To Vietnamese businesses, the American Dream does not come easy

September 20, 2023 | 04:30 pm PT
Nguyen Thanh Nam Businessman
In 2000, FPT began its venture into producing computer software for foreign markets. Our primary target market was the United States.

In January 2000, we established our first branch in San Jose, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. The director of that branch was a patriotic diasporic Vietnamese.

But the American Dream did not come true for us. After merely one year of operations, FPT USA had to temporarily stop operating due to a lack of customers. We tried everything, with different people attempting to take the reigns of business development. From a Vietnamese expat to a graduate from prestigious MBA programs. What we received were critics, portraying our managers as "delusional about our corporate capability" and our programmers "weak in both expertise and language skills."

It was a total failure. No one cared about a nameless company from Vietnam, a country only known then for the prolonged war. One of our then-potential customers was surprised to learn that it only took one hour to fly from Hanoi to Bangkok. He could not imagine the locations were so close, despite his own flying to Bangkok quite frequently.

Desperate as we were, we attempted again to reach out to local Americans directly. The more they knew about Vietnam, the more likely they would be open to working with Vietnamese, and the more likely they could put aside their prejudices to see our corporate strengths. We received assistance from many kind American friends.

The first Americans who helped us were a senior couple, Walley and Eileen Boerger. Eileen was the CEO of a small company called ProDX in Portland. The couple ended up treating our employees as if they were the couple's family. Somehow ProDX and Eileen agreed to work with us, despite both sides not understanding each other that well due to language barriers. Eileen even hosted several FPT employees in her house, just so that they could more easily learn how to better work with ProDX. I myself stayed at Eileen's house on a few occasions, which we later fondly joked as the great "Boerger Hotel."

The next American friend was a finance expert from U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley, who worked on a daily basis with billion-dollar deals. He is the indirect manager of the wife of FPT America's director Tung, who was the first to propose FPT’s entrance into the American market. The finance expert ended up helping Tung on a personal basis, from renting a house to setting up the FPT America office. No matter how minor the tasks were, the American friend was there.

The next one helping us was Paul Vivek, a former senior manager of U.S.'s GE Healthcare company and Wipro technology services company. He came to Vietnam with the goal of acquiring FPT stakes at a lower price prior to FPT's IPO in 2006. After the deal, Paul returned to the U.S. Although we knew Paul via work, he became a personal friend to many FPT managers.

Tung rented a house neighboring Paul. The two met quite frequently for coffee, which sparked a plenitude of meetings and guidance. As Tung was then a bright young professional with great listening skills, Paul took a liking to his young friend, and helped Tung participate in several professional conferences in information technology. "I could only give you an opportunity to meet these people," Paul said, "the rest lies in your hand. These are the major leagues." It was only a single line of advice from him, but it said a thousand words.

Another time, as Vietnamese employees were worried about our prospect on the American market, Paul gave us some advice: "We are a company managing humans who make technologies, we are not a technology company. We need at least two major markets. We need to understand the clients as much as possible. We need a network of recruitment and training, as extensive as possible. Never forget who we are and where we come from."

Eventually, our team became more confident in what we do, with improved work quality and products. We maintained good relationships with all the people who helped us along the way.

Apart from the American friends who helped us, there were also American counterparts who taught us many painful but necessary lessons. One time, we received a blue-chip client in the aerospace industry. The pilot project went smoothly, and we were hopeful about such a big contract. We made plans and changed the team organization, all in preparation for the big-shot. But the client suddenly changed their attitude, sending us a notice of "14 points of violations in contracts," with some alleged proof of violations. We naively said sorry, hoping to soothe the client, but our good will apology was used as an admittance of guilt. The client and its legal team attempted to cease the contract and claim "losses" from us.

None of us were aware of the legal process in the U.S., which exposed us not only to financial losses but also legal actions. None of us foreign workers were ready for any looming forced deportation. We had to take measures to protect ourselves, and contacted a Vietnamese lawyer, who reviewed the case and agreed to represent us.

The lawyer eventually drafted a careful email, refuting all the claims from the client's allegation and denounced the client for violating the contracts themselves. After several rounds of discussions, we managed to claim back two thirds of the total contract that the client intended not to pay us. A decent settlement for a case in which we thought we had lost everything.

We learned a big lesson: if we want to work in the U.S., we need to know how to protect ourselves, especially on the legal battlefield. Legal battles require lawyers, who charge big bucks by the hour. Many law cases are decided based simply on how long each side can prolong the attrition money needed to pay for the lawyers. It is therefore important to reassure the lawyers of the sound financial basis of the company, so that they can focus on protecting the corporation's rights in the legal trench.

After many years working with foreign partners, we learned many lessons, all unique. Eventually, conflicts of interest arise between every partner. To ensure that both sides can have a beneficial partnership, both sides should learn as much as possible about the overlapping win-win interests that the two corporates share, learn about the legal basis of each market, and have cooperation plans based on an understanding of the foreign partner's business culture and practices.

For example, when working with U.S. partners, legal compliance is a top priority. If there is any legal shadiness, the U.S. partner immediately thinks about taking legal action. This is not the last resort, but just a way out if two sides cannot resolve the misunderstanding themselves. But for Vietnamese, taking legal action could resemble swearing a solemn promise to persecute the other.

In partnerships, Vietnamese companies are usually the smaller and less experienced one. We might need some assistance and guidance, but in every partnership, the two sides need to clearly point out the interests of each side.

Furthermore, to work with foreign partners, Vietnamese corporates need to understand the partners' culture and way of thinking, and how to comply with the partners' laws and system. Only by knowing, understanding, and respecting each other will a partnership stand the test of time.

*Nguyen Thanh Nam is a businessman.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top