Jos Langens (JL): Good afternoon, Mrs. Mai Thanh. We are happy that you have accepted this interview to share your experience with us, which can be a source of inspiration for not only the young Vietnamese but also to all of us.
Mai Thanh (MT): Good afternoon, Mr. Jos Langens. I like the purpose of the interview and I think that it is my responsibility to share my experience in order to inspire young people to develop their career.
JL: When you look at your childhood, which things have formed you as you are now?
TM: My father was a communist and he was not home for most of the time. During my childhood, I spent most of the time with my mother so I mainly got the influence from her. This means that I had a normal childhood. But what I can remember is that even when I still was very young, I already had the habit of doing even the smallest things carefully, trying to do them as the best possible way.
JL: Did you dream of becoming a successful business woman as you are today, already when you were young?
MT: No, not at all. When I was in high school, I liked mathematics, chemicals and physics. However, I did not finish high school because I joined the army in the South to make medicines in the revolutionary camps. In 1973, I was sent to the North. In the North, I studied 2 years of medicine and then in 1976, I went to Germany to study air conditioning mechanics.
JL: Why did you want to continue studying?
MT: Coming back to school after the war was always my dream. I wanted to study to have knowledge to work well.
JL: Why did you choose to study air conditioning mechanics?
TM: I did not choose it myself. In Hanoi, I did study medicine for 2 years. So my desire was to continue with medicine in Germany. However, the government decided that I should learn air conditioning so I followed this decision. At that time, hardly anybody could imagine that Vietnam might someday need air conditioners, because at that time Vietnam was still very poor.
JL: How did you find the life in East Germany?
TM: I found that life in Germany was very interesting. I did learn a lot during the time there, not only in terms of knowledge but also in terms of relations. Besides studying as the main focus, I also joined several activities outside the university life. I was the chairwoman of the Youth Organization for all Vietnamese people living in a part of East Germany. This organization comprised of not only students but also workers from Vietnam. My task was to support all members to have a convenient and happy life in East Germany. For example, when a new Vietnamese came, I would explain to him/her how to organize his/her life there and other important things to know
JL: You said that you learnt a lot from Germany. What specific things did you learn from Germany?
TM: First of all, Germans are always on time. For example they never come late to school. Secondly, they always keep their promises. If they say something, you can trust them on this, take their word for it. Thirdly, Germans are very disciplined. If you are sick, you have to go to the hospital. You cannot simply stay at home and say that you are sick. It is this discipline that makes it possible for a country like Germany to produce the best mechanical products in the world, like cars for example. Therefore, I think that I am very lucky to study mechanics in Germany. I brought back all this knowledge about quality and attitude back to Vietnam to apply in REE later on. I think that this surely helped me to become successful with my company.
JL: After coming back to Vietnam, did you immediately became the CEO of REE?
TM: No, I didn’t. I started working as an engineer in one of the two factories of REE at that time. REE was still a state-owned company and did not have a separate air-conditioner factory at that time. We produced ice for the fishing industry in one factory. In the first 5 years, I worked as an air-conditioning engineer.
JL: Was it very common at that time that women worked as engineers?
TM: In the factory, there were a few women. In general, I did not find it a problem. I did get along well with most of my colleagues. In the role of an engineer, as always I alsotried to do all the tasks in this job, even the smallest tasks, with all my heart, without thinking much whether or not it was within my responsibility or if it would be beneficiary to me. I did not only focus on my own work but I also checked work processes to find out any problem and to propose solutions to my superiors. For example, I found out that the delivery was not going well, so it was imperative to find a solution for this problem first. Another issue, for example, was that we lacked several accessories and spare parts and equipment for mechanic industry at that time. So we had to think hard to find substitutes like using engines to run air compressors. I always had this pro-active approach to solving problems.
JL: When do you think was the turning point in your career?
TM: In 1986, the starting year of DoiMoi in Vietnam, like any other state-owned company, REE was in a difficult situation. We did not have any second-hand machines in the warehouse because the government did not allow to import second-hand machines to Vietnam. We also received less subsidies from the government and had to cut down our staff to survive. I proposed solutions for many problems to the director business initiatives like for example how to collect money from our clients, I even wrote down a new procedure for that. However, he told me that it was difficult to implement this new procedure. One day, he called me and asked me if I could manage the company. He felt that he could not adapt to the new situation any more. The reason they asked me to manage the company was probably the fact that I always proposed many (new) solutions and ideas to the management. This must have been appreciated as I was rewarded by becoming the director.
JL: You have been very successful in leading REE. What are the key points that made you different from your competitors?
TM: At that time, building strong team that understood the business well was one of the first and most important actions that I took. I often had meetings with my staff and discussed many issues with them. I always let them make their own (long term) plans. It’s important that our staff understand very well our products and our markets. It is not that our competitors did not listen to their clients’ requirements or didn’t make any plans, set targets and priorities but I think that they were not so persistent in realizing them or sometimes even dropping them in the middle during the course of implementation. When we had a strong team, the next step was to arrange more funding for our company (which was still a State Owned Enterprise) to enable us to realize our plans.
JL: How could you mobilize enough funds to grow the business?
TM: As I told you, in the late 80’s and 90’s, it was difficult to find funding so we decided to import second-hand refrigerators from Japan and sold them in the Vietnamese market to make money. However, it was not a long-term solution. We also moved from mechanics to M&E for big projects but as a main business activity we could not make a lot of money in a short time from this. Therefore, the only way we could think of to raise enough money in the shortest time was to privatize/equitize our company. In general, state-owned companies take too much time in their decision-making process, which is too slow for the investment process (e.g. to acquire sufficient fundings for their activities).
JL: REE was the first state-owned enterprise that was privatized/equitized in Vietnam?
TM: Yes, it was. I myself was very active in advocating the process of privatization in Vietnam. In fact, it has been proven that after equitizing, the company grew very fast and was very successful. Nowadays, we have expanded in four areas: M&E, industries, property and finance. REE M&E provides contracting and engineering services to commerce, industry and civil projects. REE Industries manufactures and distributes air-conditioners, electrical products and house-hold goods for the domestic and international market. REE Property develops residential and office properties for sale or lease and REE Finance invests in public companies.
JL: In this highly competitive market, you have to compete also with foreign players, what are your success factors?
TM: The market has taught us a lot. We always try to learn from the feedback from the market and adjust very quickly if necessary. This feedback you receive through your staff so you should listen very well to your staff. It’s important that you learn from every situation, we have learned from every bid that we made, not only the successful ones but also the ones in which we failed. Learning is essential to improve our products and services. Besides this, we are still focusing on building strong teams. Every year, we give evaluation forms to all our employees to understand their (dis)satisfactions, concerns and desires.
JL: Building a strong team seems to be one of the most important success factors for REE. What are the criteria when you hire new employees?
MT: They must have some basic qualifications, but the most important is their attitude. They should be hard-working. For some positions, they should also have some sense of business.
JL: Do you have any advice to young people who just started their careers? Should they study a lot at school or should they learn from their real working experiences?
TM: A basic study like completing a bachelor degree is enough. After that they should work to learn from real life. Business is eventually about good relations. Relations will bring you business opportunities. Therefore, I think that the generation within the range of 35-45 years old can contribute most to the company. They are mature and have established a network of relations already.
JL: Do you think that you were a born leader, or is it something that you have learned?
TM: Both. Partially, I think that leadership is an in-born character trait. Partially, I think that I learned it from my environment. I believe that people can learn a lot from each other if you give them the opportunity to speak out and if you truly listen to them. In fact, I think that you can learn from anything that you do. I even learned from reading novels. Even a novel can teach you about life. My advice is to be open to any experience and learn from it. After you learn from others, try to apply it to make new things.
JL: Thank you very much for your sharing.