Escaping Canadian freezing winters, CFO Chris Farwell has found the heat at TMG

TMG – After years of escaping Canadian freezing winters, Christopher Farwell has found the heat he has always desired at TMG. That’s how his Vivu Journeys began and kept going on.

Returning to Vietnam on the 28th birthday anniversary of Thien Minh Group, Mr. Christopher Farwell joined the special celebration with his beloved colleagues at TUI BLUE Nam Hoi An after more than two years of Covid-19. During days full of tasks, the newly appointed CFO found time to sit and talk about him and the inspiring TMG.

Olá. Que dia maravilhoso está na terra hoje, e o clima é super adequado para férias notáveis.

Hello everyone. My name is Chris Farwell. I hope my Portuguese was okay for my Portuguese colleagues working for us at Vivu Journeys. What I was trying to say is what a great day it is to be alive and be here in this lovely part of the world, Vietnam. I’m with you here today in one of our beautiful Apartments in the Flower Garden Hotel in Hanoi, and newly renovated. I’m living in one upstairs at the moment because I’ve just moved here to Vietnam. And I can tell you, they’re fantastic. I love being here in Flower Garden in our Apartments.

Now, I’ve moved to Hanoi, and I hope to really immerse myself in Hanoi and really become a part of Vietnamese when I’m here. I’m the managing director of the travel pillar, which includes our great brands, people journeys, SLC representation, and our cruises in Halong Bay and the Mekong River. I’m also the group CFO for TMG. And I sit on the executive committee, as well, working with Kien and Kong to develop the strategy and make the success of the company. 

1. People keep saying that you're a real global citizen. Can you tell us why?

I’m a Canadian, but I haven’t been in Canada for quite a long time now. I lived in Australia for 7 years, then in Singapore for 4 years, and in Portugal and Spain for another 4 years. So, I’ve been traveling quite a bit.

2. Your a bit traveling is quite shockingly a bit. Is there anyone who can keep up with that pace of yours? Are you taken?

Well, I’m taken now, my partner is Mallory. She’s moving here as well, very soon. She’s in the US at the moment.

3. Who are your favorite people in life?

My favorite people, of course, are my family, my friends, my partner Mallory of course, and the people I work with at TMG as well. I enjoy working with them so much, and I’ve been with TMG for 8 years now. 

4. Now that you're in Hanoi, how do you enjoy the weather? I heard that you were on vacations looking for warmth since you're a kid?

I really enjoy the weather because I love the heat. So I’m happy to be here in Hanoi and Vietnam finally and back at the heart of TMG.

I’m the opposite of what most Canadians will be, you know, that most Canadians would arrive in Vietnam and also hot here. I am sweating. Yeah, because of the humidity. But I hated the winters my whole life and being cold all the time. And so now, you know, I wanted to get out of the Canadian winters. And so that’s why I moved to Australia. And so now, here I’m very happy. Like even now, with the air conditioning on, I’m a bit cold. To be honest, I don’t turn on the air conditioning when I’m on my own. I love the heat. 

So yeah, you know, 15 years ago that started the journey. But as well, I’ve always loved to travel. So it was to see the world as well. I wanted to do something different other than stay in Canada my whole life, and experience the world experience new cultures, and make my own path.

5. Have you experienced Hanoi winter before?

When I was living in Singapore, I would come once a month to Hanoi, at least for a week at a time. So I have experienced winter, and it does get cold sometimes, so I’ll probably just have to head down to Sai Gon, Hoi An for a little bit and work down there. It will be fine, I’m sure.

6. How would you compare Canadian winters and those in Hanoi? You know winter is coming, right?

Ah, no comparison. I mean, in the winter in Canada could be -40 degrees sometimes. It’s snowing. I mean it’s lovely when it’s Christmas time or when you go skiing. But day to day? And the days are so short. You know, maybe the sun rises at 9 o’clock and sets at 3 p.m. So it can be quite hard. So I’m not worried about the winter in Hanoi at all.

7. People see you now and there. But actually, what brought you here in Hanoi, Vietnam?

It’s been a bit of a long journey. It started eight years ago with Kien. I used to work for Flight Center in Australia when Flight Center and TMG did the Buffalo Tours joint venture. I then joined the CFO for Buffalo tours. And so I remember meeting Kien in Brisbane, Australia, for lunch to interview for the role. And I had never been to Vietnam before I really hadn’t traveled much in Asia, to be honest. 

So I met Kien. And he was very pleasant, very kind, of course, and we had a really good chat at lunch, and he said, ‘okay, great. When can you start?’ I said, ‘Well, when do you need me?’ And he said ‘next week would be great if you could move up to Singapore’. And so I was going through a lot of transition at the time in Australia, so I was happy to move straightaway. And so the next week, I’d moved to Singapore and was in Vietnam and in Singapore with Buffalo Tours and then setting up our European operations, and now coming full circle back to Hanoi. So it’s been a great journey to get here.

8. You were also recently at the group's big celebration, weren't you?

Yeah, it was great, TMG’s 28th birthday. So it was really a great celebration. Because of Covid, we haven’t been to get together and be all in the same place. Usually, every September, we would do this celebration. But the last two years, of course, Covid has affected that. And September 2021 was probably the worst one. Because the pandemic was raging in Vietnam at that time, and I was still in Europe. So everybody was online last year, which was very difficult to see, and very tough times for the company. 

So this year was a great celebration. We’ve got good parts of the business growing. Still some recovery to come for the inbound, but you could see the joy in everybody’s face, and being able to see everybody in person, there’s no substitute for that. You doing the team’s celebration is not the same as meeting the person enjoying them. So it was fantastic.

9. Did you have fun at the event?

Ah, well, I definitely had fun. It’s always fun. There are a lot of team-building activities and a gala dinner that usually ends in the pool party as well. So, people enjoyed themselves. For me, as part of TMG EXCOM, then the biggest pleasure comes from seeing our team enjoying themselves and being able to celebrate because everybody works so hard. And you know, the celebration was really for the top 10 to 15% of the company. So the top performers, so it’s great to reward those people and acknowledge them. 

Also, we had a few people from Laos come over as well. And, you know, first time getting a passport to travel outside of the country, you know, some of our drivers getting recognized. So really, everybody in the company, the real hard workers that bring everything together, it’s so important to recognize them and see the pleasure in their faces that they’re being recognized for this. So that was the best part for me.

10. That’s the story in Vietnam. Can you share your story during the past two years in Europe?

Yeah, so I mean, it was difficult everywhere. And I think Europe was probably about 12 months ahead of Vietnam in terms of going through the pandemic. So it was a lot of what we went through in Europe with the lockdowns and the intense Covid cases that came and then coming out of it as well first before Vietnam. It was quite invaluable, I think, for Vietnam to then see, okay, how was Europe? Come out of this? And what are they going through so that we can see what’s coming. So I think Vietnam has an advantage with that. 

But I think the hardest part of being in Europe was the isolation from the rest of the team. So before the pandemic, I would come travel to Vietnam quite frequently. And all the different destinations that I look after. That was the hardest part not being able to be with the team and see them in person and help everybody through it. Yeah, tough times. But I’m glad we’re finally coming out. And on the upward trajectory, finally.

11. When was the moment or event you thought, ah, this is it, I just saw the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel?

I think it was when Vietnam finally opened up to the world in March again and then in May when all the restrictions got eased. So probably the May one was the biggest one where all the restrictions were eased, because Vietnam is always going to be our biggest part of the group, right? That’s where most of our business and assets are. So there was some fear before that, maybe I think this was everywhere, people would be very worried to travel, people would be very worried about tourists coming into the destinations and you know, potentially bringing Covid. 

But that was the light at the end of the tunnel; you could finally see it. That stage really in May, that okay, things are going to are reopening, we’re finally on the way out. So that was where it finally clicked for me that which, you know, was only what, four months ago. So it feels like a lifetime ago, to be honest, because we’ve done so much since then. But it’s been great, you know, to be busy operating again and reopening the countries has been fantastic. So yeah, it’s been great since then.

12. Is there anything your Vietnamese colleagues should be aware of regarding foreigners' traveling behavior?

I think it’s shown that people want to travel. They will always have that desire to travel, and I think that was one of the worries as well. Going through Covid will travel come back? And we’ve seen it. Yes, people love to travel; they will always want to travel. Vietnam is an amazing destination. It’s got so much in terms of the culture, the beach, the food to enjoy, so it’s got a lot going for itself. 

There will always be a demand for Vietnam for travelers to come to Vietnam. And we’ve seen that what’s held us back has been the flight capacity really, and the pricing of the flights with the war in Ukraine as well. So now that we’re seeing the flight capacity come back, the oil prices are coming down. 

So now some of the flight prices are reducing as well. Once those two factors are fixed, and I think we will see a real return of travel to Vietnam as well, there are still those two concerns and a potential global recession coming as well. I think that’s a bit of a concern for people. But that’s okay. We’ve dealt with global recessions in the past. And we’ve always seen the travel trend to continue, it’s just the spend might be different. But people still want to travel.

13. You're generously sharing so much, yet I feel like we did not hear enough from you at the event?

Well, unfortunately, I don’t speak Vietnamese yet. So I will be starting lessons very soon, now that I’ve moved to Hanoi. So that’s probably why you didn’t hear much from me on that night. Because I think Kien, of course, he is always a great speaker. And he was right to address everybody in Vietnamese because 98% of the people that were there were Vietnamese. 

So really, I just want to say thank you to the whole team for everything that they’ve done over the last two and a half years. Really, it’s been absolutely the toughest time that TMG and the travel industry have ever had to go through. Fingers crossed that, and I hope that we will never have to do anything like this again. But it’s showing a real strength from everybody to get through this and stick with TMG and the travel industry. 

I think, at this stage, if you’ve stuck around and you’re still working in travel, you really have a passion for it. Because it would have been easy to quit and go to another industry that was doing well. I think you have to have a passion for travel. And I think you have to have a passion for TMG as well. And I think that’s really a tribute to Kien and the rest of the leaders across the group on what a great job they’ve done to build this company and create that sense of family. Yeah, just to say thank you for sticking around.

14. I remember you were wandering around the restaurant, inviting people to sit with you because your colleagues did not want to sit at the same table. Are you a terrifying boss, or why do you think?

I hope not. I hope I’m not a terrifying boss, I think. And I always get around. I think it’s getting better. But I don’t know. I think you’ll have to ask the team why they don’t want to sit beside me. Why they’re so scared? Good question for them. 

15. Do you think they're afraid of you?

No, I think I don’t think they’re afraid of me at all. I think it’s just there’s pressure. Yeah, they’re shy, too shy to talk to the boss. I get it. Probably their age, I would have been shy to talk to the boss as well, because it’s pressure. 

16. In your opinion, should the employee be afraid of the boss?

No, they should definitely not be afraid of their boss. And I don’t think they’re afraid of me, or Kien either, for that matter. They know we’re kind and people. So it’s more about, yeah, just being a bit shy. That’s all.

17. What word describes you the best, a boss, a leader, or a trusted colleague?

I think it’s got to be leadership and when, like a leader and when I say leader, that doesn’t mean manager, or Yes, I’m the boss. But I think for me, I’ve always felt that a leader has to lead. So what does that mean? You have to lead from the front. So it’s not about sitting at the back, telling people what to do. And it’s about leading by example. It’s about when times get tough, rolling up your sleeves and digging in and helping.

So during Covid, you know, I did anything from making reservations for people in the system to helping to do new sales pitches, helping with operations, you know, when customers had trouble calling up when we were short staffed because we had to be very lean during the pandemic. So I couldn’t just sit back and say, No, I’m the managing director. That’s beneath me, I’m not going to do a reservation, or I’m not going to do that to help a customer when they need to. You have to step up. 

And I think oftentimes people want to move up in a company or they want to be the boss because they see it as a, you can get paid a lot of money, sit back and relax. Now, I think the job always gets harder the further you move up, and it’s not for everybody, I think, because I think it should be harder. I think you have to have that weight on your shoulders. 

And you know, I see that with Kien as well. I mean, he’s always the hardest working person in the company. I think sometimes he works too hard. But I think as the boss, you have to be probably the hardest working person in the company, and that’s just the way it is to lead.

18. Do you think it's important to have conversations with colleagues from all levels?

I think it’s always important that you need to speak to everybody and develop that relationship. You can’t, if you only speak to the senior leaders that I have around me, you might not get the clearest view of the company and how it’s actually tracking because you’re always speaking to a very few, a very small part of the company. 

So I think it’s important that you know, as the leader, you’re speaking to everybody, engaging with them and helping to build that culture around you. I think you should want to talk to everybody and see how it’s going and connect with them on a personal level. For me, it’s a no-brainer, but I think that’s how I feel. And that’s my leadership style.

19. Is there any relevant quote that you find meaningful in terms of work ethics?

Be like a duck. So, calm on the surface but paddling like hell underneath. So as a leader, I always feel you have to project a calm demeanor to the team, that things are under control. Even if you might be really working hard and scrambling beneath the water, beneath the surface, you have to have a strong, confident outlook for the team. And so that’s always been the way I’ve worked and how I like to live my life. 

And as well another quote was just You can sleep when you’re dead. So work hard, enjoy life, you know, don’t worry too much about, you know, sleeping and relaxing. And of course, you need to relax when you can. And I do enjoy that as well. But enjoy life and enjoy work and work hard, play hard.

20. Let’s get back to living in Vietnam. If there's a thing that you don't like about Vietnam, what is it?

I mean, it’s hard. I don’t think there’s anything that I don’t like about Vietnam, to be honest. I mean, there’s always little things here and there, of any country, I mean Canada as well, that bother me sometimes. But no, you have to be open. If you want to live in a different country and you want to explore the world, you have to be open to new things. And you have to want to experience those things. And if you don’t, that’s fine. 

Travel really opens your eyes to the world and the different cultures, different views. I wouldn’t live in a different country if I didn’t want to experience that.

21. How many languages do you speak? How about Vietnamese?

Well, really only English at this stage. I speak a little bit of Portuguese, a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of French, you know, from Canada growing up, and then Portuguese and Spanish living there. But unfortunately, I wouldn’t say I’m fluent in any other languages. I can get by and just hold a brief conversation here and there. 

But fingers crossed. If, by this time next year, you ask me the same question, I can say Vietnamese to a certain level. I know that it’s quite a difficult language, I think, it’s what most people tell me. But you know, I’m living here. I think I don’t want to be an expat. I will be working very hard on Vietnamese over the coming year. So. 

22. Can you try saying something in Vietnamese to whoever you want to?

Ah, well, Xin chào. I’m trying to think of how to say happy birthday, but it’s left me at the moment. But well, I know Happy New Year – Chúc mừng năm mới. I think the most difficult part is the tones, of course. So focusing on that, but just Xin cảm ơn to all the TMGers out there. And just thank you for welcoming me back to Vietnam and for everything you’ve done with me over the last eight years. 

23. You said earlier that you're taken. Do you already know how to say I love you so much in Vietnamese?

Ah, no, I don’t know how. Can you? 

‘I love u so much’ equals ‘Anh yêu em rất nhiều”. 

Oh, it’s pretty tough. “Anh yeu em rat nhieu”. 

Hopefully, again, in less than a year’s time, I can say that a lot better. 

24. Is there anything left you would want to say to our viewers?

Just thank you so much again, everyone, for everything you’ve done with me in the last 8 years. And look forward to the very bright future of TMG.

Thank you so much for your sharing.

Through 28 years of establishment and development, Thien Minh Group is honored to be one of Southeast Asia’s leading corporations providing tourism and hotel services. The group’s four main fields of activities are Destination Management, Hospitality, Aviation, and Online, with 10 hotels and resorts, 20 restaurants & bars, 20 cruises and boats, and seaplanes. With well-known brands adored by many domestic and foreign tourists, TMG prides to be a faithful companion that brings the most exceptional experiences to tourists in their itineraries.

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