Vietnamese women in bikinis at high altitude. Not the kind of business plan you expect to hear drafted at the better business schools but for VietJet Air, Vietnam’s only privately-owned airlines, it’s led to capturing 30% of the market.
And, for its founder, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, who 25 years ago made her first million at 21 trading fax machines and latex rubber, she’s poised to become Southeast Asia’s first self-made woman billionaire.
The marketing gimmick has earned the company huge profits, and plenty of criticism to go along with it, but Nguyen has not been deterred.
With an upcoming initial public offering of Vietnam’s only privately-owned airline, she should end the day with US$1 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, making her the country’s first woman billionaire.
“I’ve never sat down and calculated my assets,” Ms Thao, 45, said in a recent interview. “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.”
Nguyen owns 95 per cent of the company, according to two people familiar with the shareholding structure, and though she’s well off, she’s lives a modest life.
“She’s not like other wealthy people — she’s quite quiet in Vietnam actually,” said Ms Vo Phuc Nguyen, a Ho Chi Minh City-based analyst at CIMB Group Holdings. “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 Vietnamese budget carrier, which began operations in 2011, flies to 47 locations in Vietnam and across Asia
‘Empowerment,’ not Exploitation
While Nguyen gets her fair share of criticism as an exploiter of women, she takes the opposite stance that the bikini-clad flight attendants represent empowerment within Vietnam’s conservative culture.
“You have the right to wear anything you like, either the bikini or the traditional ao dai,” she told Bloomberg. “We don’t mind people associating the airline with the bikini image,” she added. “If that makes people happy, then we are happy.”