A Cultural Business

Mr. Joong Ho understands, perhaps better than anyone, the importance of a clean coffee machine and explains why.

“A very important point  is that the coffee business is a very cultural business,” observes Mr. Joong Ho, CEO and Chairman of Vovos Corporation— coffee merchants and importers of fine coffee machines, among other things. It’s a pre-emptive answer to an unasked question: why a talented businessman with 25 years of experience in Vietnam—who built the immensely successful Dalat Milk brand from scratch—would have transitioned into this far more bespoke, smaller-scale industry. “It’s not just about making money, producing a large quantity and making big money, something like that. Even when you produce small quantities, as long as you have your own style, your own brand, this business is possible.”

It’s an unsurprising point of emphasis for a man whose various business endeavors in Vietnam have always served as
a backdrop to more artistic pursuits, foremost of which is a passion for antiques. Decades in the country have provided ample opportunities for Mr. Ho to acquire precious ornaments and treasures of the past; he surrounds himself with them rather than keeping them stuffily displayed in cabinets, and even his business premises themselves are located in an historic building in the hopes of giving it some protection from the wrecking ball. It’s a fixation that Mr. Ho’s business partners sometimes find difficult to understand, watching him spend lavishly on investments of no practical value while they endure extended rounds of heavy negotiations with him on minor price points—but for him, a commitment to life beyond business is an integral part of his commercial strategies.

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“What kind of antiques survive 1,000 years, 100 years, 2,000 years?” he poses. “2,000 years is maybe luck, but to survive 200 years until now, without any scratch, without breaking, how? For example that statue,” he points at a fine artwork in the corner of his office, “that’s from 1882, 150 years. No scratch, nothing. But it survives. Why? Like a business, this one has its own quality, history. Everybody trusts this statue is fine. So, it survives. But even a good quality mass product like this coffee cup—your mother uses them for ten years, maybe if one breaks, she’ll throw the rest away. But a beautiful one, she’ll keep for you, your sister. So, it lasts a long time. Business is the same.”

Vovos was founded a decade ago to deal with the challenges of distributing milk in Ho Chi Minh City. The idea to open a coffee business under the brand occurred after Mr. Ho decided that the time was right to cash out of Dalat Milk to seek new horizons. “When we had the milk business, coffee shops were among our major customers,” he explains, “and in Ho Chi Minh City, most of the well-known coffee shops used our milk. So I was proud that we gave good service for milk, but with the coffee, I didn’t see the same thing. It was very unmanaged in quality. If you buy coffee beans in the supermarket or at the market, you cannot trust the coffee quality. Sometimes due to chemicals, or sometimes it’s the same brand, but today different, tomorrow different.”

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“For most people, milk is milk,” he explains. “In Europe or New Zealand, maybe you don’t care whether the milk is from Fonterra or from Anchor, you don’t care. ‘Which one is cheaper today? Is there any promotion, is it nearby me? I’ll buy that.’ But in Vietnam, it’s totally different because quality control from the farmers is not so easy. If you buy coffee in the market and use a grinding machine, it will break down because they put some chemicals and butter in it. If you’re burning something with butter, there’s nothing good in it for your health. But people don’t care so much, and then the butter makes it sticky, which breaks the machine. Then after being stuck in there for one week, it spoils. But people can’t see inside, so they don’t care.”

The decision for Vovos to become an importer of coffee machines, in fact, has its base in Mr. Ho’s own experience with a broken coffee maker that could not be fixed, despite the fact that it was supplied by a very reputable company.

“As I told you, coffee is a cultural business, even machines,” says Mr. Ho. “Some coffee machine companies are really commercial companies, just looking for money, not caring about after-sales service. But if you’re a café and one day the machine breaks, your business is down for the day. Every machine needs maintenance, just like a car. But this machine has direct contact with food, so it must be more carefully maintained than a car. As in my experience, I broke a small machine. Two months later, it still wasn’t fixed, but I drink coffee every day. What did I have to do? I had to buy another one while waiting for them. Still, it didn’t come back. So I learned about this.”

“Honestly, we invest too much in after-sales service,” admits Mr. Ho. “We sell coffee machines from selected companies that are very sincere about long-term business. They work with us, because we have the ability to import by the container. I’ve visited most of the coffee machine companies in Europe to find which are suitable for the Vietnamese market. Then I selected.”

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The key to the firm’s commitment to quality lies in its maintenance program, designed to spare customers from
the same frustrations that Mr. Ho experienced with his own machine at home. “At Vovos, we don’t look for big money, big business, it’s not a priority,” says Mr. Ho. “We actually have a French and a Portuguese expert in the machines on our staff. So in Vietnam, if you have two foreign experts taking care of your machines, you never can make money! Of course, there are many good local engineers here, but with after-sales service in Vietnam, already the culture is very so-so. So if you want to change this mentality, you need something strong. So for the machines we sell, we check them every month. Even if there’s no problem, every month we schedule a check-up. Every month minimum, one time.”

While Mr. Ho acknowledges that his coffee project will take a long time to grow despite his own solid experience in management, he’s not phased at all by the prospect of sticking with his strategy for the long haul.

“If you build a business with heritage and culture inside, with something you like, you can survive a very long time,” he says. “So, if you have a good outlook, or good business practices on the inside, people will never throw away your company. They will never break relations. Just like antiques.”

Visit the Vovos Cafio Café and coffee machine showroom at 142 Le Thi Hong Gam, D1.

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN and PROVIDED BY VOVOS

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