Vietnamese airline CEO soars onto global female billionaires list

By VnExpress   March 9, 2017 | 03:00 pm GMT+7
Vietnamese airline CEO soars onto global female billionaires list
VietJet Air CEO Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao speaks behind a model of a VietJet aircraft during an interview in her office in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Reuters/Kham

The VietJet Air founder is the only Southeast Asian representative on the self-made women billionaires list.

The founder of Vietnam’s rising budget carrier VietJet has made it onto a global list of self-made female billionaires.

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, VietJet CEO, was one of 56 names on the World’s Self-Made Women Billionaires List released by Forbes magazine for International Women’s Day on Wednesday.

More than half of the women on the list hail from Asia. Thao, 46, is the only Southeast Asian representative, with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion.

Thao founded VietJet in December 2011, betting that she could disrupt an industry dominated by a nationally owned carrier.

That promise became a reality soon after the carrier went public on February 28. On Monday, or in less than a week, VietJet shares hit VND137,400 ($6.03) each, valuing it at $1.8 billion, ahead of Vietnam Airlines at $1.7 billion.

Thao started her career trading commodities in Eastern Europe and Asia after studying economics and finance in Soviet Russia in the 1980s. She returned to Vietnam around 10 years ago and began investing in banks before turning to real estate projects in Ho Chi Minh City and resorts in central Vietnam, Forbes reported.

She said she always had the idea of launching a low-cost airline as she had predicted that demand for air travel in Vietnam would soar.

“I have always aimed big and done big deals,” Thao told Forbes Vietnam. “I have never done anything on a small scale. When people were trading one container [of goods], I was already trading hundreds of containers.”

She studied the models of other budget carriers such as Southwest, Ryan Air and AirAsia and launched her own one year after a plan to open a joint venture with AirAsia fell out. Thao and her husband own a majority stake in VietJet through their firm Sovico Holdings.

The “bikini” airline, nicknamed after its unique yet controversial promotion scheme of putting female crew in bikinis on some flights, now offers 300 flights a day, or more than 40 percent of the country’s flights, with a fleet of 45 jets.

Thao told Bloomberg in an interview a year ago that she has plans to make VietJet a global airline.

“We want to make VietJet the Emirates of Asia.”

Thao said the rapid ascent of her business has not been easy. “I studied and I did my research. It was a lot of hard work, and to be successful you need to be passionate about the business that you invest in,” she told CNBC.

Forbes’s billionaires list expanded from 42 women in 2016, with first entries from Vietnam and Japan. The women on this year's list hold combined wealth of $129.1 billion, surpassing $100 billion for the first time.

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