An avid runner and former employee of both Pepsi and HSBC, Kelly Wong moved to Vietnam in 2004 where he has lived and worked ever since. Today, he is the Chief Financial Officer of the Kido Group, previously known as the Kinh Do Corporation.
The Kido Group is one of Vietnam’s largest packaged food’s companies and since it spun off the confectionary business to Mondelez International, it has been on the radar of local and foreign investors.
To learn more about the people behind the company’s success, Vietcetera sat down with CFO Kelly Wong to learn about his management strategies.
What are three words that would describe your management style?
My management style involves…impatience, simplification, and communication.
Being completely honest, I’m a little impatient with others in discussions. This is because, at the core of it, I want to be able to simplify problems and discussions into their core elements without wasting words or time. It frustrates me when people overcomplicate ideas just to make a point.
As for communication, I always try to be inclusive. At work, my goal is to empower others. I’ve learned over the years to understand that empowerment can be dangerous without oversight. I once assumed that others think the same as I do, and, oftentimes, I was wrong. This meant I had to learn to spend time getting the whole team on the same page. These days, I begin by establishing clear communication with my team.
What kind of people do you like surrounding yourself with?
I enjoy working with people that are smarter than me. When you’re the smartest person in the room, you aren’t growing and others are less likely to understand you. It’s better to show up in a place where you’re surrounded by brighter individuals who can teach you to think like them.
Where are you most productive?
I like quiet spaces where I can listen to music of my choice. I’ve set up my home office to mirror my work office, so I can do my best work from either location.
How would you describe your ideal work environment?
The physical environment I am in should be on the cold side, and well lit. I like natural light and chilly air. For peak performance, I need an environment where people are direct and communicate openly. This applies to disagreements especially, as open disagreement generates new ideas and better solutions.
Who has been most influential in your career?
My first boss in Vietnam. He taught his employees about work ethic and taking responsibility for yourself. He also taught us to face our problems and solve them. He also taught us it was okay to make mistakes as long as we learned from them. He once asked me why I like to learn the hard way, in which I responded because I don’t know any other way to learn.
Is there an author or book that has shaped your approach to business?
I’m an avid reader and have a long list of books that have impacted me. I divide them into three disciplines: Intellectual, Technical and Spiritual. I believe mental health, spiritual health, and technical knowledge are all important parts of career development. Depending on where you are in life, sometimes it’s important to focus on different priorities.
What is one advice you would give to someone starting out in a management position?
Listen more than you speak. Authority and respect aren’t simply given. They’re earned. Someone may give you a title, but you can’t force them to listen to you.
What do you find most difficult about your job?
Listening before I speak is always tough. It gets harder as you get older since you think you know more.
Do you prefer power to be distributed equally or hierarchically in business?
I feel power should rest in the hands of those that can use it best. So in an organization where people are specialized across different disciplines, power should be equally distributed among disciplines to encourage collaboration. For businesses where there is a need for strong leadership, then a clear hierarchy is more suitable.
What is the first step to addressing any problem that arises between different parties?
Understanding the problem. I find that a lot of problems arise because two parties don’t actually know what the problem is, or their interpretations are different. The key to solving any problem is to establish what exactly the problem is.
How often do you think about long-term goals?
Everyday. I set goals and revise them regularly to make sure I know what I’m working towards. That way I can celebrate even the smallest success and don’t make the mistake of exaggerating a small setback. Life and work are about keeping your eye on the proverbial ball, which happens to be moving all the time.
What’s your role at Kido Group currently?
I’m currently the Group’s CFO.
We sold the confectionery part of the business. The non-confectionery side of the business is still ours and includes a consumer ice cream and edible oil business.
How’d you get into this line of business?
I stepped into the financial world with HSBC Vietnam. Mainly, I did rotations at the bank. Eventually, I spent time with the Ho Chi Minh City Securities Corporation doing advisory work. Then seven years ago, I arrived at the Kido Group to join the financial team.
What sort of differences between working finance within a company versus banking?
Banking isn’t what it used to be. In the past, banking was fun and relationship driven. People cared about businesses. But today, there’s more disconnect between people, and they can’t speak openly because of government regulations. Where it was once about relationships, banking is now simply transactional.
Corporate finance jobs require much more effort up-front, as you have to get to know a company’s philosophy, hierarchy, and team members. You connect with the company and it’s brands to learn its preferences. This requires a lot of patience. After all, relationships can’t be formed overnight.
I changed career paths because I had the desire to do something more local so I could stay in Vietnam. I wanted to be a part of the country’s growth and development. As I moved away from service providers or international companies, I was able to pick up the language and get to know more about the Vietnamese business world.
Our company of three thousand only has a handful of foreign employees at any given time. It’s very local. The cultural context of the company is Vietnamese—it was founded and developed here.
When a friend of mine joined the company, I decided it was worth it to look at a job there. I wanted to stay for a few years to learn, and now, I’ve been with the Kido Group for 7+ years.
What are the largest transitional challenges working in a Vietnamese company?
The biggest challenges I faced were communication, language, and cultural context. I had to operate completely in Vietnamese, giving meetings, emails, and presentations in the local language. Fifteen years ago I didn’t speak a word of Vietnamese, only Cantonese and Mandarin for my job with HSBC. Learning to operate in an entirely new language, in a completely foreign culture, was a rollercoaster ride.
What keeps you here?
I do much more meaningful work here than I did in Canada. The opportunities are more abundant. I wouldn’t say that Vietnam is simply a better place than North America, but one sees more excitement and opportunity here. People here want to start interesting projects. There’s always something new happening. I love it.
Yes, Canada has free healthcare and education. But in Vietnam, there’s more healthy competition, which drives people to work hard and innovate. It’s for that reason that I want to raise my children here.
Who should we speak with next?
You should talk to my friend and fellow Canadian, Ralph Matthaes. He used to work for TNS, and now he has his own firm called inFocus. inFocus specializes in market research. He’s a fun guy and is currently organizing an ice hockey league in Vietnam. Ralph has been around to witness the incredible transitions Vietnam has already gone through.