Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao

Cofounder & chairman, Sovico Holdings

$1.2 B

Vietnam’s first self-made woman billionaire took her budget airline, VietJet Air, public in February 2017.

She launched the airline in 2011 and made a big splash early on with ads featuring bikini-clad flight attendants.

Nguyen got the idea to launch a low-cost airline while she was a trader, when she predicted that demand for air travel in Vietnam would increase.

The airline, which offers 300 flights a day, operates more than 40% of the nation’s flights.

She also has investments in HD Bank and real estate including three beach resorts.

After studying economics and finance in Soviet Russia in the 1980s, Nguyen got her start trading commodities in Eastern Europe and Asia.

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


In December 2011, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao launched Vietnam’s first budget airline, betting that she could disrupt an industry dominated by a nationally owned carrier. Just five years later, VietJet Air, which went public last month, operates more than 40% of the country’s flights and boasts $1.2 billion in revenues.

VietJet’s success has made Nguyen, its CEO, Southeast Asia’s only woman billionaire, and one of just two billionaires in Vietnam. She is one of 56 women on this year’s FORBES World’s Billionaires list who built their own ten-figure fortunes; more than half of them hail from Asia. Nguyen, who is 46, appeared on the list with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion. FORBES currently pegs her fortune at $1.7 billion.

After studying economics and finance in Soviet Russia in the 1980s, Nguyen got her start commodities in Eastern Europe and Asia. She returned to Vietnam a decade ago and began investing in banks before turning to real estate projects in Ho Chi Minh City and resorts in Central Vietnam.

Nguyen got the idea to launch a low-cost airline while she was a trader, when she predicted that demand for air travel in Vietnam would increase.

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

Nguyen researched the models used by budget carriers such as Southwest, Ryan Air and AirAsia. She got a license to start VietJet in 2007, but high oil prices delayed the launch. In 2010, Nguyen entered into a joint venture with AirAsia. When the plan failed to get off the ground, she launched on her own the following year. Nguyen and her husband, entrepreneur Nguyen Thanh Hung, own a majority stake in VietJet through their firm Sovico Holdings.

The airline grew quickly. Early on, VietJet attracted attention with controversial ads featuring bikini-clad flight attendants. It capitalized on Vietnam’s growing air transportation market, which expanded by 29% between 2012 and 2016, and inefficiencies on the part of its main domestic competitor, Vietnam Airlines. By its second year, VietJet was turning a profit.

The airline now offers 300 flights a day, including 63 local routes and dozens of international ones, and operates 45 jets. Since it went public on Vietnam’s stock exchange on Feb. 28, the company’s shares are up 47%. More than 35 million passengers have flown with VietJet. The company recently ordered more than 200 aircraft worth nearly $23 billion from Airbus and Boeing.

Now Nguyen h

as even bigger plans, and the competition will get stiffer. “VietJet aims to be an international airline, not just a local one,” says.

Nguyen doesn’t think her entrepreneurial success is a matter of instinct. “Some say that anything I put hands on will be profitable. But I don’t think it’s that simple,” she told CNBC. “There’s no easy path to success. 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.”

 

 

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