Julie La Rochelle Sharing her Journey and Vision

Julie La Rochelle greeted us in the newest outlet of the successful Highlands Coffee chain. This newest shop is four floors of modern, sleek and elegant design in a relaxing atmosphere, fit for socializing with friends or business acquaintances day or night. The St Tropez style terrasse offers a panoramic view of the “fifth avenue” of Ho Chi Minh City. Upon our arrival we were offered any drink our heart desired and gourmet cakes, of which we ate many. The setting for the meeting was unlike any of the previous ones. Instead of a formal board room, we gathered informally on sofas and chairs with lates and snacks, ready to listen to the success story of this French Canadian superstar.

Julie La Rochelle is from Quebec City and has been living in Vietnam for the last fourteen years. She was originally planning on staying for only one when in 1995 her father came to work for the International Development of Desjardins. She left shortly after graduating from the University of Laval, where she studied Consumption. Following her gut, she left her job, social life and apartment for an unknown adventure in this developing country. She had already had some Asian experience working with a Thai importer in Quebec, so she felt that she would be able to tackle this new country.

For the first month of her trip she embraced all aspects of Vietnamese life, acting as a tourist. After the first month she realized she was going to be there for a whole year, and became overwhelmed with loneliness. She was only 19, and wanted to go out and socialize, but she was alone every night, hanging out with her parents. Finally she met her soul mate, who she later married, David Thai, a Vietkheu (Vietnamese born). David’s family moved around a lot, before settling in the US, leaving them with very little money. They lived in Seattle for most of his life, where he witnessed the rise of Starbucks, the world’s leader in coffee retail. David had a vision to open a similar chain one day.

David came back to Vietnam to reconnect with his roots. He joined a tour as a translator, for an international group of CEO’s learning about business in Vietnam. Here he met an investor with whom he decided to go into business. This man gave him the finance necessary to start his first coffee shop, Au Lac Café, in Hanoi near the lake; which is a center for socializing and activity, fitting for the vision David had. This was the beginning of his dream; to start a coffee shop which combines the east and the west, the old and the new, inspired by the growth of Starbucks. Together with Julie, they wanted to be part of the modernization of the Vietnamese society, and create more awareness of Vietnam as a coffee producing country. Despite the fact that Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world, awareness is not as high as it should be.

After a lot of paper work, time and effort, in 1998 the couple received their license to do business in Vietnam, not only in coffee, but in many other sectors, which later proved to be useful. They registered as Viet Thai International Joint Stock Corporation. In 1999 they moved their headquarters from the political capital Hanoi, to the business capital, Ho Chi Minh. This was a strategic move, as the disposable income was growing faster among the public, increasing their market potential. Finally, in 2000, the brand Highlands Coffee was born.

Highlands started by selling packaged coffee sold through distributors and supermarkets as well as hotels, restaurants and cafes. Following this success, they opened their first coffee shop in 2002. As the couple had little cash, this was made possible by a French Angel Investor who strongly believed in their passion and vision. Despite building a premium coffee shop in a developing society, the concept took off and filled a need for urban Vietnamese people. More than half of the local population is less than 25 years old, and are desperately looking for a place to socialize outside of their homes, where most live with their parents.

The rest is history, as they now have over 60 outlets across the country. Once they hit 100 stores, they will expand into other Asian countries in the region. The international expansion of the coffee chain is a great illustration of the couple’s vision for growth and opportunity. They are people who see only the sky as the limit, and have diversified Viet Thai’s portfolio through many businesses in the food and beverage, advertising, apparel and entertainment industries. They want to be where the locals, “play, eat and shop.”

The company is the sole owner within Vietnam to have the rights to franchise Nike, Aldo La Vie en Rose and most recently Hard Rock Café. They also own an upscale restaurant, cafeterias, and cater to Intel in Vietnam. In addition they also manage real-estate, and are even considering opening a furniture factory to furnish all their outlets. Vertical integration is an important aspect of the business, as it keeps tighter control and quicker time to market, two key success factors for Highlands.

It may appear that Viet Thai is going against the grain, and contradicting strategy theory by diversifying and lacking focus. However, this is not true. Viet Thai’s main business, and where they put their focus is their expertise within the Vietnamese society, and building strong brands. They are often approached by franchisers to launch franchises within Vietnam. Their expertise, their mix between eastern and western cultures, and their legal registration status, make them an excellent candidate for franchise implementation.

As mentioned, the company is a strong brand builder. They have recruited executive staff from Coca Cola as well as Starbucks in order to deepen their knowledge pool and fine tune their brand identity. As proof to this strength, Nike approached Viet Thai to relaunch their brand in Vietnam. They mix their strong international staff with local talent, which is known to be difficult to find in Vietnam. The goal is to better understand the market and to more easily deal with the complicated local bureaucracy and politics.

In addition to all Viet Thai’s commercial activity, they also acknowledge the large impact they have on Vietnamese society. They want to use their size and stature to the benefit of the Vietnamese people. Therefore they participate in almost any community organization and event, if approached. This participation is win win, as the brand receives greater exposure and awareness.

Our group listened to Julie La Rochelle in awe and amazement. Her confidence, passion and commitment shone through in the delivery of her story, and in answering all of our questions. We were inspired by her success and courage, and are looking forward to seeing where the company will head next.


Alison Manel and Carole Picou