Vietnam’s Madame Hien stays ahead of the game

Vietnamese entrepreneur and seafood producer Pham Thi Dieu Hien is determined to stay one step ahead of the game. It is just five years since she established Bianfishco, but already it has become one of the country’s top three pangasius producers and exporters with an annual turnover of USD 100 million.

However, Madame Hien does not want to be dependent on a single product — IQF boneless and skinless pangasius fillets — so she is now building a huge factory to produce a broad range of value-added seafood products, even ready meals.

This brand new processing unit will be on the same site as her existing filleting and freezing plant but will be three times the size. In announcing her plans for the new project, Madame Hien didn’t provide any figures, but observers estimate that it will cost about USD 150 million to build and equip the new unit, more than double the amount spent on the original plant, which cost USD 60 million.

Unlike the existing factory, which produces just frozen boneless and skinless pangasius fillets and has the capacity to process 50,000 metric tons of fish annually, the new plant will produce a wide variety of value-added products from different Vietnamese seafood species, including shrimp. (Stretched torpedo shrimp and spring rolls are two non-pangasius products which have already been developed, while pangasius-filled dim sum is also in the pipeline.)

To this end, the latest machinery will be imported from around the world from breading, marinating, cooking, baking, pre-frying and forming to advanced freezing and automatic packing.

As for the new value-added product range itself, Madame Hien has already hired a product development specialist from Agrex Saigon, where staff have been trained to produce products for the Japanese market. Plus, she plans to bring in a leading chef from France to develop totally new ideas. As well as value-added products, there will be a separate but integrated factory in the new unit to produce a high-end fish sauce for the international market.

Also part of the whole new processing area will be dedicated to byproducts such as pangasius fat, which will be processed into “the finest cooking oils mostly appreciated in the Arab countries,” according to Madame Hien. Muslims are forbidden from eating pork products for religious reasons.

A large, well-equipped test kitchen is already in operation, and Madame Hien proudly stated that there are more than 120 different samples waiting to be turned into new products.

The new factory is due to be in operation by the end of this year, and not a moment too soon. It is difficult to get an accurate figure for Vietnam’s pangasius production, but the indications are that in 2011 it could be down by as much as 30 percent compared with this year. Bianfishco has its own farms, which are GlobalGAP certified, but these produce only about 30 percent of the company’s requirements.

Pangasius farmers are experiencing severe financial problems that are forcing them to leave ponds empty. The Vietnamese dong has lost about 20 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, and even more against the euro, during the past year, so export prices are declining, while at the same time the cost of feed and juveniles is increasing.

Finally, there are major problems looming ahead in the United States for the export of pangasius. This is currently Bianfishco’s major market, so the move into value-added products using other species is very timely.

It also sums up Madame Hien’s business philosophy. She has the financial wherewithal, drive and determination to go her own way, and so far has been very successful. She typifies the type of business tycoon and entrepreneur that was once common in the seafood industry, but now seems to have become submerged by big company culture.

What she will move on to now is anybody’s guess.

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