
With kimchi being considered the soul to Korean culinary, what can be done to increase the content of gray matter and domestication right here in Viet Nam?
Kimchi has existed for many thousands of years and the fact that the Korean have been eating kimchi until now without making any change to it only emphasises the essence and culture of Korea. As a matter of fact, there is a kimchi city in Korea and the World Institute of kimchi, where tourists all over the world come to visit and research.
We were fortunate to become the marketing representative for the Institute in South East Asia and received a lot of support in technicals and studying of different regions. The Institute also conduct research on Vietnamese pickles, fermented aubergine and fermented mustard greens.
Coincidentally, Vietnamese and Korean culinary are very much alike. As a woman who is passionate about cooking, the pros and cons as well as the similarities are obvious to me so I can combine the local ingredients and culinary culture into kimchi. I know well what dishes are perfect for Vietnamese people and what they like eating.
Did you have to search every corner of Da Lat to find sources of ingredients and suppliers, to ensure the quality of kimchi? What are the problems from the cultivation, distribution and transportation that increases the price of Vietnamese agricultural products in comparison with that of the world, while the quality is not homogeneous?
I have directly worked with many co-operatives, hundreds of farming households, and many merchants in the land of vegetables Da Lat to seek stable and high-quality ingredients for kimchi. Therefore I was told about the difficulties of transportation and the problems of the seedlings,... how to safely preserve them in time.
Everything from fact that the price of nursing tree and the seedlings is basically higher than that in Korea and other countries, to the lack of capital, lack of propaganda against pest and imported fertilizer and manure that has increased the cost of cultivation.
Finally there are the conditions of transportation,the difficulties of the mechanisation of the preservation process for farmers, bad traffics and low-level infrastructures which in turn have to be compensated by the labor force hence the increase of price.
Then the stage of transporting from farm to factory is confronted with many obstacles, causing the price of Vietnamese agrarian products to be higher than other countries with similar conditions.
In your opinion, what can be done to solve the problem of the price of vegetables, potatoes and coffee,..?
This is still a big question for for the government’s management system and the reflection of our people, which require the help from the leading agency and industry to pioneer.
More than ever, we must co-operate with international associations to learn and to be more creative, so we can keep up with the advance in science and technique of cultivation along side with the positive and hard working spirits, while the government should give the best support aiming to prioritize to invest in agriculture.
After all these years of hard work, why did you decide to sell your brand to CJ? In your opinion, what are the things to keep in mind to get an optimal result for an M&A transaction?
I chose to sell because I considered my brand as a grown and strong one and it required big corporations that can provide it with even better conditions to grow.
An M&A transaction is considered optimal when there is a mutual understanding between the two parties, so it requires a third party to sort things out, whose role is like that of a moral referee, who has insights of international laws and humanism.
Do you have any worries about the penetration of international corporations into Vietnamese agriculture, aliment and retail markets that cause a flooding of foreign products? What challenges have been set for Vietnamese firms on their home ground by this situation?
Many Thai financiers have come to Viet Nam to buy up big retailer brands such as Metro, BigC, Nguyen Kim, Sabeco,.. which is inevitable if we can not stand our ground.
Thai people are geographically next to us, we have a lot in common and mutual understanding so we find it easy to accept and love them. For instance, Thai Product Fair takes place every year in Viet Nam for many years yet now it still attracts many participants and shoppers meanwhile Vietnamese Product Fairs are perishing.
We have to review our ways of gaining trust from the customers - Vietnamese consumers to be specific.
For the past 2 years, through the introduction of my friends, acquaintances and associations, I have got the chance to meet many Thai corporations which visited Viet Nam to explore the market with thorough support from the government and the Investment and Trade Promotion Center of Thailand.]
Everything from their approach, manner, their business culture, to their attire and the presentation of products are very methodical.
It is only nature that we lose when our products are owned by others. But when it comes to our home ground and competing against imported products, we have to re-examine the business strategy: packaging, model, service and approach to our own Vietnamese customers.
That being said, domestic firms have to struggle a lot from the government support structure, administrative formalities and taxes, which in turn increase the costs of production compared to other countries without these obstacles. In addition of commercial agreements, foreign firms are allowed to export with lower tax rates and lower costs.
However, we should not blame on others nor should we be afraid or become less passionate and enthusiastic but instead try to research better products and export to countries like Thailand, Cambodia or Laos, or even establishing factories in these countries to supply materials and ingredients from Viet Nam.
For me, there is always an answer to every question.
At this point, why do you decide to launch a second start-up with luxury coffee for the upper class?
Coffee is a diverse and interesting culinary culture, which was introduced into Vietnam from the West and has developed for almost 2 centuries (since 1887).
The further I go, the more I learn about coffee. And over time I realize that coffee is “a remarkable discovery” which the upper class, the diligent and passionate people need as a reward for themselves as a way of enjoying life. It is the art of living that has existed for thousands of years.
In your opinion, how will this trend progress in the upcoming future? What challenges will it confront the Vietnamese coffee growers, distributors and manufacturers with?
From my speculations, Specialty Coffee will develop very fast and there will be a 10-20% increase of coffee growers and consumers in no time.
The challenge here is that we have to adapt our ways of thinking, preparing for the exports of raw coffee beans to manufacturing high-quality green coffee beans, so that not only does it meet the standard requirements but reaching the Specialty level.
In order for that to happen, coffee growers and distributors should learn from the world about better and more advanced manufacturing methods that are based on the principles and knowledge of international institutes from all over the world, gradually specialising in coffee bean species, being honest about their origins and preserving the ancient species with high-quality.
Professional abilities to taste and roast coffee beans must also be upgraded according to international standards.
Spending most of your life exploiting local natural resources, how can you combine the power of technology and gray matter to take Vietnamese agrarian products to the next level?
We are the members of the International Coffee Organisation and Specialty Coffee Association, we never stop learning and practicing to enhance professional abilities through orthodox degrees and classes. We also have insights into self-researching on the manufacturing and roasting of coffee as well as barista.
Do you think this is a good path for Vietnam in the future?
Viet Nam is the second largest country in the quantity of exported coffee, but the quality of coffee beans have not been selected carefully enough to compete with those from other famous regions.
The world is moving on from commerce coffee to specialty coffee in order to get the best quality coffee beans and coffee drinks. The question is that will Viet Nam stay out of this trend or seize this opportunity to reach a higher position?
Have you ever been discouraged by the obstacles and adversities that come with agriculture? What helped you through them all to conquer mountain to mountain?
There have been more discouragements brought about than I can remember. But adversity brings wisdom so I happily keep going on my path with sincerity, responsibility and passion.
It is the customers and the developed products coming out continuously that have been my strong inspirations and my constant source of moral support.
Can you tell a little bit about your husband - the companion who has been by your side through all difficulties and the one who gives wings to your own dreams?
He is the kind of person that gets back on his feet to deal with problems. He is an optimist and he knows what his destiny is.
All hardships appear to be trivial to him, even when he chose to come and settle in Vietnam - his second home.
We have this ambition of doing everything together, more than 10 years I have helped him to do business Vietnam and we have earned the love and trust of Vietnamese consumers and foreigners living in Vietnam.
Nowadays, coffee industry is among the key industries in Vietnam, we are switching from exporting raw to refined coffee beans, introducing to the world a new perspective of Specialty Coffee with international standards through unique researches and creativity.
It is a fundamental way of business that attracts coffee lovers to come and explore.
In your opinion, what is the character and culture of the Korean that contribute to such development nowadays, despite the same starting point as Vietnam?
What I admire about them is that their actions speak louder than words, they get down to business as soon as possible, that is how they figure out what is wrong and fix it as well as coming up with new ideas.
Koreans are not worn off by difficulties, they get back on their feet and willing to start over no matter what time.
Their goal is to keep moving forward and staying optimistic, confident in their hard-work and learning of technology developments and constant updates.
They love newness but also respect and preserve their national character with proud and seek to uplift that value in a solid, humanistic way.
There are many Korean firms making history that I really admire such as family business corporations Samsung, Hyundai,...
Up until now, they have been family business firms for generations and they have put Korea on the world’s map.
What would you like to share with young entrepreneurs about agriculture, an industry full of risks and challenges?
Remember to hold hands to share information, knowledges or even merge and cooperate to create strength. But you must start with passion, big enough ambition and commitment to do it from the heart.
Always take responsibilities and be creative, have an open mindset and enhance your abilities to reach out to the world, you don’t necessarily have to work in the domestic market.
Both being businessmen up to work all the time, how do you manage to balance between work and happiness?
Exiting a big brand, we had to start over with new ways of thinking and deeper thoughts and experiences. We are very responsible with our community, especially the young entrepreneurs one.
Then with The Yellow Chair - Specialty Coffee, we created a sophisticated yet humanistic and elegant space for coffee as a way to balance our lives.
Here we can talk to customers as friends without the hustle bustle.
We have to balance the lives of our customers as well as we do to ourselves. That is why we exist - to create a remarkable discovery and bring amazement to our customers for a solid development.
What do you want to enclose in your coffee shop model that you are pursuing, to make it a source of inspiration for Vietnamese culture and its products?
When doing coffee business, our new coffee-lover customers or our frequent kimchi customer for many years always remember us for doing business with our heart.
At the coffee shops or showrooms, we always have stories to accompany our products we created, ranging from culture, good habits, manners, sincerity, great passions, and a deep understanding of customers in the art of culinary.
The Yellow Chair - Specialty Coffee is a line of subtle, outstanding specialty coffee for the ones who know to enjoy and love life through every details, from the choice of cups, glasses, to the space and the music, the manner and the share of knowledge of the art of coffee.
And the proud comes from within “the Yellow chair - the Rocking Chair - a relaxing chair - the dream of many Western businessmen coming to America after endless days - the color yellow of the Asian prosperity with noble, moral cultures and manners.
Customers feel a sense of complete relaxation when stepping into The Yellow Chair and are fully still in mind to enjoy the essence of coffee roasted and concocted by baristas.
All of Vietnamese and the world’s coffee history is simulated and it inspires the coffee lovers from all over the world.
Thanks for your share!