The managing director of the ABC convenience store chain Wai Thit Lwin has been a force in Myanmar business since the age of 18. Among her roles are founder of Bella Cosmetics and executive director of TMW Group of Companies, whose portfolio includes hotels and marketing for brands such as Sony and LG. She talks to Pamela Tan about her idea of success and her approach to business. Photos by Gerhard Joren.
Which of these businesses are you most proud of and why?
The businesses that I build with my hands, which are construction material manufacturing and distribution, the convenience store chain and Myanmar’s first national cosmetic brand, which became the market leader within six months of launch. Everything else is built by my husband and father and I do the operations mainly with our more than twenty CEOs and our teams. It’s never a person work but a teamwork. Everything is possible because of my family, my partners and my team support.
You became a businesswoman at the age of 18. Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
In childhood everyone has the right to have a dream of what they want to become when they grow up. I didn’t have that right. At the age of 4 and half I was told what to become when I grew up through a TV commercial. I came from a political family doing national politics for many generations thus I had been brain washed with the philosophy that it is my duty to serve Burmese citizens in anyway I can add value. I am not doing business, I am doing politics, and I don’t have any pattern or formula, I look at where I can add the most value and I go ahead and implement it. Before starting any business I look at three things – if I do this – how much value can I add for the nation? How many jobs can I create? How much value can I create for the direct and indirect stakeholders? I believe that no one should start any business for money but only to add value and to serve and to give needed solutions to the community. It should be about adding value not money.
Being extremely successful from such a young age, how has being an entrepreneur affected your family life?
I am not successful, I am just a mother of two girls who wants to make everyone confident so that they can reach their full potential. I am fortunate to have a father who didn’t spoil me but brought me up in a family business and nurtured me through hard work, a relentless mother who set example with her life to contribute to the Burmese people with passion and confidence. Also a husband who mentored me to keep on adding value to our people instead of keeping me to himself. I came from a generation of working women: sixth generation to run my own business actually, so it’s nothing new in my family. My mom and my aunts grew up under socialism thus they became a lawyer and a doctor (neurologist) to serve our people. My grand mother had run her own business so as my great grandmother so as my great great grandmother. We came from a family of having just girls in the family thus our fathers trained us to be girls who can do everything boy do and give birth as well. I am also blessed with a team who is with me throughout my career and who put up with all my dreams and demand to add value. I can do nothing without my family and my team support. It is never a person success, it’s always the team who works together to make a common dream of value creation come true.
As someone who was juggling student life while running an electronic business, what three pieces of advice would you give to college students who want to become entrepreneurs?
Well I guess I was blessed to be able to implement what I learned right away and had free Berkeley professors as my business consultants. Thinking of it now, it was more of doing an executive MBA than an undergraduate business degree.
So I guess my advice is: Take advantage of the professors – they have decades of experience, make them your free consultants. Apply what you learn through your own innovation by twisting it to how it would create the most value for your business. Actually reading Financial Times and Wall Street Journal really helps and being at the base of all new innovation (I went to Berkeley thus it’s where all the Silicon Valley happens) is the best opportunity for anyone to innovate and create value that no one else can access yet.
“I look at where I can add the most value and I go ahead and implement it.”
When did you begin to consider yourself a success?
I will consider myself successful when no more Burmese women uses fake cosmetic products.
How long do you stick with an idea before giving up?
Until I can find an innovation to make successful and implement it to add value.
Is entrepreneurialism something that can be learned or is it in the blood?
I think it is both. Mainly it’s the character to have the passion to do something value adding for the society. Usually most entrepreneurs have an inspiration to do what they do. For me, since I was young, I had been brainwashed to add value to my fellow Burmese citizen to create jobs and to work in empowerment and development. But I had been nurtured by my father, my husband and my teams to actually implement my passions.
How much has your school and university education helped in your success?
A lot. I value education of all sorts, whether it comes from school or from other areas. Before I do anything, I try to read and learn as much as I can from the theory and books. I tend to only do the job after I feel like I have learned enough from books to do practical or learn in real life. I am very obsessed with everything I do and I tend to read everything and anything. I can find about the subject in any forms from business school cases to translated video files to blog posts. I believe in continuous education and the day we stop learning is the day we stop growing. I have done a few graduate programs and I am doing an executive education Harvard business school as well. I go back every year to Harvard and that’s when I get my yearly updates about what’s happening in the world and an upgrade for my brain, I guess, and a ‘to do’ plan for the year.
With high interest on loans in Myanmar, you have highlighted in previous interviews the difficulty of competing with foreign convenience stores such as 7/11. How are you planning to deal with this?
At this point in time the government has been very kind to us by limiting liquors license issue by not having any new license issue since 2011. Therefore even if there’s cheaper capital to expand business, it is very impossible to do even for the Burmese ourselves. This is the key bottleneck that has caused an expansion of CVS chains. We had pointed this out uncountable times yet no action had been taken. I think international chains will have a second thought before they decide to come into the market that doesn’t have liquor licenses available, rent control or quality electricity with skilled human resources. We are still fortunate to have this luxury as a Burmese opportunity. With the changes of Myanmar company laws implementation it will be an interesting challenge as well as an opportunity.
What are all of your businesses together worth? And separately?
Haha, good question! I have never thought of the worth. I have only thought of what can I do for my people and how much more value can I add and where.
What expansion plans do you have for your businesses?
I will try my best to add value for my people in the places I can to the best of my ability.