A Cambodian-French executive wants to see local aviation soar
As CEO of Philjets, French-Cambodian Thierry Yung Hann Tea may have his head in the clouds, thinking up numerous ways to redefine the experience in the air. But his feet seem to be firmly planted on the ground, ready to put in the hard work and creative strategies to push his vision forward.
BoardRoom Watch met up with the young 36-year-old multi-hyphenated entrepreneur at the NAIA office of Ascent, a new transportation service, done in partnership with Philjets, which offers executives and professionals a ride-sharing experience on a chopper. For this interview, we flew from the helipad of Manila Peninsula in Makati City to the airport, enjoying the impressive, 360-degree view of Metro Manila and the Manila Bay. It took no more than five minutes, a mere fraction of what it would have taken if we had gone by land.
“We saw the challenge of many executives, and wanted to offer a real solution,” says Tea, explaining the new endeavor. “Now, instead of being stuck in traffic and wasting hours on the road, you can schedule numerous meetings across the city, from NAIA to Makati, BGC [Bonifacio Global City] and Quezon City.” This new transport option will officially be launched in the coming weeks.
An indefatigable problem solver, Tea has always been nimble in thought and movement. It is these very qualities that have enabled him to rise quickly through the ranks of the companies he has worked for. But now, as his own boss, he continues to break his own impressive standards.
In 2009, at the very young age of 27, Tea became President and CEO of Airbus Helicopters Philippines, an extraordinary feat considering that he only entered the company – Airbus Helicopters in Paris – as an intern under the trainee program three years earlier.
The graduate of Negocia Business School, Paris and Inseec Business School simply laughs and waves off his achievements. “It was truly whirlwind,” he says, reporting that success came after numerous rejections. Despite that, Tea never found his spirits dampened. He knew that there was a greater force under his wings, which assured his inevitable liftoff.
In the blood
“I had always wanted to have my own business,” Tea says. “And becoming an entrepreneur was really my dream as a kid.”
Business was in his blood. His grandparents were thriving entrepreneurs in Cambodia. On his father’s side, the family engaged in flour milling, while mother’s side manufactured bicycles. His parents had lofty dreams for themselves, but, sadly, these were cut short by the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, which his grandparents did not emerge from and forced his parents to seek refuge in Europe.
“The experience made me realize that we only had one life to live. Life is so short, so you want to make sure that you build a legacy for your children and family,” he says.
“On my father’s side,” he adds, “there were nine children, but only two of them survived. On my mother’s side, they all survived but had nothing more. So, when it came to my time, I wanted to build something that we did not have.” This horrific watershed in his family history has served as a particularly strong catalyst for Tea to work at terrific speed and with such passion, not just in Philjets, but in all his enterprises.
Aside from Philjets, Tea also sits as one of the members of the Advisory Board of Social Entrepreneurship of MakeSense; heads Negocia Ventures, which provides real estate, tech, agribusiness, food processing, media, luxury retail, aerospace and HR services and also manages Jewelmer Joaillerie – the Philippine luxury brand of pearls – in Cambodia.
Back to his family history, Tea says: “When my parents moved to France [when they were 17 or 19], they really had to work hard and start from nothing. It was the typical Asian immigrant narrative: My mother worked as a nanny, cleaning homes, and as a seamstress, and my father as a taxi driver and dishwasher at restaurants.” Tea and his brother Alexandre Yung Hong Tea were born in France.
“My parents sacrificed a lot of their youth to give me and my brother a good life. They worked hard and moved up, and eventually took on regular jobs as low-level clerks in an insurance company. This really motivated me to change my life and made me committed to support them as well. The future I’m working on now is because of them,” he says.
His parents and family became his early mentors in life and business. He credits his strict work ethic to his parents, and his keen business sense to his grandparents. But he has found many more along his professional path, from former bosses, associates and even clients-turned-lifelong friends.
He names Ramon Ang, Babes Romualdez, Hans Sy and Robbie Delgado among those whom he highly respects. “From Ramon Ang, I learned the importance of having a vision, from Henry Sy, how to work hard while staying humble, from Robbie Delgado, family values and corporate governance, and from Romualdez, networking and PR. Levy Laus of LGC Laus Group of Company as well – I owe him a lot, because he was one of our first supporters, and he taught me more about friendship,” he says.
He also saw a clear commonality among these notable gentlemen. “What you learn from all of them is the importance of hard work, being persistent and passionate and the commitment to take care of your clients, employees and partners. I think that’s what they do very well,” Tea says. Oh, what you can learn from people when sharing a seat on a flight – or even a chopper ride!
Philjets celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, and Tea proudly says that it holds a significant stake in the aviation industry. “In the next five to 10 years, we want to be the largest nationwide business company and aim to expand regionally, in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. We want Philippine aviation to be strong domestically, but also become a regional power player. That’s one of our missions,” he adds.
The aviation industry resonates particularly with Tea because it reflects how he sees all of his businesses. “It’s all about interconnectivity – connecting people, clients, business and opportunities. My companies integrate the synergies so that everyone can grow and prosper.” Whether it’s his aviation business, his real estate development company, or his start-up ventures, here in the Philippines, Cambodia or the rest of the world, Tea chooses to look at the grander scheme of things and work out ways to further bridge opportunities.
In addition to Philjets, he’s focused on Negocia, which deals with property development in Cambodia. “It’s our next big thing because all the tycoons I had mentioned earlier are looking to expand in real estate. If we can bring the Philippines to Cambodia, then that is our next cross development.”
Giving back to Cambodia and his adopted homeland forms part of his growth blueprint. Wherever he sets up shop, he makes sure to give more back to the community than through just the businesses he establishes. Today, he’s heavily involved in charities and foundations that are “incubators” and “accelerators” of start-up enterprises such as MakeSense Philippines and Tech for Growth. “In Cambodia, I am also involved with a foundation called Khmersight, which provides medical care and surgeries to bring back sight back to people who suffer from cataract and other problems. It’s fulfilling to be able to change people’s lives,” he says.
With his birthday approaching (April 22), this man with grand dreams says that he is content to celebrate simply. “I just want to spend quality time with my wife and kids.” Tea and the family intend to fly to Europe for some precious bonding time. He is married to Lynda Him, an empowered, modern woman who heads Primalis, a rice milling and processing company that exports high quality rice from Cambodia. The couple are doting parents to two-year-old Julia, born in St. Luke’s BGC, and one-year-old Anton William, born in Makati Medical Center.
“Family time is very important to me. This is why I’ve worked so hard – to return the gratitude to my grandparents, my parents and for my kids. I always try to remember what’s important,” he says.
What else does this tireless CEO aim to achieve? At 36, he’s evidently far from the peak of his career. But as he spends hours plotting the trajectory of his businesses and his life, he apparently never lets these expectations weigh him down.
“It’s all about perspective,” he says. “If I compare myself to who I was five or 10 years ago, I have achieved a lot. But if I compare myself to people like Lucio Tan and Jack Ma, then I have achieved nothing. I think a little perspective is always good.”
“So the question now is, ‘Do I want to be a Jack Ma, a Ramon Ang or a Zobel?’ After much thought, all I can say is that I want to be myself, and what I ask from myself in the next five to 10 years are just more meaningful achievements.”
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN