CEO Mai Son – From Flight Attendant To Fashion Empire

“There’s never been a better time to be a fashion retailer in Vietnam, with consumption being driven by the rapidly emerging middle and upper middle class. The Vietnam fashion market is expected to reach +/- US8.6b by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 8.6%, far outpacing our regional peers.” – CEO Mai Son.

As one of the leaders in the fashion retail industry, Mai Son – Founder & CEO of Maison Retail Management International (MRMI) believes MRMI with its 2 decade core values development is perfectly positioned to capitalize on this growth and the opportunity it presents. Currently, the company is generating over $110,000,000 USD with 80% of its stores being located in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. Over the next 5 years, the overall sales are forecast to reach $400 million.

It is known that before falling in love with fashion, CEO Mai Son worked in the aviation field for a while. What inspired you to start in the fashion industry?

Originally, I began my career as a flight attendant for Vietnam Airlines where I worked over 7 years. The job allowed me to visit many places around the world and experience new cultures. To me, that job was an honor.

One thing I quickly realized being overseas was how many cool, famous fashion brands people were wearing which I’d never seen available in Vietnam. On a business trip to Singapore which I’ll never forget, with 300$ in hand, I bought two huge bags of Mango clothing. I was so happy to wear those items because they were affordable and beautiful and also sell some to my friends who all loved them as well. I felt this brand might be suitable for Vietnamese people and soon after began approaching Mango directly, thus taking the first steps in my fashion career.

Phạm Thị Mai Son – CEO of Maison Retail Management International

When I initially intended to bring Mango back to Vietnam I had no relationship upon which I could rely on.  The people at Mango were always curious, but it took a very long time to convince them – we worked for almost 2 years before we were given the rights to bring the brand to Vietnam. There were many times in that 2 year period that we thought we were going to fail but  I persisted, calling every week, and finally it goes to show that hard work and persistence pays off in the end.

All of these international brands are looking for local trusted partners for local expertise. When I contacted Mango, I had to show them new things and needs of the Vietnamese market. Understanding Vietnamese consumers and the Vietnamese market is the key to securing brands. 

UNDERSTAND THE MARKET & CONSUMER

Can you (CEO Mai Son) share about the journey you went through, the challenges, and opportunities to help MRMI rise to become the “fashion empire” it is today?

First and foremost is commerciality of the brand along with the choice of partners. Without the right brand with fantastic products, nothing else matters. If the designs and collections of a particular brand don’t connect with consumers, no amount of marketing or operational excellence will make up for it. In the business world, this is known as “product market fit”. 

Secondly is the customer experience. The biggest challenge of any growing company is systemizing the experience. When you have 1 store in 1 city, you can control everything yourself. You can carefully select the placement of different products, ensure your visual merchandising looks beautiful, make sure the store is always clean, staff are friendly and well trained etc. However, when you have 100, 200 or 400 stores in multiple cities, that quickly changes. In fashion retail, particularly for renowned international brands, the experience for the customer must be perfect – every time. 

Lastly is the culture of your company. It’s important to invest in company culture, leadership and management training, great onboarding processes, career paths and skills development so that the growth potential of your company does not outpace your human resources capabilities.

SECRET TO SUCCESS: FOCUS

During 2 decades of entering the fashion market and achieving admirable achievements, what are the core values ​​that MRMI pursues? What factors make a difference and make MRMI’s name so reputable in the fashion field?

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates were both once asked in an interview to choose one word which they believed has contributed to their success. Without hesitation, they both said “focus.” To me, focus is essential. 

So often, especially in Vietnam, it seems that once companies and entrepreneurs start enjoying some level of success, they lose focus and begin to over diversify, trying to invest and expand into many non-core businesses. To me, the more industries and business models you diversify into, the more your essential resources like time, capital, energy, and team’s attention gets spread thin. Plus you will be going up against incumbents with way more experience and know-how than you. For me, I just do fashion. I’m not letting any distractions get in the way which don’t forward our objective to be a leading fashion retailer in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

Next is high quality. I strongly believe Maison RMI has the highest standards of quality when it comes to the fashion industry. For every brand we decide to bring into the market, my team probably considers and rejects 20. We also spend a tremendous amount of time considering where to open our stores and reject a lot of locations having other high quality brands if they don’t meet our internal criteria.

Equally important is integrity. Maison encourages open and direct communication where everyone’s opinion is listened to in an open-minded manner. Open and direct communication sometimes means having uncomfortable conversations, but that’s essential to reaching the truth and achieving the best outcome which is in everyone’s interests.

Lastly is playfulness & diversity. Work is going to make up a large part of your life, so why not have fun while you’re doing it! At Maison we respect diversity and people’s ideas. We work hard to ensure that there are always opportunities for all of our team in both their career and self- development. We believe that our human resources are a core asset to strengthen our business and sustain our growth.

THE GOAL TO BECOME A LEADING FASHION RETAILER IN VIETNAM

How do you assess the potential of the Vietnamese fashion market?

Since the early 2,000s, Vietnamese people have become more affluent with their purchasing power steadily increasing relatively evenly across all provinces and cities. It’s now one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a very uniquely young demographic. Nearly 65% of the country’s population of 98,000,000 is said to be under the age of 35 years old.

There’s never been a better time to be a fashion retailer in Vietnam, with consumption being driven by the rapidly emerging middle and upper middle class. The Vietnam fashion market is expected to reach +/- US8.6b by 2025, growing at a CARG of 8.6%, far outpacing our regional peers.

I can proudly say that our company is perfectly positioned to capitalize on this growth and the opportunity it presents. If you look at our portfolio, nearly 85% of our brands are in the mass- aspirational or sportswear segment, with an additional 15% in the mid-high end segment which matches where the majority of economic growth and consumer demand that will come from in the coming years.

Add to that the excellent economic development coming from tier 2 and tier 3 cities around the country and the incredible supply of upcoming high quality real estate developments and commercialized shopping streets nationwide. When you consider all of this, the growth potential is truly exciting.

What is your vision for the next 5-10 years with MRMI in particular and the domestic fashion industry in general?

Today our company is generating over $110,000,000 USD with 80% of our stores being located in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. Over the next 5 years, we expect tier 2 and tier 3 cities to make up at least 30% of our growth, and our overall sales are forecast to reach $400 million by 2027 – which will be driven by expansion of our existing portfolio of popular brands, the introduction of new brands to the market, expansion into new cities and the excellent growth of our e-commerce and online platforms. 

With foresight and identifying fashion as an industry for long-term development, within the next five years, Maison will reach three times the current scale with more than 400 stores nationwide with several new brands, and will be listed on the stock exchange. Maison aspires to become a leading fashion retailer in Vietnam.

I WOULD STILL CHOOSE FASHION TO START MY BUSINESS IF THE TIME WAS BACK

Can you (CEO Mai Son) tell us a little bit about your style? What are some of your favorite fashion brands that you often wear to work, or wear daily?

I am pretty diverse in choosing fashion brands to suit my daily life and work. I can use Charles & Keith, Pedro, Coach, Gigi, as well as Ceci, and also love MLB – one of the famous fashion brands from Korea.

When walking or hanging out with friends, I wear Pinko and Marhen. J, Max & Co. and at the weekend, Max Mara because the style and the designs from these brands are very fresh.

I also have experience finding many high-quality brands without fear of being punished. I often wear Charles & Keith and Pedro’s clothes because, for less than 2,000,000 VND, it is possible to own many beautiful shoes, sandals, bags, and fashion accessories.

During 20 years of doing business, what do you see yourself gaining and losing? If you could go back to 20 years ago, would you choose to start a fashion business?

I often look at things positively to share what I have gained. We have one life, so why choose a boring life?  I love fashion, so I decided to start a fashion business. I have been in the fashion business for 20 years. For me, it is joyful. If I went back, I might still choose fashion to start a business.

The interview with CEO Mai Son was conducted by Forbes Vietnam, please feel free to refer to the original article here.

-Maison Corporation Communication Team-