A Working Woman: Business Leader Kim Oanh On Measuring What Really Matters
Kim Oanh’s name first made the rounds in 1993, when she won the Miss Athletic Vietnam competition. But instead of pursuing an athletic career, she chose her interest in business. Along the way, she spent seven years helping her husband, producer Tran Anh Dung, build Sudest Production–one of the first private film production companies in Vietnam.
When Sudest Production began to take off, Kim Oanh decided to focus on her own startup career. She founded Wrap & Roll, a Vietnamese restaurant chain that became quickly received by consumers. In March 2016, after 10 years of operating, Wrap & Roll received a US $6.9 million investment from Mekong Enterprise Fund III. Not only is Kim Oanh a businesswoman, she’s also a recognized culinary expert and a judge of two reality shows: Iron Chef and MasterChef.
More recently, she’s decided to return to Sudest Production to team up with her husband again to steer the business. She is currently the CEO of Sudest Production and a member of the board of directors of Red Wok, formerly known as Wrap & Roll. We turned to Kim Oanh to learn more about how she builds and manages her teams in Vietnam.
Can you share with us the three values you would never compromise at work?
Reputation, responsibility, and commitment are the three values that I hold dearly and apply to both my work and my personal life.
To me, responsibility means walking the talk. At work, being responsible means following through with your strategies and being a role model in your company culture. It means taking charge of the team’s failures even when it’s not your fault. At home, being responsible means staying true to the family values that you share with your partner and teach your kids.
Only when you’re fully committed to a promise can you feel its true weight on your reputation and success. So take your time to weigh decisions and manage people’s expectations closely. Don’t say you’re sure about something when you’re not. If you say you’re going to do something, the only choice you have is to follow through.
Why did you choose to work in so many different industries?
Everything came to me by chance. In order to pursue them long-term, effectively, and successfully, I think it depends on many different factors. I like to jump in and take risks. I’m passionate about exploring and experiencing new things. Thus, I’m always willing to challenge myself in various working environments and business fields.
Before entering the food industry, I was assisting my husband in building Sudest Production for seven years. After Sudest stabilized, I then started to develop my own career. And then I entered the culinary world, and within a few years, I founded Wrap & Roll. After nearly 20 years with food [and 15 years with Wrap & Roll], I finally realized it’s time to come back and stand with Sudest Production.
Right now, I’m developing my knowledge in investment, especially in the fields I’m already familiar with. In addition to my existing knowledge, I believe investing can lead me towards a new way of thinking financially and strategically, instead of directly operating as I’ve done before.
Why is this the right time to return to film production? And what is your role at Sudest Production now?
The current advertising market is changing with the emergence of social networking platforms and the rise of digital advertising. In order to run a film production company, as a service provider for advertising companies, I need to look back at our legacy operations and processes and understand whether or not they are relevant today.
From the perspective of someone who has worked in this field, but at the same time staying out of it long enough, I thought I was returning with a more neutral and multi-dimensional view. The way I run the company is also different. I no longer get directly involved in each production project but mostly oversee the services.
“How does one provide good customer service?”; “How can we listen to what they want?”; and “How can we communicate to the team?” Everything needs to be revised. And due to the principal of ‘think differently, do differently,’ we also need new members to bring some novelty and maximize the capacity of the team.
After returning to Sudest for a year, I opened a small branch within the company that focuses on developing the digital segment, with more flexible costs, faster production time, and younger staff. Although we serve the same clients, the needs of the clients are very wide, so I need the flexibility to be able to provide the right service for the needs they have.
As a member of the board of Red Wok (formerly Wrap & Roll), what do you expect from your successors at the executive position?
For me, the food business is a very specific industry. In order to develop, an executive needs both a strategy and a deep understanding of the product so that he/she can develop a business plan based on the quality of the product. I’m optimistic with the current CEO of Red Wok. He doesn’t go too fast and instead spends a lot of time to learn and solve outstanding problems. Then he readjusts the core elements of the product, while developing a business strategy for the coming years. I believe that 2020 will be a very promising year for Red Wok.
In your opinion, what makes a lasting corporate culture?
Business culture does not come from the leader, but from all members of the business. It’s the responsibility of the leader to create an environment that makes the team want to come to work every day, feel treated fairly, and understand that their efforts are recognized.
Besides, the leader must be able to envision and devise strategies for the business. Each strategy must have consensus and approval from employees. We also must be open and respectful of employees. Most important is communication.
For me, expertise is only a tool; to be able to stay together and work for a long time, we need to share the same values. I appreciate the colleagues who share the same values as I do. Of course, everyone has the right to choose where to work, with whom, and the direction to develop their own career. But they can only succeed in an environment that has the same kind of corporate culture that they agree with and feel like they belong to such.
You once shared, “measure what really matters.” How does one prioritize what matters?
As a perfectionist, I always see three elements revolving around me: family, work, and friends. All three factors are important, need time to invest into and effort to take care of. However, I also believe that not everything is important at the same time, so we must recognize that and measure the importance of each.
The way I determine the importance of a matter is based on the importance of success – the results that each matter brings. I would invest in whichever can be solved and delivered in the shortest time frame and produce the best results.
At times, when being swept away by work, I would ask my husband to allow me to ‘cheat’ a bit when it comes to taking care of the family, and I also inform him clearly that I need his support. Likewise, there are problems at work that I’m willing to set aside in order to take care of my family, as long as the results – no matter how good or bad – don’t affect the overall matter.
And if there really are many important things happening at the same time, then I would have a discussion and seek for support. After all, life is all about choices. Thinking clearly and logically will show you which choice is important to make.
What’s the most memorable thing that happened to you as a leader?
When Wrap & Roll opened its 7th venue, I had more than 200 people on my watch. The financial and operations challenges were so overwhelming that I almost gave up.
Just when I thought we’ve had enough to deal with, we found our central kitchen on the verge of collapsing. The kitchen was located behind a construction side that just collapsed, so the people in the area had to evacuate in fear of a domino effect.
That kitchen was supplying food for all seven restaurants.
At 5pm that day, our core members and I had a meeting. We had two choices: close the kitchen down for a day, or move everything to another location. Fortunately, we found a place with the kind of electrical power that could handle our giant fridges and stoves.
At 7pm, our staff went on an urgent shopping spree, collecting all the equipment needed to recreate our central kitchen as it was. At 7am the next morning, production was restored back to normal. Crisis averted.
That day taught me so much about leadership, responsibility, and resourcefulness. I still remember my car smelling like fish sauce from moving the kitchen stuff.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career?
- If you’re a leader, then you have to take responsibility in any circumstances. There will always be accidents and difficulties. In reality though, these are all opportunities for everyone to team up and grow together.
- Do not lose faith in people. Many people have a big ego. And many are not willing to take the chance with you to change and make a difference. People who don’t have the same mindset – they will leave sooner or later. But there will always be people who believe in your integrity and commitment.
- I like the expression ‘All things flow’, which means everything is always changing. Hence, I have to develop different and new perspectives to apply those perspectives at different stages of my life and business.
Can you share a bit of advice for young women who are starting their careers?
Some people choose to focus on their families first before developing their own career. Some people are on the contrary; career first, family later. Some people want both things side by side. For me, there is no right or wrong, but it is important to know which option is right for yourself.
I have a 7-year gap in my personal career as a step-back that I took in order to support my husband and children. My decision surprised everyone, because before that, I was always an ambitious, progressive person at work. The truth is that I wanted to have both: a happy family and an illustrious career. So, I chose to go with both. But quickly and slowly depending on the time.
I believe that we will eventually reach the place we want to go, whether it is later or different from the timing we want. The most important thing is simply to focus on it.
Adapted by Khanh Ta.