As the chairwoman and CEO behind Vietnam’s rising King Coffee brand, Le Hoang Diep Thao would be notable enough as a business figure. Her company’s processed beans are reaching 60 international markets, with first-year sales pushing $60 million. A second factory opened with a splash in April, 40 miles from Ho Chi Minh City.
But the backstory is more interesting: She has been separated from–and is now seeking to divorce–Dang Le Nguyen Vu, the man Forbes Asia dubbed the “Coffee King” of Vietnam. Over their 20 years together –although she wasn’t acknowledged in our 2012 story–he built Trung Nguyen Group into the nation’s preeminent roaster and retailer of quality coffee. Thao’s role included oversight of foreign operations–she opened cafes in Singapore, where she incorporated TNI, the parent of King Coffee. When the couple settles their current arbitration and finalizes a divorce, she’s likely to retain a sizable minority stake in Trung Nguyen, whose 2016 revenues, she says, were $260 million.
That earlier success has provided the wherewithal to build her own outfit. Although you can read into her independence at age 44 a divergence in management styles–by various accounts, Vu’s approach to business from his favored highlands retreat has become cerebral and detached–Thao doesn’t treat competition as a zero-sum proposition. “It took me two years to bring it to life, and I consider it my child,” she says about King Coffee. “My first son was named Trung Nguyen. I don’t plan to compete with Trung Nguyen [Group]! King Coffee is to realize my dream to build a strong made in Vietnam’ coffee brand. I want Trung Nguyen to continue its success together with King Coffee.”
For many years Vietnam has been the second-largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil, and today accounts for a fifth of global supply. In 2012, when Forbes Asia interviewed Vu, he was sitting atop an overall Vietnamese export market that had grown to $3.5 billion. Vietnam hasn’t reached that number again as crops were lost due to bad weather and bean prices fell.
Producers like Vu and Thao wrestled with how to maximize the value of Vietnamese coffee absent a strong processing industry. Statistics through the last five years show that 95% of Vietnam’s total coffee output went to raw bean export, with only 5% processed. To exemplify why this matters: Starbucks entered Vietnam in 2013 and introduced Dalat Blend, a Vietnamese coffee brand, to its cafes worldwide. One 250 gram bag is priced at $12.50, or 20 times the price of comparable domestic beans.
Thao met Vu in 1994, when he was still a student in Buon Me Thuot, the capital of Vietnam’s coffee plantations. According to Thao, her family helped with initial funding to open the first coffee shop named Trung Nguyen. The couple married in 1998 and rapidly developed the biggest coffee brand in Vietnam. Thao says she was responsible for day-to-day operations as well as working with her husband on strategy.
After their marriage hit the rocks, the export business was somewhat neglected. This is the breach into which Thao has introduced King Coffee products, launching overseas (starting in the U.S.) before seeking a local market. She now controls two factories, she says–the first in Bac Giang province, in the north of the country, which also produces G7-brand instant coffee. That one opened in 2012 under Trung Nguyen Group. The new plant mainly produces King Coffee.
Amid thousands of domestic players in Vietnam, only a few big names dominate coffee retail: Trung Nguyen (which lately has shops under the Legend name); Vinacafe, now owned by national conglomerate Masan Group; and Nestlé’s Nescafé. In 2012, at its height, Trung Nguyen owned five factories and a chain of 40 coffee shops. Savoring it all, “Chairman Vu” talked a blend of philosophy and commerce in his increasingly rare appearances. (He didn’t respond to repeated recent requests from Forbes Asia for comments about his company and his estranged wife’s businesses. The divorce and settlement have not been finalized).
As the split was exposed in the domestic press in the past two years, Trung Nguyen was losing its edge in the market, closing cafes (including those in Singapore) while its main competitors sought more market share. Thao says this galvanized her to create King Coffee as a premium brand. “I understand the market so well, and I want to develop the local coffee industry,” Thao says. “I want to participate in developing coffee cultivation throughout Vietnam, helping the farmers grow coffee and ensuring the quality of the beans. That’s a long-term approach to this business.”
Thao says she has been working with the government to bolster plantations through direct investment–traditionally farmers have been on their own, growing or not based on fluctuating market and weather conditions. Her goal is to reach up to 30% of total coffee-cultivation land in Vietnam, about 660,000 hectares. She is now vice chairman of Vietnam’s Coffee Association. As her estranged husband withdraws, she is building business and political connections. She accompanied Vietnam’s prime minister and president as part of recent business delegations to Japan and Russia.
Thao says the challenges give her energy. “People say behind a man’s success is a woman. Now [the question is] whether a woman can make her own success when she has to be in front? I have to try!”