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Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao in flight to become Vietnam’s woman first billionaire

The four-year-old Vietnamese airline VietJet is poised to become the nation’s largest carrier, while its founder will join the ranks of billionaire women if a planned initial public offering is successful.

Airline executive Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, one of Vietnam’s most powerful women, makes no apologies for images of bikini-clad models on the sides of her airplanes and on company calendars.

“We don’t mind people associating the airline with the bikini image. If that makes people happy, then we are happy,” Thao said.

The marketing strategy along with liberal fare discounts seem to be working: the four-year-old Vietnamese airline is poised to become the nation’s largest carrier this year, while Thao herself will become Vietnam’s first woman billionaire if a planned initial public offering is successful.

Recognized by Forbes as one of 20 most powerful women in Vietnam in 2016, Thao, 45, grew her business from modest beginnings.

Started business trading equipment and clothing in Moscow

As a college student studying finance and economics in Moscow in 1988, she began to trade clothing, office equipment and consumer goods obtained with credit from Japanese, Hong Kong and Korean suppliers.

She made $1 million in three years and moved on to trade in steel, machinery, fertilizer and other commodities before returning to Vietnam and invested in Vietnam International Commercial Joint Stock Bank and Vietnam Technological and Commercial Joint Stock Bank (Techcombank).

Anticipating that Vietnam’s communist government would launch a market economy, which it did in 1986, she filed an application to launch the nation’s first privately-held airline that would compete with the state carrier, Vietnam Airlines.

Airline launched in 2011

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao

After receiving government approval in 2007, Thao launched VietJet in December 2011 with flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. The airline carried 25 million passengers in its first four years of operation, including 10 million in 2015 alone, an increase of 70 percent from the year before.

VietJet reported revenue of $488 million in 2015 with net income of about $50 million.

The airline, which has captured a 40 percent share of Vietnam’s domestic market, has set a target of 15 million passengers in 2016, driven by expansions that will be funded by a planned initial public offering, according to CAPA Centre for Aviation.

Five international destinations

VietJet, with a fleet of 42 aircraft, currently flies 28 domestic routes, with destinations including Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Da Nang, Hai Phong Cat Bi, Vihn City, and Tuy Hoa, as well as and five international destination – Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei, Yangon and Seoul.

The airline is considering additional domestic routes in 2016 as well as adding flights to Japan, China, and possibly Hong Kong in 2016 plus additional destinations in Korea and Taiwan.

Thao owns 95 percent of the airline she founded.

Holdings include resorts, bank share

She also owns 90 percent of Sovico Holdings, which has a 90 percent stake in Dragon City, a major real estate development near Ho Chi Minh City. She also has majority shares in three Vietnamese resorts – Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang, Furama Resort Da Nang, and the An Lam Ninh Van Bay Villas.

Sovico also has a 20 percent ownership in HD bank, with assets of about $4.6 billion, 225 branches and 10,000 employees. Thao sits on the board of HD Bank.

Initial public offering could raise $1 billion

In an initial public offering (IPO) later this year, Thao is expected to sell about 30 percent of the company at a valuation of more than $1 billion.

The IPO will fund expansions that CAPA projects will enable the airline to overtake Vietnam Airlines as the nation’s largest carrier. Vietnam airlines carried 17.4 passengers in 2015, compared to VietJet’s 15 million.

The IPO “should help fund the rapid expansion of the VietJet fleet,” CAPA said. “This will result in further domestic market share gains and a larger international network.”

VietJet bought 26 aircraft in 2015

CAPA said the airline would likely reach a milestone of 100 aircraft by 2021.

VietJet signed significant fleet acquisition deals in 2015, including a commitment for six aircraft at the Paris Air Show in June and a 20 aircraft deal at the Dubai Air Show in November.

Meanwhile, as the airline grows, its bikini-themed marketing is not expected to change, including bikini-clad attendants dancing in airplane aisles when new routes are launched.

Thao believes the images are empowering in a culture that was long highly restricted.

“You have the right to wear anything you like, either the bikini or the traditional ao dai,” she said, referring to the traditional long tunic worn over loose pants.



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