Beds, frames, tables and tablecloth, kitchen wear and rugs in every possible colour. You name it, August got it. Thanks to him and his UMA-chain, the Vietnamese and expats in Hanoi can get good, Swedish home decor and furniture for an affordable price. They pay back their gratitude by keeping August Wingårdh so busy that he has to expand and hire new staff in order to keep up the demand. In only three years he now has three shops, one office and a warehouse in Hanoi and is employing 80 staff.
“We started with four employees in total, including me. Now, we double our business every year, and I’m very happy with the result,” August Wingårdh says.
Sitting by a table set in his biggest UMA- store in the Hanoi outskirt area called My Dinh, there is no doubt about the inspiration when looking around. It is IKEA. The reason is obvious, since August has worked for the Swedish Furniture Giant in product development for 15 years before going solo.
“With my background I’m inspired by IKEA, also in terms of the way the shops are designed. However, there are no IKEA products or pure copies here, only Scandinavian design,” he emphasizes.
Fell for Vietnam
When IKEA sent August Wingårdh to Vietnam for the first time in 1994, no one knew that it would later seal his future. At that time he was working for the IKEA’s head office in Almhult, Sweden with product development, which is everything from identifying the customers need to developing the products. IKEA was looking to expand to the Asian market with a special focus on Vietnam, and they sent August as the only staff to check out the market.
“I loved Hanoi from the start, the people, the food, everything. The city is very small with such a charming downtown and old quarter. I even liked Vietnam so much, that I agreed to move with my family to Saigon in 98,” August recalls.
However, it didn’t exactly go as planned. Due to the Asian Crisis, IKEA instead decided to send August, his Swedish wife and four children to Singapore. Three years after, in 2001 he got the chance to move to Hanoi to buy things for IKEA stores, and he had the job until the contract expired in 2006.
“Now, I had the choice to continue working for IKEA but back in Almhult again. But we wanted to stay in Vietnam, since my wife also had a good job working for the Norwegian Embassy out here. I felt the country had and still has a high speed development. Everyone is positive and wants to grow the country, whereas in Europe people are more negative and talk about financial crisis all the time. So, I asked myself, why not start something up solo,” explains August.
He quickly realized he needed a local partner to deal with language, partnership and so on. The choice fell on My Lan who he met through some mutual friends, and they started as a design company and got a retailer in Sweden who promised to buy and sell their products.
“I’m a product leader and planner, but I’m not a designer. So I found a Danish industrial designer who unfortunately later got a great job for Georg Jensen and had to go back to Denmark with her family,” August says.
The name UMA came from the first letter of August’s wife Ulli, his partner My Land and himself = UMA.
No customers, no orders
Going from being a purchaser from IKEA to start up on your own, there is a big difference.
“With IKEA it was so easy. I just put my name card down and the suppliers were all over me. All of a sudden I was now an unknown brand and was only ordering five chairs instead of 100.000 as before. So, I had to constantly negotiate with the suppliers. It was the biggest challenge for me”.
The UMA-team started designing and producing 150 different products before they discovered that their retailer in Sweden got fired from the shop, which also meant that August had no customer at all.
“I was too naive to rely on one person. After six months of work we had 150 products in stock, high expenses, no customer and no orders,” he says with honesty.
He had invested all his family savings into this, so he had to come up with a solution – fast.
“My Vietnamese partner My Lan and I decided to open up our own 100 m2 shop in downtown Hanoi and sell our products there. The shop opened up in two weeks and we invited all our friends. Of course I was nervous in the beginning but luckily, the customers liked what we had and we sold a lot. Especially one customer was very pushy and demanding, so we hired her as our shop manager,” he tells with a laugh.
Now, there are more than 2000 different products sold in three UMA-shops in Hanoi with 80 staff. The office in My Dinh consists of 15 people plus 20 sales. It is also featured in a weekly Vietnamese TV-show about couples and home decor. In the beginning, all the customers were foreigners, but now August estimates that 80 percent of them are Vietnamese.
“We have been very lucky with our market. People here with money are starting to focus on their homes instead of cars and we managed to cover that demand,” he explains.
Future goals for August
August has so great a success in Hanoi that he is holding seminars to teach companies and Vietnamese suppliers on how to work more sustainable.
“We teach them how environmentally correct products not necessarily have to be ugly,” as he says.
With such a big success in Hanoi, it would be the obvious choice to expand UMA to Ho Chi Minh or another Asia country.
“A lot of people encourage us to do so. But for now, I think we want to stay in Hanoi. I feel we have many more mistakes to make here first,” he says with a laugh, adding: “The goal is to have fun and it would be great to try new things in Hanoi, like open up a restaurant with nice, Scandinavian food. I have been working with all the best and biggest retailers in the world, but I’m happier now. I do something I like, make it my way, and I still have fun. It is great,” August says with a smile.
CT6 My Dinh Song Da, Me Tri, (+844) 224 28 641