At June’s World Economic Forum on East Asia in Nay Pyi Taw, business news channel CNBC dubbed Daw Win Win Tint, managing director of City Mart Holdings, “Myanmar’s Supermarket Queen”. But by her own account, Daw Win Win Tint’s rise to retail royalty was more accident than preordained accession.
Enthused by Myanmar’s nascent economic liberalisation in the 1990s, Daw Win Win Tint and her family decided to expand their trading business but struggled to settle on a sector to invest in. Rather than opt for a hotel, restaurant or travel agency like many other small- to medium-sized enterprises, they decided to open a supermarket on the recommendation of a relative living in Singapore. In December 1996 the first City Mart outlet opened at Aung San Stadium.
A family friend who was working as the general manager of a supermarket in Singapore was hired to draw up the business plan and growth strategy. But with few foreigners living in Yangon and the supermarket concept still unfamiliar to locals, who were more accustomed to traditional outdoor markets, the outlet struggled to attract customers.
After a three-month stint in Yangon the general manager returned to Singapore, leaving Daw Win Win Tint, the family’s eldest child, to take over the role.
“There was no one to manage, so I took over,” the soft-spoken Daw Win Win Tint said in an interview with The Myanmar Times last week at the company’s Sanchaung township headquarters.
“When I first joined the company I was very new to the business. I didn’t know retail. I was very ignorant about business environment, business organisation … I was not really thinking that I could do it for a long time.”
Seventeen years later she has built one of Myanmar’s most recognisable and successful brands.
Fifteen City Mart branches now dot Yangon. The group’s hypermarket chain, Ocean, has five branches in three cities with another under construction in Tarmwe township. The company opened its second Marketplace outlet – an upscale take on City Mart – earlier this month. It also operates 20 City Care pharmacy and beauty products shops, 19 Seasons Bakeries and three branches of City Baby Club. The supermarket, pharmacy, bakery and baby store are generally grouped together in the same retail development.
Seven years ago the group expanded beyond retail with the launch of City Real Estate, which handles the development and leasing of new store locations. Daw Win Win Tint estimates the group has about 4000 employees. Its real estate holdings alone would be valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
But for the first four years the business barely survived off the city’s small expatriate community and Myanmar citizens searching for the foreign products they had discovered while living or travelling abroad.
Only in 2000, Daw Win Win Tint said, did the idea of supermarket shopping finally begin to catch on with Myanmar’s middle-upper class.
“Slowly people started realising the benefit of shopping at a supermarket,” she said.
Even with a growing customer base the supermarket faced a host of challenges.
Import restrictions imposed by Myanmar and sanctions levelled by the United States and European countries made stocking the shelves a tricky task that often included purchasing products through a third country, such as Singapore or Thailand. There was a limited diversity of products and the consistency with which they were shipped to Yangon was sporadic.
“In the beginning it was how to get customers. But later, after getting more customers, our challenge was always supply chain,” she said. “We didn’t do a very good job in fulfilling our customers’ needs. It was always a challenge.”
The country’s decrepit electricity network has meant keeping the lights on at outlets was less than assured. The poorly maintained roads linking Yangon with other cities forced City Mart to invest in a new fleet of trucks to deliver perishable items.
As a female executive leading a major company in Myanmar, Daw Win Win Tint said it was also hard earning respect in the country’s male-dominated business world.
“I had to work harder than the men,” she said. “If I was a man it would have been easier to mingle with other businessmen. Sometimes it is difficult to break the cycle.”
With the majority of economic sanctions against Myanmar lifted and companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever starting production in Myanmar the supply problems have eased considerably. The Yangon-Mandalay highway has dramatically cut distribution times and Daw Win Win Tint has sealed her place amongst the country’s top executives. At the World Economic Forum she was recognised as a Young Global Leader – one of just a handful from Myanmar.
However, Myanmar’s opening has brought a new set of challenges. Chief among these is Yangon’s skyrocketing real estate prices, which Daw Win Win Tint said are so high that the company has temporarily delayed any further expansion in the city.
She said some potential properties the company has looked at have risen in value eight to 10 times over the past three years.
“This is very difficult,” Daw Win Win Tint said of the soaring prices. “This is the biggest challenge now. We expected that they would go up but not this high.”
Instead, the company is focusing on rolling out its Ocean stores to a number of Myanmar’s second-tier cities, including Pyin Oo Lwin, Monywa and Mawlamyine next year.
As a market leader in the retail sector City Mart has also drawn considerable interest from foreign firms looking to enter the country.
The company’s attractiveness is only further bolstered by the fact that City Mart and Daw Win Win Tint have avoided the “crony” label so often affixed to Myanmar businesspeople that were perceived as using government connections to prosper under the former military regime.
Neither the company nor any of its executives are on the US Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals blacklist. US embassy cables released by Wikileaks show Daw Win Win Tint has in the past been a trusted source of information on commodity prices for the embassy, especially in the weeks following the 2008 Cyclone Nargis.
Interested foreign parties have approached her she said but for now the interest is one-sided.
“We are not really looking to sell or bring in a partner,” she said.
Instead, she wants to grow the company organically and is much more open to a public offering. This, however, would depend on the successful overhaul of Myanmar’s stock exchange.
“It could be possible to become a public company but we will have to wait [to see what happens in] the future.”