Vietnamese business leader places emphasis on sharing, avoiding luxuries, and mentoring young people
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
Though he heads a company with 52 subsidiaries and a workforce of 20,000, Mai Huu Tin revels in the fact that he always flies economy class and does not employ helpers to do housework.
Mai is chairman and CEO of U&I Investment Corporation in Vietnam, a conglomerate that operates businesses across eight sectors including real estate, agriculture, logistics and financial services.
The 48-year-old said the group’s name reflects its corporate ethos — “you and I”. “It means whatever we do, we want to share. I believe in joint efforts, in working with others and sharing,” said Mai, who was in Singapore to speak at an international conference in April.
Mai has always adopted a people-first approach since he established the business in 1998. “Of course you need to see if a business can make money. But people are the key. Any idea, without people to implement it, means nothing.”
His strong sense of civic-mindedness stems from his background. Mai said his family lost everything in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.
The family struggled to make ends meet — like many others at that time in Mai’s home province of Binh Duong, north of Ho Chi Minh City — “in the late 1970s and early 1980s”.
Martial arts, specifically vovinam — an ancient sport of fighting and wrestling unique to Vietnam — taught him how to stay motivated. The training also inspired him to practice meditation from the age of 14, and taught him to share his accomplishments with others.
The inclination for sharing inspires Mai to fly economy class, regardless of the length of the flight. “I think if I can save that money for some poor family, then that is something I should do,” he said.
Among Mai’s proudest achievements is U&I’s growth. Its success has enabled him to develop an efficient system to manage the business.
“We operate in eight industries, and I have a vice-chairman helming each industry group. Reporting to them are managing directors in charge of each subsidiary.
“I have some finance and human resource directors and some assistants. In total, I directly manage less than 15 persons. It’s been working well,” he explained.
As company head, Mai feels his most important role is to motivate his team to become leaders.
“This has been my motto from the beginning. I’ve been lucky to find many competent young people I can train and work with me. That’s how we grew the business.”
U&I began operations as a consulting company, on the back of Mai spending a decade working in state-owned companies and the government. While there, he had picked up knowledge about foreign trade and law.
As the country started opening up, Mai was introduced by his then-colleagues in the government to foreign investors who wanted to set up shop in Vietnam. His English language skills gave him an advantage.
“We helped (foreign investors) as investment consultants. Later, because of their needs, they asked me to build factories and so I set up the property arm to help them build or broker.”
It led to the formation of a construction company that allowed Mai to build good quality buildings while keeping costs under control.
Next came the need for accounting and auditing services — so he set up a financial services arm. The group’s growth was “quite organic”, he said.
Two decades later, Mai is proud that there are some partnerships and friendships that have stood the test of time.
As a young man, Mai never aspired to be an entrepreneur. He wanted to become a lawyer. “But, when I worked for other people, I thought I could do better if I became the boss myself,” he said. So, Mai decided to run his own business.
“Since then, it has been a one-way street. I have never looked back.”
Recalling his legal ambitions, he noted: “I use law every day in my business.”
Mai revealed that U&I works with companies from China, citing the country as strong in the “support industries”. He purchases raw materials such as veneer, plywood and paint from China for his furniture production subsidiary, and also sells the finished wood products back to clients in China.
“I see China as a huge market that has a lot of requirements that Vietnam can meet.”
U&I is also the exclusive partner of the Dole brand of bananas in Vietnam, which the company exports to China.
Mai is unaffected by the politics between the two countries, noting that in business “the whole world is your partner”.
“Of course, there are things we are not happy about. But people to people, partner to partner, we are improving the lives of everybody on Earth.”
With many subsidiaries already in his business empire, Mai hopes to redefine his operations.
“At my age … I want to do less (rather) than more. I want to spend more time in logistics and property development.”
In the logistics sector, Mai feels there is still much to be done. Aside from improving Vietnam’s infrastructure, he hopes to improve the management of these facilities.
“I’m trying to work with the government to streamline our regulations. I want to improve the whole supply chain.”
As for the real estate industry, Mai wants to introduce new building technologies in the country so that people can enjoy a better quality of life.
Mai also seeks to contribute more to society. He pointed to his two consecutive terms in Vietnam’s National Assembly as another gratifying achievement. He added that his involvement in politics is motivated by a desire to improve Vietnam’s business environment.
“After two terms (in the National Assembly), I got tired (due to the heavy time demands) and left (the Assembly) in 2016. I think I add more value by running my business and helping my country in other ways.”
However, leaving the National Assembly has not made him any less vocal about business conditions in the country.
“If you succeed alone, you don’t create a big impact. If you make other people successful and create a wave, the impact will be bigger.”
Mai commits to mentoring up to five young people at a time, and tries to sit down with them once a month. On other occasions, they can reach him via email and text message, and Mai promises a response within 24 hours.
His dedication was also obvious when he was the president of the Vietnam Young Entrepreneurs Association. In that role, he visited all 63 provinces in the country to motivate young entrepreneurs to operate businesses correctly and help others.
“I try to make them see the value of labor (more) than just doing easy business. I push people to work and earn their own value and worth. I use myself as an example. I walk the walk and talk the talk.”
Mai is also president of the World Vovinam Federation. It is a hat he is happy to wear, as he was crowned national champion in the martial art discipline in 1986.
“We are already in the Southeast Asian Games. Next goal is the Asian Games and then the Olympics,” he noted.
The martial art is practiced by a few million across 70 countries and is also ideal for women, Mai said. “Two of our Miss Vietnam (title winners) were national champions (in vovinam).”
Mai practices his values at home as well. The father of two — a 25-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter — is pragmatic about his children’s upbringing.
“They are grown up and working for someone else now to prove themselves first.”
His family has never had a maid and the housework is done by his wife. “I help her when I can, like with gardening and washing dishes.”
The simple life is what he enjoys best, Mai said.
“We feel happy because we move around and don’t have to rely on other people. I travel without an assistant because I can do almost everything by myself. That’s a kind of joy as well.”
Mai Huu Tin
Chairman and CEO, U&I Investment Corporation
2013: Eisenhower Fellowship, the US
2004: Doctorate in Business Administration, California Southern University, the US
2001: Master of Business Administration, Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, Belgium
1995: Bachelor of Arts, University of Foreign Languages, Vietnam
2007: ASEAN Businessman of the Year, ASEAN Business Advisory Council
1998: Founder, U&I Investment Corporation
1995: Vice-president, TOA Paint Vietnam
1992: Managing director, Songbe Textile
Where are the investment opportunities in Vietnam right now?
Everywhere. Many things can be done in a stable economy growing at more than 7 percent a year and with a young population.
What memorable failures have you benefited from?
Firstly, I trust people too much. For example, in the past, when I bought a company, I used to look at the audited financial report provided by the business owner and auditing company. But they might work together to give me a different set of numbers and not the ones that reflect reality. I bought into a few companies with that kind of trust and made huge mistakes that cost me up to eight-figure losses. They were costly lessons but I learned to perform due diligence by myself.
Secondly, never think that because you succeed in one thing you can succeed in other things. This is complacency. You need to have an expert to help — someone with the actual experience and knowledge.
Date of birth: Aug 27, 1969