HANOI • Vietnamese Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao made her first million at 21, trading fax machines and latex rubber. Almost a quarter of a century later, she is poised to become South-east Asia's first self-made woman billionaire, known for putting bikini-clad models on her VietJet Aviation planes and calendars.
With the proposed initial public offering of Vietnam's only privately owned airline, Ms Thao is set to have a net worth exceeding US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion), based on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, making her the country's first woman billionaire.
The majority of her wealth is derived from her stake in VietJet and her holdings in Dragon City, a 65ha real estate development in Ho Chi Minh City.
"I have never sat down and calculated my assets," Ms Thao, 45, said in an interview. "I am just focused on how to boost growth, how to increase the average salary for my employees, and how to lead the airline to gain more market share and make it No. 1."
Ms Thao said she is planning for VietJet to launch its IPO as early as within the next three months.
The carrier is aiming to seek a valuation of more than US$1 billion, according to two people with knowledge of the plan. Ms Thao, who founded the airline, owns 95 per cent of the company.
"She is not like other wealthy people - she is quite quiet in Vietnam, actually," said Ho Chi Minh City-based CIMB Group analyst Vo Phuc Nguyen. "She is really successful with VietJet. From nothing, that airline has accounted for more than 30 per cent of market share in Vietnam in just over the last few years."
The billionaire also owns a 90 per cent stake in Sovico Holdings, a closely held company that has a 90 per cent stake in Dragon City. She bought the site more than a decade ago, in what was a swampy area in Vietnam's economic hub. The valuation is calculated using the equity-to-debt ratio of the project's US$1 billion investment value.
Ms Thao also has majority stakes in three resorts in Vietnam, including the Furama Resort Danang.
Her foray into business began around 1988 as a second-year student in Moscow, where she was studying finance and economics.
She began as a trade distributor with little money, receiving clothing, office equipment and consumer goods on credit from suppliers in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, and selling them in Russia in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"I worked so hard and earned the trust of suppliers by always being honest with them," said Ms Thao, whose mother was a teacher and father, a pharmacist.