ICON'S INTERVIEW
Mr. Võ Trường Thành
CEO of Truong Thanh Furniture Company

Jos Langens (JL): Good morning, Mr. Thanh.  We are very happy that you are willing to spend some time to share with us about your experiences which lead to your success of today.

Truong Thanh (TT): Good morning, Mr. Jos Langens. It is my pleasure to have you here today.

JL: When were you born?

TT: I was born in 1959 in Binh Dinh.

JL: Did you dream of becoming a businessman in your childhood?

TT: No, not at all. Things happened quite accidentally. I was a good student of mathematics so I chose mathematics. I did not intend to become a teacher but in 1977, there was a serious shortage of teachers in the country so  I was selected to become a teacher. I did an additional training for 3 months and then I became a teacher. Because my talent for mathematics I think by nature, I am good at technical fields.

JL: What were the factors that made you switch from the teaching to business?

TT: When I grew up , our country underwent many changes. However, life of the people still was very poor. The economic situation at that time urged me to do something useful for the country. I was teaching at that time. I thought that if I continued my teaching job, it was quite ordinary: everyday would be the same.  As a young man, I wanted to do something more than that for the country. Therefore, after being a mathematics teacher for nearly 3 years, I joined the Youth Volunteer Organization to take a more dynamic and challenging job.

JL: If so, where did you learn to do business from?

TT: I think that I learnt a lot from my father as a model. Although he was not a businessman, he was a very dynamic person in his time. He was trained abroad as a mechanic engineer and then he worked for an American firm in the South. I think that I inherited several good qualities from my father as a manager. However, the turning point in my career was that I was appointed to become a director of a state-owned company in wood processing and furniture export at the age of 28. It was special because for the first time, a non-party member had been selected to become a director of a state-owned company in Vietnam at that time. I have learnt a lot about the technical aspect of the furniture industry as well as the business of furniture export in this position.

JL: When did you start your own business? Why did you leave the state company to start your own business?

TT: I left the state-owned company at the age of 33 in 1993. I started a very small business with the total amount of only 3000 USD.  On the one hand, I saw great potentials in the furniture industry, which several big foreign companies started to deploy in the South of Vietnam at that time. On the other hand, I wanted to give myself a new challenge and wanted to put in practice experiences I had accumulated over years working in the state companies. Having experience in furniture export, I immediately oriented the production in the direction of exporting. At the beginning, we only exported one container every month to Taiwan. However, the company expanded very rapidly for the next 6 years; the growth was 300% annually.

JL: Can you explain the factors contributing for this growth?

TT: In 1992, there were very few private companies in Vietnam. They, and Vietnamese in general, had very little experience in production for export.  I had the advantage of having experience of furniture export during the time working for the state company. Actually, we had to compete with state-owned companies only. However, our key to success was the focus on the quality of products right from the beginning. It was not easy to export to countries like Japan, a market with high quality demand as you know. You can only grow in the export market, if you have products of good quality.

JL: How can you manage to have that quality? What did you do to help both your managers and workers to produce products of good quality?

TT: At the beginning, when my company was small, I instructed my staff just by talking a lot with them. I myself studied the requirements from the clients very carefully and thought a lot about the ways to do the work. Then, I spent most of time in the workshop, instructing and talking with my employees.  However, when the company became bigger and bigger, I could not do like this anymore.  Our corporation has a quality policy. We constantly give training about the quality control system to our management staff of the subsidiary companies; and they, in turn, will train their own staff. At the moment, our corporation has two systems of training. One is the training of management skills for our managers and the other is our vocational training for workers. We are not only working with our own internal trainers but also invited those from outside the companies to come and support us in training our staff.

JL: How often does your staff receive training?

TT: About 25 days in a year for one employee on average.

JL: It sounds like training is a crucial factor for quality of your products.

TT: Exactly. It is a very important factor to the success of our business. You are right when saying that it is very difficult to ask workers to finish the products with 100% instead of 80% quality. Many Vietnamese are good at copying something similar at the first look but very few can do it exactly the same, or even better than the samples. My drive is that we have to produce something not only of the same quality but even making it of higher quality. Although we have invested a lot of money in training, it was not immediately effective. We had to provide training constantly for our staff for a long period before training brought out some results. I invited many people with qualifications and skills to work for me. At the same time, I also hired experts from Germany to train our staff. As a result, our quality is acknowledged to be even higher than the European standards at this moment.

JL: Talking about the qualities of a leader and a manager, what are your core qualities?

TT: I think that I have a very strong will as the most important quality. Once I want to do something, I will be very determined to do it even though it is difficult. Secondly, I have skills to learn new things and can apply them into practice quickly to make use of them. I can learn from everybody and everywhere. I also learn a lot from my staff as I spend 98% of my time with my staff.

JL: Do you have any advice for Vietnamese young people, particularly young managers?

TT: Learning and practicing should go together. If you learn knowledge at school and do not practice, it does not work and vice versa. I like soft skills trainings because these skills will support young people in actually putting their knowledge into practice. Nowadays, it is not enough to only have dreams to become successful. Young people should have some plans of how to realize their dreams. In other words, they should set their targets of reachingsomewhere at a particular time in their career paths.

JL: Do you have any advice for young businessmen who want to start their own businesses? Should they  start  their own company or should they first work some years for one or more large companies?

TT: Definitely, they should work for  large companies first before starting their own business. In fact, Vietnam has emerged a new generation of businessmen who have working experience in foreign companies for about 10 or 20 years and after that started their own businesses for the last few years. Without such working experience in those big foreign companies, I don’t think that they can run such successful businesses like they have today. Our economy has a huge demand for good managers. Therefore, young people should prepare themselves at schools and at workplaces to acquire important skills required to become qualified managers. I am sure that they will be highly demanded by any employers everywhere.

JL: Thank you very much.