From humble plantation origins to a coffee empire spanning 60 countries, how Ms Thao came to be one of the most important coffee magnates in the world.
It may be called King Coffee, but do not let the name fool you. The chairperson and CEO of Vietnam’s burgeoning coffee brand, Le Hoang Diep Thao, is more a queen than a king.
With a valuation upwards of US$60 million and thousands of Vietnamese farmers as beneficiaries of her benevolent reign, she is building a model of coffee cultivation that demands more than just good PR. But Ms Thao, as she is respectfully referred to by her ever-present aides – and who was recently in Dubai to promote the King Coffee brand and sign an MoU to begin distributing it in the UAE – was not always coffee royalty. Her rise is inextricably tied to her origins and she makes it a point to never forget that.
Coffee in her blood
“I was born in a coffee plantation,” says Thao. “This is why coffee is so important to me. It is in my blood. I have lived around coffee all my life. Every day was spent in the company of coffee growers. My parents were coffee growers too, and they taught me everything about coffee.” Her early life, filled with curiosity and a deep sense of connection to the land, helped define a very different type of leadership style for today’s coffee brands – one that highly values the people who helped her succeed: the farmers.
“King Coffee would not be around if it weren’t for the dedicated farmers who grow and produce the finest coffee in the country,” says Thao. Vietnam is currently the second-largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil. Today, it accounts for between a fifth and a quarter of the world’s total supply. In many aspects, Vietnam is like the new kid on the coffee grind, especially when it comes to processed coffee. Robusta, as opposed to the more ubiquitous Arabica beans, is the staple. And it is Robusta beans that get exported as raw materials to other countries, to eventually be blended with Arabica beans to create the best coffee blends. Thao is quick to explain the importance of Robusta beans, and its preference over Arabica in Vietnam.
Robusta vs Arabica
Most of us who start our day with coffee breathe in the aroma of roasted Arabica beans. But what gives coffee body and depth of flavour is Robusta. “In Vietnam, we know the health benefits of Robusta beans, which is why we use more of it in our coffee. Arabica is good for aroma, but is too bitter and acidic by itself. This is the reason they blend Robusta with Arabica to get the perfect blend,” says Thao.
But the Vietnamese have perfected the blending process, creating a Robusta-dominated coffee blend that produces a delicious cup of cà phê dá – traditional Vietnamese black coffee – that is unique and unlike regular coffee found the world over. When made correctly, its syrupy consistency is closer to Turkish coffee, but devoid of its characteristic bitterness, supplanted by a chocolatey mocha richness. In other words, it is very, very good.
The road to independence
Ms Thao was a ‘Mrs’ until recently. Her soon-to-be ex-husband, Dang Le Nguyen Vu, better known as chairman Vu, is the founder, general director and president of the Trung Nguyen Group. Forbes Asia once dubbed him the “coffee king”, but his is a diminishing rule, detached from the farmlands. They had been together for more than 20 years, with Thao’s role in the company – by many accounts, the largest coffee roaster and retailer – being to oversee international operations. When the divorce is settled, she is likely to walk away with quite the alimony, but she has no intention to compete with Trung Nguyen.
“I named the company King Coffee after Forbes Asia called Vu the ‘coffee king’. It is my heart and soul. I want to make it a strong and internationally recognised coffee brand, proudly grown and produced in Vietnam.” But most of all, Thao is committed to developing the local coffee industry. “Helping the farmers grow the best quality coffee beans is most important for me.” Her Happy Farmer initiative ensures that coffee growers gain access to better facilities, clean water and services like education and healthcare. “I may not live on the farm anymore, but I am still connected to the land I was born in, and I know what it is like to be a farmer,” she notes.
Thao’s current ambition is to pick up where she left off at Trung Nguyen. She wants to tap into the international market for Vietnamese grown and produced coffee. She already has two factories, where coffee products, from creamers to single-serve instant coffee sachets carrying the King Coffee name and logo, are made. King Coffee currently exports to 60 countries, but markets like Europe, Africa and South Asia remain untapped. “For me, Dubai (UAE) is a very important market. It is the gateway to Africa, Europe and India. We want to take Vietnamese coffee to the whole world, and this is a major step towards that goal. We want to eventually see big franchises like Starbucks and Costa Coffee serving Vietnamese King Coffee,” she says.
By Rohit Nair, firstname.lastname@example.org @ khaleejtimes