Crystal Lam's association with her family business, Vinawood, Vietnam's leading wood blind component manufacturer, began at a young age. Growing up, she spent countless hours in her father's office, referring to herself as the "little boss" while her father held the title of "big boss." Little did she know that this early exposure would shape her future in unforeseen ways.
Reflecting on the company's origins, Crystal recalls how it all started almost by chance. After her father's friend lost his job at a picture frame manufacturing company, her father extended a helping hand and uncovered a gap in the wood blind industry. Seizing the opportunity, he founded Vinawood, initially intending to transition to a career in technology. However, his dedication to nurturing the business led him to stay, ultimately setting the stage for the company's remarkable journey to date.
Today, Vinawood stands as Vietnam's premiere wood-component manufacturer, specialising in custom window coverings, millwork and architectural mouldings. With Crystal Lam, a second-generation managing director, at the helm, the company has expanded its reach into new markets and product categories. Notably, the firm recently launched an innovative interior solutions brand, Lavelle, introducing Vietnam's first-ever smart blind.
Crystal's unique blend of cross-cultural family values and an inherited mindset has propelled Vinawood toward new horizons.
Crystal's journey exemplifies the transformative power of passion and determination. With her unwavering commitment to excellence and her innovative approach, she is steering Vinawood into a future brimming with promise.
In an exclusive interview, Crystal Lam discusses the invaluable lessons she has learned from the previous generation and her unwavering confidence in her ability to revolutionise the company’s playbook. She also shares her compelling vision for preparing the next generation, ensuring a seamless transition of leadership within Vinawood…
TAKING INSPIRATION FROM PREVIOUS GENERATIONS….
You’ve described Vinawood as a truly cross-cultural family business. How have your shared American and Asian values shaped your approach to getting things done?
The Asian values are deeply embedded in how we operate professionally, we work with grit and engage with filial respect for win-win outcomes. The Western values [Crystal was raised in Southern California] are exhibited in the way we future-proof the business. Through data-driven decision making, we continuously improve our operations. With our creative and curious spirit, we innovate new trends for the industry.
I am very lucky to have shadowed my father from a young age, both in the factory and in the board room. From that experience, I learned that a leader must know how to roll the sleeves up and dive into the trenches, whilst maintaining the ability to develop strategy and drive growth.
Although we embrace values from both East and West, integrity and consistency ultimately remain at the core.
The spirit of perseverance and venturing into unchartered territory is deeply ingrained in my DNA today.
Your grandmother was a journalist in the 1970s, having founded “The Vietnamese Woman” magazine, and your father was a single parent raising you and running a business. Both challenged the norm in their own ways, do you think that rubbed off on you too?
Very much so. My father taught me that there are always solutions to any problem. If you ask the right questions and unearth all the possibilities, any challenge can find resolve. Even if you are faced with a “no,” do not be discouraged. You can always discover ways to press onwards until the desired outcome is reached.
I believe he inherited this unyielding ability to problem solve from my grandmother. She was a single mother and an established journalist in Ho Chi Minh City during the 1970’s, which was (and still is) rare for Vietnam. My grandmother was ahead of her time in an extremely traditional society, her journey was undoubtedly met with hardship and bias. Both of which she overcame with integrity, persistence and creativity. As a result, she pioneered many firsts. She founded one of the first Women’s Magazines in the country, hosted dignitaries and championed philanthropic initiatives. The spirit of perseverance and venturing into unchartered territory is deeply ingrained in my DNA today.
You’ve talked about the company as being like your first sibling, as your father was just 21 years old when you were born and you spent your youth being around the business. Was it always the plan for you to join the firm?
I have always known I wanted to be part of the family business. Since the age of eight, I wanted to be in a position to give my father the option of an early retirement. Taking over the management of the daily operations was simply part of that plan.
Throughout my childhood, I was aware of our unique circumstance and of my father’s dedication to building a meaningful life for us. I can only imagine the daunting challenge of raising an infant and operating a manufacturing start up at the age of 21, without a family support network. It was just the two of us, my Mr. Mom and me. My desire to give him the option of an early retirement stems from my ambition to gift time back to him.
… ENHANCING AND GROWING AS THE SECOND GENERATION….
As the second generation, there is pressure on you to sustain and grow the business. Do you feel the weight of that expectation and legacy?
One important lesson I learned is that I cannot continue to grow the business the same way that my father did because the business landscape has dramatically changed over the past 30 years.
If any new generation feels they can follow the same strategy as the generation before and achieve the same success, I highly encourage them to re-evaluate that notion.
With respect to sustaining the business, my father and I have a collaborative partnership. He is my Chairman, after all. He has decades of extremely valuable technical knowledge and industry experience. At the same time, I bring a different set of skills, particularly in supply chain, business intelligence and business development. Our fortes are complementary.
In terms of growing the business, I spend a significant amount of time observing the industry trajectory, identifying new opportunities and developing strategy that compliments our strengths.
I’m an avid believer of bringing the sexy back to mature industries. Wood manufacturing is one of them, it has been fun spicing up the business in my own way.
With respect to legacy, my vision is to have a lineage of outstanding individuals who bring positive impact to society, regardless of their career choice.
… AND PREPARING FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
The subject of succession is a tricky one to approach. How did the conversation with your father go?
By my seventh year in the business, I immersed myself in every key department, delving deep into the inner workings of Production, Human Resources, Customer Service/Sales, Finance/Accounting and more. Through each tenure, I optimised processes, upskilled talent and established new metrics, resulting in improved overall performance. My father acknowledged the knowledge and capabilities I developed, leading to an open and supportive dialogue regarding succession.
Before we began our transition, we engaged a coach to help design a plan and to hold us accountable for our commitments. It was extremely important that he understood our family values and perspectives from both generations. That experience was extremely valuable for us.
As the shirtsleeves-to-shirtsleeves adage goes, the first generation builds the business, the second grows it and the third squanders it. Do you have a third-generation preparation plan already in place for your younger siblings?
I do not want to impose an expectation on future generations to join the business. I understand it can be an overwhelming shadow throughout their youth and may prevent them from dreaming of alternative futures.
My objective is to build a succession plan for the company based on merit. Designed to welcome both family and non-family members. Strong company performance requires matching the right talent to the right role. If my siblings express interest in joining the business, I would be ecstatic and encourage them to apply through the HR department – where a role and career path that complements their strengths and passions will be identified. Regardless of their decision to join or not, I am determined to establish a comprehensive framework that will equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to become proficient business owners.
With respect to legacy, my vision is to have a lineage of outstanding individuals who bring positive impact to society, regardless of their career choice. In order to achieve this, I believe they must have two key skills: the ability to understand and connect with others; and to make good decisions, with our family’s core values as their guide.
To foster these skills from a young age, I would insist on their participation in philosophy courses and improvisation classes. Philosophy will provide a broader understanding of the world and their role in it, while improvisation will enhance their communication and interpersonal skills with people from all walks of life.