"Out of school' at 50, Swedish entrepreneur learns new lessons

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Penchant for calculated risks sees Swedish entrepreneur come into his own in Vietnam

UMA's president August Wingardh at a showroom of the Swede furniture brand in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City

August Wingardh is up at six every morning, and puts in a one-hour jog near his home, whether he is in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

It is an important hour, for it sets the tone of the day he goes through things that have to be done or rearranged, and also gets fresh ideas.

Fresh ideas are especially important for the president of UMA a brand that has achieved recognition in Vietnam for high quality furniture and interiors over the last seven years.

It has been an eventful journey, and it is one that could have started with an idea that struck him on such a morning, when he was jogging.

In 2006, Wingardh had just finished his term as Chief Representative of world famous Swedish firm IKEA in Vietnam, and he had to choose between continuing for another term in the country and returning to Sweden to assume a new post in the mother company.

He had been with the company for 15 years and worked for it in many positions, and it offered a secure job and future.

In a life-changing decision, Wingardh chose to quit. The way he saw it was: "[IKEA] is a very good school, but one day you have to leave school."

He was 50 when he left school and decided to start a company on his own, something he had never done before. 

UMA was born as a furniture distributor which ordered factories to produce designed home products and supplied it to customers in Europe.

"It was something frustrating"¦ because you go from something very secure, very successful, very famous, and then you take a step outside, and you don't know anything.

"It's just like jumping with a parachute, and before you open the door to jump, you don't know if it works or not."

Wingardh was smiling when he said this, because the parachute had obviously worked. He said his willingness to take calculated risks helped him make another choice to open his own furniture distributorship in Hanoi, where he'd worked for five years for IKEA.

"I have a very good capability to take risks, but I also know that when you take a risk, you have to know how to secure something.

"Many people asked me why I didn't go to HCMC, a bigger market and stocker. But in Hanoi I'd made a living, had a taste of the place, a familiar market, so it was a securer choice."

But the securer choice was not as secure as he'd assumed.

The first choice of supplying furniture to the European market as the main strategy of the company was based on the security of having a buyer.

"There was a particular company who wanted to buy [our products]. But then they walked into the problem of the market, they had to cut their operations, and then they cut me also."

While taking stock of his first failure, Wingardh realized another change in direction was called for. The current path was too risky, being dependent on a market so far way that carried its own instabilities. 

"We have to have the control so that we can sell it all (all the products that his company ordered the factories to make)."

This thought led to the establishment of the first UMA shop in Hanoi, targeting local buyers.

But even in the familiar local market where he'd spent five years, there were still mistakes to make, and things to learn from them.

"We had a table made in laminated bamboo which was a new and modern design at that time. Everybody seeing it said that it was so nice, and they would like to buy one like this. So I thought, oh, "˜this is a successful product, so let's buy some to have in our shop.'

"Then the supplier said they would reduce the price if we buy a minimum of 300 pieces, otherwise the price would be much more expensive. "¦ we said ok, then we bought 300 pieces, and then we put the bamboo table in our shop.

"And no one bought it.

"For five years, we had 300 pieces of that table in our warehouse."

So Wingardh learnt yet another lesson: "You don't just listen to what people say, you have to look at what they do, how they act.

They may say they like the product. But let's see if they buy it or not."

Selling is always a tough task, but transportation was proving to be a really tough challenge.

"One case is that we bought lots of ceramics, and then we hired a transporter who was the cheaper transporter. But he was normally transporting textiles. So he handled our products like textiles.

"And many of our products [were] broken due to that."

He decided not to hire the careless transporter anymore, but his transportation woes did not end there.

Still looking for a cheap transporter in order to keep expenses low for the fledgling business, he chose one to carry sofas, which are not as fragile as ceramics.

"Our transporter was very good at transporting sofas, but he put the sofas along with other oily steel engines he traveled with.

"When the sofas arrived, there were a lot of oily stains on them."

"The cheapest solution is sometimes not the best one," Wingardh realized.

Vietnamese customers

After seven years, from the first humble shop in Hanoi, UMA has 7 stores in Vietnam, 4 in the capital city and 3 others in HCMC. The 1,000 m2 UMA Saigon Pearl showroom in Binh Thanh District describes itself as an "interior supermarket."

Though most products sport a Scandinavian style with modern, functional designs, Vietnamese materials are the backbone of the brand's furniture.

"Most of our products are made in Vietnam, with Vietnamese materials, except for a few for which I have not found suitable suppliers in the country."

Over the years, Wingardh has made another move. He is now based in HCMC, spending three weeks here and one week visiting Hanoi.

"HCMC is the city of trendsetters. Latest styles are born here, and then Hanoi follows, maybe one year later."

Since he himself is in charge of designing UMA's products, he spends most of his time in the southern city, looking around and deciding what to choose for his shops. 

However, he feels Hanoians are more eager to buy furniture, and that climate could be a factor in this.

"There are four clearly different seasons in Hanoi, but only two in Saigon. In Hanoi, you have more time in the year when you need to stay at home, because it's cold.

"But Saigoners don't need to stay indoors. You love outdoor life, you meet others in public places rather than at home like the Hanoi people do, you don't pay that much attention at decorating your home as the Hanoians do."

His e-commerce sales manager, Bui Thi Hong Tuoi, is a Hanoian who moved to work in HCMC as UMA expanded its operations to the south.

"I have been working for him since I was a college graduate in Hanoi, the longest time among those working here.

"He is an open book with smiling face, but also a tough one. Straight talking is his favorite style. But that's helpful to get things done correctly."

Now 57, Wingardh says he was born under the sign of a "fire monkey" (the other monkeys in the Chinese zodiac standing for other elements metal, water, wood and earth), and endowed as such with a penchant for adventure.

So what would be his next adventure? Would it be in Vietnam, or elsewhere?

"Who knows, I am not sure, but (I am here in Vietnam) at least until 2019."

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