He Went From Novice to Billionaire With Bet on Vietnam Steel

Tran Dinh Long had no experience in steel when he decided to gatecrash the industry back in the mid-1990s, betting Vietnam was going to need a lot more of it as the country developed.

“All I had was passion and a lack of fear,” the founder and chairman of Hoa Phat Group recalled.

Decades later, the business has become so successful that it’s made the 59-year-old entrepreneur a billionaire.

Shares of Hoa Phat more than doubled last year as profit jumped at the nation’s largest listed steelmaker. That’s pushed Long and his wife’s fortune to $1.9 billion after accounting for pledged shares, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Long, who owns 26% of Hoa Phat, says the stock isn’t overvalued despite a price-to-earnings ratio that’s near its highest in more than a decade.

The company is emblematic of the growth of Vietnam’s economy, which evenexpanded last year when many other countries contracted because of the coronavirus. Vietnam has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic, recording fewer than 1,600 cases.

“A newly industrialized country has to build a lot of infrastructure,” Long said in an interview in Hanoi. And that requires iron and steel, he said.

Vietnam’s economyexpanded 2.9% in 2020, and gross domestic product is expected to increase 7.6% this year, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

“If the economy grows by 7% to 8%, steel demand will increase by 10% to 12%,” Long said.

Hoa Phat posted a 40% increase in revenue and a 56% jump in profit in the nine months ended September compared to the same period of the previous year.

That came as Vietnam boosted infrastructure spending. The country’s public investment totaled 406.8 trillion dong ($17.6 billion) in the first 11 months of 2020, according to the General Statistics Office. That’s the highest level for the period in the past decade.

Long returned to the ranks of billionaires after losing that status in 2018 when Hoa Phat’s shares slumped, according to the company.

The Hanoi native started Hoa Phat with friends in 1992 as a distributor of second-hand construction equipment and parts. In 1996, they decided to pivot into steel. In 2017, the company built the $2.6 billion Dung Quat steel complex in central Vietnam.

Hoa Phat is aiming to develop a second Dung Quat steel complex starting in January 2022 and begin operations about three years later, according to Long. The idea is to meet booming demand for hot-rolled coil. The project could help boost annual revenue and profit by as much as 80% from current levels, he said.

“Vietnam ranks low in per-capita steel consumption while the country has only taken the first steps in infrastructure development,” said Pham Mai Trang, Associate Director of Research at Dragon Capital Group, the country’s largest fund manager, which holds a stake of about 6% in Hoa Phat. “With the Dung Quat complex, Hoa Phat became the dominant player.”

Asked about challenges for the company, she said Hoa Phat had to adapt in 2020 to operating at a larger scale as it boosted production capacity. It says the company now has to replicate that success for hot-rolled coil.

Whether it does remains to be seen, but whatever happens, Long says becoming one of the country’s handful of billionaires after his unusual move into steel will mean little to how he lives his life.

“I still have coffee with friends once a day in the same place we’ve been meeting for 20 years,” he said. “Everything is the same.”

— With assistance by Yoojung Lee, Cecile Vannucci, and Michael Arnold

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