Nineteen years ago, Win Win Tint took over Yangon’s first hypermarket, which had been opened by her family. As Myanmar opened up to the West in recent years after decades of military rule, the 40-year-old entrepreneur quickly expanded her company, City Mart Holding Co., Ltd., into a chain of 22 supermarkets, seven hypermarkets, 52 convenience stores and 28 upscale bakeries.
Ms. Tint talked to The Wall Street Journal about the challenges of building a business during the period of military rule, when U.S. sanctions left many of her store shelves bare and high import duties meant it cost her family $80,000 to buy a second-hand car. She is optimistic about Myanmar’s future despite slow political changes that have disappointed foreign investors. Below are edited excerpts of her interview with the WSJ:
Why did you decide to manage a supermarket in Yangon?
During the socialist era, people were not allowed to have their own businesses. Then, there was an opening in the 1990s, and my parents opened an import-export company.
One of their business partners [in Singapore] told them that hypermarkets would be a good business. They hired a manager from Singapore, but he left the country after three months. As there was no one to look after the business. I was the eldest child of my family, I finished my diploma in Singapore, came back and became that person. I wasn’t even 21 at the time.
How did consumers react?
At that time, in Myanmar, everyone was still shopping the traditional way at the street markets. People weren’t familiar with the supermarket concept--having a place where you can get everything, from fresh food to fashion products. Early times, consumers thought the supermarket would be expensive because it has closed doors. So they thought it was too exclusive.
In our first two stores, we were unable to attract customers. The breakthrough came after we opened our third supermarket in a shopping mall. It was the first shopping mall of the country. The shoppers were coming in just to experience a new service.
We are now market leaders in Myanmar, with almost $210 million in annual revenues and 6,500 employees.
What were the biggest challenges during the military rule?
Around the year 2000, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the country and the government restrictions limited the import of goods. With sanctions, stocking products on the shelves was a nightmare. We were running out of stock and it lasted for several months.
Consumer goods were incredibly expensive: For a 20-year-old, second-hand car, we paid $80,000. So, how can you afford buying trucks to supply your shops? Same for SIM cards: You had to spend up to $5,000 to buy one. So how can you buy phones to stay in touch with your managers? Today, you can get the same car for $8,000 and a SIM card for $1.50. Things are easier.
We had two bombings in 2005. Two of our stores were targeted on the same day, there were casualties and people were wounded. We tried to recover as quickly as possible, but one store remained closed for two weeks and the other one for one and half months. The memory is still vivid.
We were told that insurgents wanted to create chaos in the city, so they bombed three places and two of those were our stores.
With more international investment coming into Myanmar, are you concerned about foreign competitors?
As Myanmar’s market will grow more, foreign retailers will be in town. We are anticipating that day as I think it’s going to happen in quite a near future. Of course, it’s going to be a challenge, but then I think that as a local player, we understand our customers well and we will be working hard to compete with them. We are continuously pushing ourselves to be better. We have a very aggressive expansion plan. We are investing all we can.
What is it like to be a woman leader in Myanmar?
If I look at management positions in my company, about 70% are women, so in a way we have imbalance. Women are regarded quite well in Myanmar. We put high importance on the mother figure. But then, we are not really expected to be in leadership positions yet.
Of course, we have very prominent women leaders like [Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi, but generally women don’t stay in front of their husbands or male colleagues. They more often choose a supporting role. They just don’t see the fact that they can become somebody more important.
How do you feel about the future of Myanmar?
This is a historical moment for the country with the biggest opening in 2012, and the government decided it was time to reform the country that got a lot of international support. We have great hope that this country will grow in the near future.
I have no relationship with the government in place. People think that you have to be politically connected to be able to do business here, but that is not the case.
Being an entrepreneur here at this very moment, I’m very excited by all the endless opportunities in Myanmar. If we do well right now, we will be part of the nation building, we will be part of the bigger history.