Tan Hiep Phat (THP) are not ‘tasting the feeling’  the true ‘David and Goliath’ story of how THP a Vietnamese Green Tea Company said no to Coca-Cola’s $2.5bn offer and flourished into a billion-dollar business.

Rags to riches stories are usually the provenance of fiction. But Competing with Giants (published by ForbesBooks) is the true story of the business success of Dr Thanh and his wife Madam Nu and how they built their company Tan Hiep Phat (THP), Vietnam’s largest privately-owned beverage company, into a billion-dollar business against a devastating backdrop of war, crippling trade sanctions and record hyperinflation. Written by THP’s Deputy CEO Phuong Uyen Tran, the elder daughter of Dr. Thanh and Madam Nu, Competing with Giants is part business text, part recent socio-economic history of Vietnam and part memoir.

It is a modern ‘David vs Goliath’ story and tells how Coca-Cola came knocking at THP’s door with a lucrative $2.5 billion offer in 2012. If Dr Thanh agreed, it could have been the largest merger and acquisition deal in Vietnam’s history.

Instead, Dr. Thanh and Madam Nu said no. They stood up to the global multinational, rejected the money and continued to build their business. For THP, without business mission and vision alignment, there can be no business partnership. Fascinated by the story, I asked Phuong to share further insight into their success and started with the obvious question of why THP had turned down Coca-Cola’s offer. Interestingly, Coca-Cola wanted THP to stop focusing on product development and focus instead on building existing business in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Taking them up on their lucrative offer would have also limited the long-term vision of THP to serve global consumers. It might have been flattering to have been approached by one of the largest global, multinational players but such singularity of belief and vision is admirable:

“It was enormously flattering when Coca-Cola approached THP, and we saw that there was a great opportunity, especially if we can find strategy partners which can help us to achieve [our] vision faster. It means that we can still (and have been) successful without a partner such as Coca-Cola – we don’t want on our success to be reliant upon a ‘global giant’”.

Today THP is Vietnam’s largest privately-owned FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) company and sells over 1.5 billion bottles of herbal tea, green tea, water, soya milk and energy drinks a year to 16 countries around the world so the decision not to accept Coca-Cola’s offer has not adversely affected the fortune of THP.

THP’s key strengths lie in its intimate understanding of local markets and leveraging its local knowledge and expertise. Localisation helped THP achieve a 50 percent market share, making it attractive to Coca-Cola.
THP’s carefully cultivated values-based business culture, international standards of best practice, utilisation of the best technology available and state-of-the-art systems and processes are also part of its winning formula. Expansion beyond Vietnam has been identified by THP as critical to the next phase of the company’s development yet Phoung recognises they must remain true to their core values whilst creating very aggressive plan to grow the business and increase revenue (to $3billion in the next 10 years) which has been fundamental to their success to date:

“Our strength lies in the desire to always improve and develop, and this is something we will take to new markets. But also, as a business we take time to look at our areas of weakness – we always want to improve, to be better, this is something we will replicate globally. We are also very aware that by moving internationally, we need to be more adaptable, flexible to new cultures and ways of doing business – but equally staying true to those elements that have made the business what it is today.”
Phuong Uyen Tran is part of the new generation of Vietnamese leaders, who are leading a New Vietnam onto the global stage.
In Competing with Giants, Phuong seeks to teach others the core values she learned from her parents. ‘Nothing is Impossible’ is key for her and her family. Just like her father and mother before her, with their refusal to compromise their values in the face of both severe hardship and extraordinary opportunity, Phuong shows how we can “create a world where we can live our impossible.”
The four values underpinning the Tran family’s success:
  1. Expectation of Achievement and Rejection of Entitlement: Clear standards of behaviour and achievement, and acknowledgement that joining the family business is not a right, but something to be earned.
  2. Respect for Elders: An Asian value that’s key to business success in any culture. Culture comes from the top and the senior members are responsible for its tone.
  3. Understanding the Second Generation: Second generation individuals have grown up in different circumstances to the first, so it’s important that the first generation understands what motivates them.
  4. Respect for Stories: Stories are how successful companies communicate their core values and mission. They create provenance in business, while also helping family members understand and remember what makes their family unique.
THP’s success also reflects the journey of New Vietnam – fast transforming from being a war-ravaged country with crippling hyperinflation to a prosperous market economy with a growth rate of near seven percent in only one generation. Phuong is also aware that not many of those reading the book will be aware of Vietnamese culture or history and believes that this book is important for those looking to understand more about Vietnam and crucially for businesses to  learn how to operate in the Vietnamese market.
Looking at the values that Phuong cites as being fundamental to the Tran’s family success, they are neither revolutionary nor extraordinary and yet it is their simplicity that makes them powerful. Having values and living them are perhaps two different things. Whilst the notion of respecting your elders is not something new, the third value was intriguing and I asked Phuong what her wish for her children’s future was given that each successive generation would like to improve the lives of the next?
“So as our philosophy, inheritance is to receive the wealth of the previous generation to pass through the next generation with interest.  So what I would love to give to my next generation is their freedom to choose what they would like to do in life.  And to have the desire to impact other people’s lives in a positive way. What I wish for my children is that they have the belief that they can become leaders and live their lives full of freedom.”
From reading the book and Phuong’s responses to my questions, it is self-evident that the core attitude of ‘nothing is impossible’ really does shape everything Phuong and THP is about and, as she continues to stand on the shoulder of giants to bring the giant that is THP to the next level, so I shall watch with interest as to what the future brings… I have a feeling that Coca-Cola may need to be looking over their shoulders for a while yet.
Suzanna Bailes


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