Vietnamese beverage giant nourished by founder’s timeless vision

By Van Pham   December 12, 2019 | 11:00 pm PT
Tran Qui Thanh, CEO and founder of the Tan Hiep Phat Group, envisions a business that will be run by generation after generation. 

Tan Hiep Phat Beverage Group (THP) is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Its CEO and founder, Dr. Thanh, is thinking beyond their $3 billion revenue target in the next 10 years. The aim is to make it a business which remains sustainable for at least a century, if not centuries.

Tran Qui Thanh, CEO and founder of Tan Hiep Phat.

Tran Qui Thanh, CEO and founder of Tan Hiep Phat.

Isn’t it too early to consider a 100-year plan since Tan Hiep Phat is just 25 years old?

When we talk about aspirations, we mean our desires for the future. 25 years ago, when my wife and I started out in the beverage industry, we wanted to grow the company to become the top in Vietnam, then in Asia. People thought that was my wishful thinking because at that time I had nothing ... no brand, no product, no manufacturing line, no corporate governance system.

However, we have invested, worked hard and done everything to make that dream come true. We always try to be better than we were yesterday, with the attitude that nothing is impossible. Now that the dream has been somewhat achieved, new aspirations arise. It is my desire that Tan Hiep Phat exists not only during its founders’ time but also through many successive generations, lasting hundreds of years.

Have your ambitions changed compared to the old days when you started the business from scratch?

Saying Tan Hiep Phat has a 100-year vision is much easier now than in the early days when my wife and I had nothing but two pairs of chopsticks, two bowls and a set of wooden planks for a bed. We had to build everything from scratch... brand, team, capital, equipment, management... That was extremely tough.

But I think the most dangerous thing is not knowing why we exist. We must have a purpose, and a great one is to contribute to the society in which we live. If you want to be recognized, you must do something useful for others. As a child, I contributed to the extent an individual can, which justified my existence then. As I matured, and started a company, my goal was more than just gaining social recognition. I wanted to contribute to society through what I do at Tan Hiep Phat.

When exactly did you set the goal of going global?

We do not only want to set grand goals. We want to achieve specific goals with clear, detailed and step-by-step plans. In the past, we installed production lines, opened factories and developed operating systems. Today, we focus on training successors and standardizing the operating system to move forward. Time is the challenge.

If we have talented people, we can grow faster and if not, we will do so at a slower pace. As long as we continue on our path and do not give up, we can achieve any target.

What factors in your opinion will ensure the business lasts over 100 years?

To survive 100 years, enterprises need to focus on developing leadership competency and the successors, who will fulfill the founders' ambitions. At Tan Hiep Phat, we have created a core set of internal values for sustainability.

What are these values?

The most important is integrity; the second is a spirit of ‘nothing is impossible’, and the third is focus on customers’ benefits. Before doing something, we always ask ourselves whether it is right and beneficial to our customers. We rely on our core values to keep staff close to each other. No one is born with talent. Our work and competencies require training.

What do you think of your two daughters, the next generation?

I am very proud of my two daughters, Uyen Phuong and Ngoc Bich. I have gradually transferred responsibilities to the younger generation and moved to advising and training, only tending to strategic activities. 

Tran Qui Thanh and his daughter, Tran Uyen Phuong, Deputy CEO of Tan Hiep Phat. 

Tran Qui Thanh with his daughter Tran Uyen Phuong, deputy CEO of Tan Hiep Phat.

How do you prepare the transfer to the next generation?

The most important thing is the alignment among my colleagues, my successors and I, about Tan Hiep Phat's core set of values. Without it, the succession will be difficult. As for the rest, like processes and methods, it is not necessary to follow my way. The future generations who stand on the shoulders of giants will be more broadminded, and will have had more time to learn and work with leaders. Hopefully, they will make Tan Hiep Phat grow faster.

To plan for the 100-year sustainable development, how have you mentally prepared for challenges and difficulties in the future?

Tan Hiep Phat has reached 25 years, enough time to start nursing a 100-year ambition. During these 25 years, I faced many obstacles. But I feel that’s normal. I’ve always thought that when a ship leaves shore for the ocean, there will be great storms. If it cannot face big waves, it’s better off staying in small ponds. Facing adversities, we find ways to overcome them, that’s what makes it interesting. I think of them as flavors of business. Everytime we overcome a storm and survive, we have grown.

I usually tell the team, and even myself, that whenever we face difficulties, we should not be afraid but look directly at the problem and seek solutions. Fear only makes us lose strength and provides no benefit at all. Even when there’s only 1 percent chance, we still need to try and exploit that chance. Only when we conclude that there is absolutely no chance left, then we move on and stop worrying about it. We take it as a lesson for the future. We should only regret not trying our best despite having resources and opportunities.

But how do you feel when personal mortality can limit the 100-year ambition ?

I do not have a particular feeling about that thought. I have accepted that life is limited. But we can have ambitions which are greater than our mortal life. Hence, what needed is having successors who can pick up the baton pass it onward and keep the relay race going. I expect them to be better.

It’s a pity that I don't have much more time to contribute. I want to tirelessly use all the remaining time to do the best for the organization and society. I encourage employees to exploit all the time with leadership to work effectively. My passion has not affected my health at all. I still work 16 hours a day, sometimes 17-18 hours.

I don't feel like I’m working at all; it's more like I’m playing a game.

Why do you call it a game?

When you do things with joy, you are playing a game. Others can call it 'work' but if you are enjoying it, you are playing. I am participating in a game to contribute to society, to influence and create benefits for hundreds and thousands of people. It is a big, valuable game.

There are many people who make a lot of money like Bill Gates, and in the end they use large amounts of the money for charity, giving back to society. For them, work is like a game. They do not measure success by money. For me, an interesting game tastes both sweet and bitter. Life needs these tastes.

What about your health?

I don't think my life needs to be long but it must be meaningful. Working gives me a sense of living life. When God gives us life and health, we work as a way to repay that gift. What makes me most satisfied is participating in an interesting game, contributing to the organization. It has its ups and downs, favorable and difficult times, but I never give up.

Nowadays, if there is something that requires a lot of physical effort, I must use the collective effort of everyone. If it is something that demands strategic guidance, then I still work on it as usual, even in my subconsciousness. Sometimes matters can be unresolved for a long time, I find a solution to them after a good sleep. I think I still work during my sleep.

What is most important to you now?

The most important thing to me is whether I can do anything new today, and whether I can introduce an innovation today. In the spirit of "nothing is impossible", I always welcome new thinking and new goals. At the same time, I focus on building the team and preparing successors to achieve my ambitions, because I know the business will last longer than my lifetime.

Inside the factory of Tan Hiep Phat.

Inside one of Tan Hiep Phat's factories.

Have you ever thought about passing on everything for your successors to take over?

I have never thought of it that way. If I can delegate, I will and then spend time on other things. I always have ideas. At 66, I am only relatively experienced in life. This is the time when a person starts to be of use. If I retire now and let less experienced people in charge, that would not be efficient. Now is that time that I work most rigorously. If a nation can have a prime minister in his 90s, why would I leave my game so early? I consider work a kind of responsibility, a responsibility for life.

What will Tan Hiep Phat look like 100 years from now?

When we mention Toyota, people immediately think of Japan. I would like that when the name Tan Hiep Phat is mentioned, people will automatically think of Vietnam.

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