What to learn from the leader of Buffalo Tours

On a rainy day in a cafe in Saigon, I have time for subconscious mind to remind me random yet interesting things, one of that is an interview being read a year ago which luckily, I still recall the title.


The interview was about Tran Trong Kien, leader of Thien Minh group- the largest privately owned travel and hospitality group in Vietnam including Buffalo Tours. I got to know this corporation and must admit that most people who work for them are all talented and proud to speak out loud name of the company they are part of. With such entities the story behind the leader is quite difficult to be very authentic since their sales and marketing department controls closely how their brand and personnel are portrayed in different paid and unpaid media outlet.

Nevertheless, if we suppose the interview to be quite true, then we can learn a lot from what this man has to speak for himself and what he does.

A humble leader? Or is it?


Tran Trong Kien graduated from Hanoi Medical University but chased after a totally different path when he jumped to banking industry and tourism afterwards. In both sectors, he could not have been more successful – 2 years in BOD of VP Bank and then CEO of he largest privately owned travel and hospitality group in Vietnam.

What his friends and family have to say about him is totally hidden from media, so in this personal paparazi mission of my own, I can only distill some reflections from his interview. 

A theme constantly repeated over and over again in Buffalo Tours’ story telling and interviews is how many talents are in their group, how equal they are with each other and how the CEO intentionally puts himself in the backdrop.

“I’m merely a person who is capable of connecting talented people together. I’m effectively decisive and can persuade talents to join me. I know what my “style” is, try my best to know what others’ styles are, I don’t project onto others and give them the chance to speak their mind. I neither expect nor control, but whatever being said must be done”

“I neither expect or control, but whatever being said must be done”

My 2nd time reading this article, I notice something different than the last time. In my 1st time reading this, I extracted his last saying when he compares himself as an ant, from that I had the impression of a talented but very humble person. This time, however, I see something else, something to read between the lines about a decisive leader who do not force but enough for people to be scared of. People like those are too confident and self-aware, so they do not need to force people to do anything or voice in an arrogant style.

The talents or the system? Wake up !



Mr. Kien creates a brand that is smooth and rewarding enough so people will just keep pouring in.

What an employee benefits from a company’s brand is a motivation itself for the employee to strive their best because without that brand, the employee will be invisible and anonymous again.

I don’t think he treasures people as much as he claims though. In a smooth system like that, you are easy to be replaced. “I know how to unite talents”, yes, and when one “talent” is gone another one will come and fill the missing piece.

Indeed, Tran Trong Kien did say

“Talented people who can handle different positions need to be built to REPLACE WHEN NECESSARY . We always have clear strategies for necessary positions.”

One of the questions I am often asked is “What company do you work for?”, based from that people are gonna evaluate how good or bad I am, adding to the whatever halo effect created from first impression. However it is important to be aware of one’s role in the system. Think about it this way

When you are out of a brand, who are you?

2 years ago when I was about to quit job, I sent a text message to the boss. Due to illusion of my role to the company, I told him

“I hope that it will not be a loss to the company. I think the company will run well without me”

He looked at me directly in the eyes and said

“Of course”

Precious nuggets of sharing

Other than my very subjective judging and personality diagnosis of famous people, there are a lot of precious sharing we can learn from him

1. (Company Culture) Family, Village, Tribe (Mandy Johnson) which is about how managing a corporation as a village has brought Flight Centre from being a minor retail tourism firm to become the world’s biggest retail tourism firm with 17 billion USD revenue (2014).

2. The leader’s job is to focus on things he can do rather than to think he can do everything. One’s resource is limited and can only focus on one thing. Sufficient stillness is necessary to appropriately appoint activities and mobilize people to create long term value instead of short term.

Again, solitude is not loneliness.

3. Long term vision and how talented people handle Cashflow

“At the most economically demanding period, 2010, I only had 9 million USD but needed 36 million USD more to purchase the Victoria hotel chain (total value 45 million USD). TMG borrowed from IFC 12 million VND, from VPBank 8 million USD and from ACB Bank 16 million USD. I had to leave my position as an independent member of VPBank Board of Director to borrow. TMG’s value at the time was only 35 million USD while it purchased the Victoria chain which was valued at 45 million USD, using the economic leverage of up to 75% borrowed fund. That amount was too large for me. Later on, TMG had to work very hard for many years and sell many shares to IFC and David Do (Australian VIG investment firm’s president) to pay back for this transaction. By 2014, most of all the debts had been paid. ”

Long term vision means not be bothered by immediate scarcity but its potential to move on and keep the cashflow healthy. However not all risk-takers make it so, be careful, ha ha.

2 thoughts on “What to learn from the leader of Buffalo Tours

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