Divorce of Vietnam’s coffee royalty gives rise to a new ‘king’

By Lam Le, Nguyen Nguyen   April 15, 2018 | 05:00 am PT
Divorce of Vietnam’s coffee royalty gives rise to a new ‘king’
Coffee beans in the palm of a person. Photo by Reuters
With the multi-million-dollar Trung Nguyen divorce unresolved, the fate of Vietnam’s ‘King of Coffee’ has taken an unexpected turn.

Social media was abuzz in early April when the estranged wife of Vietnam’s 'Coffee King' spoke to the press for the first time about their lengthy divorce. 

Before the relationship took an ugly turn in 2015, Dang Le Nguyen Vu, founder and chairman of Trung Nguyen, had the country and international media in awe as his coffee brand became a household name and subsequently conquered 60 international markets.

Little did the public know about Vu’s wife, Le Hoang Diep Thao, who stayed out of the limelight as she ran the company as its deputy director and minority shareholder, until Vu ousted her in 2015.

What ensued has become a costly legal battle over Trung Nguyen Group’s ownership, and with charter capital of VND1.5 trillion ($65.85 million), each side is accusing the other of obstructing the company’s operations.

A shot of Dang Le Nguyen Vu, CEO of Trung Nguyen Coffee. Photo courtesy of Dang Le Nguyen Vus official Facebook fanpage

A shot of Dang Le Nguyen Vu, CEO of Trung Nguyen Coffee. Photo courtesy of Dang Le Nguyen Vu's official Facebook fanpage

The rise of Vu and Trung Nguyen Coffee

Vu’s was a classic ‘from zero to hero’ story, Forbes quoted economist Nguyen Viet Khoi as saying in its 2012 feature, which first dubbed him Vietnam’s 'Coffee King'. All Vu had when he started the company in 1996 was a bicycle and a strong will, which 20 years later transformed into a company that earned $260 million in revenue, according to Forbes.

But the Coffee King’s influence went beyond his entrepreneurial feats. Vu was represented by Vietnamese media as  a source of national pride, argued Dr Nguyen Thu Giang in her essay Personal Wealth, National Pride published by Palgrave Macmillan, where she analyzed how national television show Contemporaries showcased Vu and many other entrepreneurs as nationalist businesspeople.

According to Giang, Vu’s background of childhood poverty was shared by many viewers, thus allowing them to see a part of themselves in Vu, particularly when he stressed the importance of daring to dream big and trusting one’s creative ideas to overcome difficult situations. 

Coincidentally, or not, Trung Nguyen’s slogan is “Explore Creative Inspiration”, while inspirational quotes and images of famous people, from French novelist Honore de Balzac to Vietnamese beauty queen turned businesswoman Mai Phuong Thuy, grace the walls of its signatory cafes. 

Trung Nguyen’s success internationally was also promoted by the media as the personification of a ‘Viet Dream’ and an inspiration to other Vietnamese in a country that remained largely insecure as it opened up to the world, Giang added. 

Battle of the kings?

As Vietnam’s coffee royalty continues to battle over Trung Nguyen’s ownership, Vu has literally disappeared from the spotlight, ignoring media requests for comment. 

Instead, over the past few months, news has emerged of a another coffee royal, headlined by local media as the new coffee brand developed by ‘Vu’s wife’ after she was ousted from Trung Nguyen: King Coffee. The brand’s instant coffee was already present in 60 markets worldwide before it made its debut in Vietnamese shops last year. 

But Thao was still seen by the media as just ‘Vu’s wife’ until last March, when she agreed to give an exclusive interview to local news site Soha. In the two-part series, she pleaded for Vu to come out of hiding and talk to her like husband and wife.

Thao repeatedly said she needed Vu as a husband and business partner, and their four children needed their father. To her, founding King Coffee was her way of preserving the Vietnamese coffee brand as she fears Trung Nguyen is going downhill. 

Le Hoang Diep Thao stands next to a coffee grinder in a King Coffee launch event. Photo courtesy of Le Hoang Diep Thaos official Facebook fanpage.

Le Hoang Diep Thao stands next to a coffee grinder at a King Coffee launch event. Photo courtesy of Le Hoang Diep Thao's official Facebook fanpage.

Media reports following the interview said that Trung Nguyen is “doing well”, without naming their source, and many saw Thao’s claims as a direct attack on Vu and the brand. 

“What’s the point of ‘tearing apart’ Trung Nguyen like this, who benefits,” asked respected economist Pham Chi Lan in an interview with Lao Dong newspaper. “Whatever happens, Vu and his colleagues should continue to focus on preserving and nurturing Trung Nguyen for the coffee bean, for the Central Highlands, for the country’s agriculture, for millions of Vietnamese, just like he has always done.”

Thao, however, said she’d never want to compete with or take down what belongs as much to Vu as it does to her.

"It took me two years to bring it [King Coffee] to life, and I consider it my child. My first son was named Trung Nguyen. I don't plan to compete with Trung Nguyen! King Coffee is aimed at realizing my dream of building a strong made-in-Vietnam coffee brand. I want Trung Nguyen to continue its success together with King Coffee,” she told Forbes.

She repeated the message in a recent interview with the Khaleej Times after King Coffee officially entered the Dubai market. In the article, which called Thao a Coffee Queen, a cover picture shows her smelling the aroma of the beans wearing a traditional dress from an ethnic minority group in the Central Highlands, the country’s most famous coffee region. 

Thao also spoke about her coffee background and her will to support Vietnamese farmers, who collectively are the world’s second largest coffee producers. 

"I was born on a coffee plantation,” she told the Khaleej Times. “Every day was spent in the company of coffee growers. My parents were coffee growers too, and they taught me everything about coffee.” 

Comments on social media that show support for Thao often came from women who sympathize with her. Explaining the issue, Dr Giang told VnExpress International: "Many Vietnamese mothers that I talked to liked the (Soha) interview, possibly because they could see a part of themselves in Thao, who presented herself as the virtue of sacrifice and care. They might also enjoy the sentimentality that comes with this husband-and-wife drama”

Amid the million-dollar divorce drama, Thao has emerged unlike the typical story of a successful businessman leaving a trophy wife. Whether Thao will become a new role model for Vietnamese women as “excellent in business, responsible at home”, as she presents herself on local media, remains to be seen.

But in a country where women are expected to stay behind and support their husbands; where women remain outnumbered by men in managerial positions, Thao has already managed to stand out. 

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