Timen Swijtink first set foot in Vietnam in the summer of 2006, accompanying a friend on the backpacker loop of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Initially planning to spend four weeks in Vietnam, he stayed five, enamoured by the country’s charm and beauty.
Vietnam remained the most memorable part of his trip, and he was struck by the energy of a country going through early but rapid development. “I had no plans to return, but felt drawn to be part of the story.” he explained. Swijtink returned to college in Holland where he shared tales of his Vietnamese travels with a faculty member with family in Da Lat.
After he graduated the following year, the faculty member offered him a job with her family’s business. Uncertain what he wanted to do in his immediate future, Timen decided to defer a master’s degree, accept the Vietnam job and continue his studies in Japan later.
The company was a Dutch-Vietnamese tour operator that provided package trips to Dutch tourists. Timen’s role was to travel the tour routes, scout locations, and develop relationships with local service providers. Tours typically lasted a month, running from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta, up to Danang then on to Hue, Hanoi and Sapa. The experience deepened his love for Vietnam.
Turning To Japan
After completing his six-month experience working in tourism, Timen travelled to Japan to look at study options. He spent a month exploring the country, and was struck by the cultural differences between Japan and Vietnam. “I realised there was a huge divide, and no matter how long you live and adapt yourself, there is always a feeling of being an outsider.” he explained.
While in Tokyo he was impressed by the vibrant nightlife scene of the city, and the modern, fresh feel to websites promoting clubs, bars and events This was before the days of sites like AnyArena, and when Facebook was still in its infancy in Vietnam. He returned to HCMC and, inspired by what he had seen in Japan, started a ‘what’s-on’ guide called OutInSaigon.com. “The site was well received and the Facebook group was a fair size for the time, so we started doing off-line events. The first one at Cage was a huge success so we decided to do them regularly. Our parties caught the interest of Tan Khoa Distribution who started sponsoring with Grey Goose vodka. This was my first experience with wine and spirits marketing, which I would eventually start working in,” Timen told me.
The events grew in size and sophistication, and Tan Khoa offered Timen a position as their spirits portfolio manager. In this role, he took responsibility for strategy and implementation of their spirits brand portfolio.
During his time at Tan Khoa, one of the brand portfolios Timen took responsibility for was Campari, and during an annual brand summit in Singapore he met the director of Remy Cointreau. Impressed by what he had achieved at Tan Khao, the Remy director suggested he get in touch if ever looking for a new challenge.
Eventually that time came, and Timen was offered a brand manager role with the company in Singapore. Tempted, but unwilling to leave Vietnam after four years, he declined. Three months later, Remy called again, this time offering him a HCMC-based position of marketing manager for Indochina, including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
This job was just too good to turn down, and allowed Timen to go from a relatively limited marketing budget at Tan Khoa to one that was much larger and with huge reach and opportunities. He used the budget to target exciting new customer segments, with promotions such as the countrywide Centaur Dance Showdown, which became a regional marketing platform, and events at the Cannes Film Festival.
Whiskey and Cigars
Also in Timen’s new portfolio was Remy’s premier cognac brand, LOUIS XIII, targeted at high-end Vietnamese consumers. It was through this brand that he developed a taste for cigars and, with a friend and business partner, decided to open The Saigon Cigar Club as a place where aficionados and connoisseurs could come together to enjoy premium smokes.
“The club started as a hobby which has now gone overboard as the cigar smoking community has grown.” Timen explained. “We now have a cigar club in Hanoi and people come to us for advice and education about the world of cigars.”
It was about this time that Timen decided to leave the corporate world and branch out on his own. He opened a marketing company, Inbius, specialising in brand development and operational consultancy, and has since helped build successful companies throughout the country.
One of his most recent projects is The Whisky Library in Hanoi, the authority on whiskies in Vietnam and part of the new Els Performance Golf Academy, and overlooking the golf course and state-of-the-art driving facilities. Although only recently opened, the lounge boasts the largest selection of whisky in the country, and will hold 350 different varieties by the year’s end.
Food and beverage have featured heavily in Timen’s brand development business, starting with Banh Nam, bringing the traditional banh mi into a more modern environment with an emphasis on hygiene and quality ingredients. This year saw the launch of VuiDelivery, a food and beverage delivery brand portfolio that includes The Breakfast Club, Toastie, Chairman Bao, The Beer Fridge, Poke Bowl Express and Nashville Fire Chicken.
Recent months have also seen the launch of European Design Solutions with flagship brand Poggenpohl, a very high-end German kitchen brand launching in Hanoi. Another personal project of Timen’s is the opening of art gallery Couleurs d’Asie by Réhahn in Saigon, featuring the work of the renowned Hoi An-based photographer.
Timen tells me that projects in the pipeline are more community centred, possibly including a water management programme, drawing on expertise from his homeland, Holland. Another potential project looks at energy conservation in homes and businesses. Still a young man, he is motivated and ambitious with a huge future in front of him.