Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao made her first million at 21, trading fax machines and latex rubber. Almost a quarter of a century later, she's poised to become Southeast Asia's first self-made woman billionaire, known for putting bikini-clad models on her VietJet Aviation Joint Stock Co planes and calendars.
With the initial public offering of Vietnam's only privately owned airline, Thao is set to have a net worth exceeding US$1 billion ($1.5 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, making her the country's first woman billionaire. The majority of her wealth is derived from her stake in VietJet and her holdings in Dragon City, a 65ha real estate development in Ho Chi Minh City.
"I've never sat down and calculated my assets," Thao, 45, said. "I'm just focused on how to boost the company's growth, how to increase the average salary for my employees, how to lead the airline to gain more market share and make it number one."
Thao said she's planning for VietJet to hold its IPO as early as within the next three months, where it may sell as much as a 30 per cent stake. The carrier is aiming to seek a valuation of more than $1 billion, according to two people with knowledge of the plan, who asked not to be named because the information is private. Thao, who founded the airline, is believed to own 95 per cent of the company.
"She's not like other wealthy people - she's quite quiet in Vietnam actually," said Vo Phuc Nguyen, a Ho Chi Minh City-based analyst at CIMB Group Holdings Bhd. "She's really successful with VietJet. From nothing, that airline now accounts for more than 30 per cent of market share in Vietnam in just over the last few years."
The valuation it's seeking in the IPO will make it more valuable than South Korea's Asiana Airlines or Finnair Oyj. VietJet's revenue tripled to 10.9 trillion dong ($488 million) last year while net income rose to almost 1 trillion dong.
Thao's budget airline flies to 47 locations in the country and across Asia, including Seoul, Bangkok and Singapore. She wants to make the company the "Emirates of Asia", modelling after the success of the Dubai-based carrier that's the world's biggest long-haul airline with flights to about 150 destinations.
The billionaire also owns a 90 per cent stake in Sovico Holdings, a closely-held company that has a 90 per cent stake in Dragon City. She bought the site more than a decade ago in what was a swampy area in Vietnam's economic hub. Thao also has majority stakes in three resorts in Vietnam - the Furama Resort Danang, the Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang and the An Lam Ninh Van Bay Villas.
Thao and her holding company also own about a 20 per cent stake in Ho Chi Minh City Development JS Commercial Bank or HDBank, according to sources. Thao's the vice-chairman of the privately-held commercial bank, which last year had total assets of about US$4.6 billion. The company has 225 branches and employs almost 10,000 people.
Thao's foray into business began around 1988 as a second-year student in Moscow, where she was studying finance and economics. She began as a trade distributor with little money, receiving clothing, office equipment and consumer goods on credit from suppliers in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, and selling them in Russia in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"I worked so hard and earned the trust of suppliers by always being honest with them," said Thao, whose mother was a teacher and father, a pharmacist. "I didn't have much money. They gave me more and more products with longer credit terms."
After making her first million three years later, Thao moved on to trade steel, machinery, fertiliser and other commodities.
She returned to Vietnam and invested in Techcombank and Vietnam International Commercial Joint Stock Bank. She later applied to run an airline in anticipation the communist government, which adopted a market economy in 1986, would open up the industry to compete against state carrier Vietnam Airlines.
VietJet is known for its young and attractive flight attendants who wear bikinis on inaugural flights to beach locations and featured similar models on its calendars, which Thao says are empowering images in Vietnam's conservative culture.
"You have the right to wear anything you like, either the bikini or the traditional ao dai," she said, referring to the traditional long tunic worn over loose pants. "We don't mind people associating the airline with the bikini image. If that makes people happy, then we are happy." VietJet will probably surpass national carrier Vietnam Airlines as the nation's biggest domestic carrier this year, according to Capa Centre for Aviation. Vietnam is expected to rank among the world's 10 fastest-growing aviation markets in the next two decades, according to the International Air Transport Association.
"You have to take the lead and take calculated risks," she said. "As a businesswoman, I have a responsibility to contribute to the economy and to push for positive changes of the country and in the society, in light of the international integration that's happening."