Creating Robust-a Empire
Le Hoang Diep Thao
Vietnam’s coffee baroness, visionary entrepreneur, and co-founder of Trung Nguyen Coffee and G7 and founder and CEO of King Coffee, Le Hoang Diep Thao launches her autobiography ‘The Queen of King Coffee’ at Expo 2020 Dubai Vietnam Pavilion. With more than 25 years in the business, she is not only creating waves with her brand worldwide but is also spreading the goodness of Vietnam’s national treasure – coffee, and fighting for the rights of farmers, especially women
For me, coffee is more than a morning ‘eye opener’. It is an essential part of my daily routine. Always has been. Growing up back home in India, coffee was the solvent that flowed through our cultural celebrations of togetherness, during all times of the day. The beverage has trickled down generations in my family and become an important part of our life.
So, it was only natural that I would be intrigued to meet another enthusiast who has had coffee play an equally important part in her journey. So what if she comes from Vietnam — the world’s second-largest coffee producer and largest producer of Robusta beans, accounting for about 60 per cent of the global output in 2019-2020. As far as I’m concerned, we share the common thread of caffeine pulsating through our cultural veins. The fact that as a woman she had risen on her own was doubly inspiring. I was equal parts intrigued and inspired to learn more.
Vietnam’s reputation can partly be attributed to the work of its quintessential coffee producer — a name to reckon with. She is the queen of King Coffee, which is also the title of her autobiography. Le Hoang Diep Thao has been instrumental in creating the ‘third wave’ in Vietnam of imbibing coffee meetup culture at cafes as an affordable leisure activity. Thao is among Vietnam’s foremost women leaders, whose autobiography talks about her extraordinary story of how her business rose from a rural coffee stall in the 1990s, to a global empire exporting Vietnam’s much-in-demand Robusta to more than 190 countries worldwide.
The autobiography, released in Dubai to mark the Vietnamese coffee industry’s increasing ties with the Middle East, is the first major business autobiography of a Vietnamese entrepreneur ever released in English or Vietnamese.
As the first volume to share detailed management lessons and explore the life history of a Vietnamese business leader, it offers readers around the world insights into Vietnam’s coffee industry, lessons in building a business, and paints a picture of post-war Vietnamese culture against the backdrop of the global coffee trade. Moreover, the book will engage readers’ curiosity to try the taste of Vietnam’s robusta coffee.
Ever since the French planted the first tree 160 years ago, coffee has been a part of the country’s Central Highlands region. Vietnam found a niche in the international market by focusing primarily on the less-expensive Robusta beans, which contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans, giving the coffee a more bitter, richer taste. This is where Thao identified a tremendous opportunity to create an ecosystem where King Coffee not only provisions the best beans but also regulates how the coffee is grown, culturally connecting Vietnam to the world and selling the best coffee worldwide. Today, she has created a global value for the brand with distinct flavours and great affordability.
On a Highland
For Thao, her business journey began with the launch of Trung Nguyen Coffee Group in 1996. For more than 25 years, her detailed strategies have aimed at two outputs only: First, promote Vietnam’s delicious Robusta beans globally; and second, give Vietnamese coffee farmers, who for ages have suffered under low rates for their produce in the international market, fair pricing.
With such lofty ambitions, what began as one coffee stall in Vietnam in the late 1990s for the company has expanded to more than 20,000 cafes within the Asian nation — and now King Coffee has launched international franchises both in South Korea and the US. In 2003, Thao founded the instant coffee brand G7 and today, it has risen to become the biggest instant coffee brand in Vietnam. In 2015, the Trung Nguyen International (TNI) business was established with its headquarters in Singapore.
“In 2016, we launched the TNI King Coffee because I realised that it was a good time for global expansion. I wanted to spread the culture and taste of Vietnam to the world and show them the way we enjoy our coffee. With Vietnam being the second largest coffee producer, this brought an opportunity for us to ‘conquer’ the market with pre-made mix and fresh coffee products. Today, TNI King Coffee is present in the US, Singapore, China, South Korea, Russia and the Middle East.”
She added that TNI King Coffee has an advantage. “If you see, none of the biggest coffee brands have their own coffee plantations and here we are, sitting on the world’s best coffee in Vietnam.”
Having visited more than 35 countries during her tenure in the business until date, Thao has spoken to many coffee connoisseurs who are stuck on Arabica, opening their eyes to the wonders of Robusta beans.
She said: “Everywhere I go, all I hear is Arabica. But a perfect cup needs both Robusta and Arabica. Across the globe, every second coffee drinker is drinking Robusta, but they don’t know it yet. This is what we want to bring to the fore.”
Thao, who recently accepted a world record award in Vietnam for the quality of its Robusta, believes that this is good news for the country and the bean variety that has always come second to its bête noire Arabica.
Thao believes that the global recognition she has received for her efforts will raise the brand of Vietnam and Robusta. She said: “This award will also help farmers get their due pricing for their great product. This is my mission in life.”
A champion of women’s rights
To those who know her, Thao is a legend in her home country. She has been instrumental in conducting many CSR activities in Vietnam for the progress of the farmers, especially women. In 2020, she was elected vice president of the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association and was also awarded the ‘Most Admired Entrepreneur in Vietnam’ by a UK magazine. In the same year, she founded the ‘Women Can Do’ project to help 100,000 Vietnamese women become entrepreneurs. She also established the Happy Farmers Fund to help coffee farmers. But she has seldom spoken about her achievements and her role as a benefactor.
In the new book, Thao writes: “The average foreigner may not know much about my country as it is today, and they certainly won’t know anything about me. Many Vietnamese readers will have a preconceived notion about me, which is entirely untrue. In the pages of this book, I hope to show the Vietnamese people my view of the events that shaped my life.”
Talking about her role to encourage other women, Thao admitted: “Even in this day and age, women don’t get their dues even though they are on par with men in their work output. My book provides an insight into how women can create their businesses and take charge, be it in their homes or an organisational setup. Women can multitask well and I have all the insider secrets for them in my book. I encourage everyone to read my book because those are my life lessons.”
An affordable cup
Who doesn’t like to wake up to a strong smell of coffee? Robusta gives you that lucid awakening. Although bitter, superior quality Robusta is much stronger and tastier than the average cup of Arabica. Thao revealed that the group’s strategy is to provide the best coffee at an affordable price. Even as a go-to luxury brand, King Coffee wants to reach every consumer across the globe and fortify the position of Vietnamese coffee. “Sitting on top of the coffee chain with international recognition means that we can promote the best quality.”
This is the exact reason why Thao has also branched out King Coffee to many retailers in the Middle East. She believes that a market like Dubai that is so cosmopolitan, yet cultural, can cater to King Coffee. “I am so amazed at how the UAE has turned things around in the Covid-19 era. It is commendable. As we are looking at opening more franchisees worldwide, this nation is definitely at the top of our list.”
King Coffee caters to every taste. Whether it be the elite with premium luxury products or the wrap-and-go concept for office goers and youngsters.
Add coffee to your daily routine: Thao advises
She is not just the coffee queen of Vietnam but is also an avid coffee drinker. Thao drinks as many as five cups a day, sometimes even more. She attributes her flawless skin and long hair to Vietnamese coffee. “It’s magical,” she said.
So how did Thao manage to turn her passion into an empire? If you want to know more about the success of the gifted businesswoman and a guide to starting your own business, grab your copy of ‘The Queen of King Coffee’, now available in e-book edition on Amazon at https://amzn.to/3supFpt.