New Money and Richard Branson

(AsiaLIFE, October 2015)

Sir Richard Branson’s motivational talk in Saigon brought together an army of young, Vietnamese businesspeople. Lorcan Lovett attends the conference to meet the city’s future tycoons.

About 7000 budding entrepreneurs gave a fanatical welcome to Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson at the finale of Saigon’s biggest motivational conference in last month (September 2015).

MOVE Vietnam 2015, the two-day gathering at Quan Khu 7 stadium, saw renowned speakers sharing their stories of accumulating enormous wealth that would have inspired the humblest banh mi seller to systemise a production line.

So you can imagine the impact felt among the mostly young, ambitious audience whose aim is to make millions of dollars in the next few years. Some even forked out $3,500 for a ticket to meet the tycoon – compare that to Vietnam’s annual income per capita of just over $2000 – while other tickets cost $25.

The event heralded the arrival of the self-help business world to a country expeditiously producing start-ups on its long honeymoon with capitalism. Sir Richard attempted to restrain the hype by cautioning the country’s burgeoning business elite to remember their social responsibility.

He also declared the ‘war on drugs’ void and endorsed the principle of treating drugs as a medical rather than criminal issue, however this lacked salience to the masses who only hours before were whooping the orchestrated chants of ‘your network equals your networth’ and ‘I was born to sell’.

Most people throughout the weekend wore headphones to translate those coveted businesses secrets from English into Vietnamese, but no one needed help to understand the word ‘Branson’ whose arrival was greeted with the same hysteria One Direction might expect.

The 65-year-old came out dancing to Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling before jumping on his armchair and soaking up his untapped fan base.

He talked about Student; a magazine he launched aged 16, which protested against the USA bombing Vietnam. Cue screeching applause.

Entrepreneur and fellow speaker, Kane Minkus, conducted the interview that brushed upon conservation efforts – Sir Richard’s Vietnam visit involved meetings to prevent the importation of rhino horns – as well as his mostly positive views on social media’s influence and current endeavour Virgin Galatic, a space tourism enterprise.

Focusing on business, he told the crowd of hopefuls that setting up his first firm was more challenging than his current role of running 400 businesses.

He advised them to find an idea which will improve people’s lives and abide by his slogan ‘screw it, just do it’.

“Surround yourself with good people who believe in your business idea,” he said. “It is important as a leader that you praise people. Too many business leaders criticize people. People do not perform well if they are criticized.”

He revealed that his parents made him look in the mirror for five minutes when he chastised others because it reflects badly on the person dishing out the criticism.

“Wealth comes with being a successful entrepreneur,” he said. “But you are never more successful in the world than a successful doctor or nurse or bus driver or politician because you are successful at your profession.”

He said “enormous responsibility comes with enormous wealth” and applying skills learnt as an entrepreneur to other aspects of life can offer solutions to problems that politicians may not realize.

The crowd was treated to a few of Sir Richard’s anecdotes such as the origins of Virgin Airlines. The company came about after another airline cancelled a direct flight he booked from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands.

Aged 28 at the time, Sir Richard hired his own plane and chalked on a board the price he’d charge to his fellow passengers caught in the same predicament. The flight quickly filled up, so the next day he contacted Boeing to hire a plane for future journeys.

The celebrity ended the session by opening up the floor for questions. An effusive woman ran towards the stage and, gushing in Vietnamese, urged the star to visit her country three times a year.

Both fan and idol sat together, stoking excitement among the audience who rushed towards them and began taking selfies. The question session rapidly disintegrated into chaos.

As Sir Richard left the stage, stumbling in the wrong direction to the sound of screams ringing around the stadium, a belated pyrotechnics exploded, and his fans were left content under a cloud of confetti.

The billionaire won’t forget his time in Vietnam for a while, and it seems Vietnam won’t forget him either. But it’s unnecessary to look abroad for inspiring business talent when this country’s choc-a-block.

A lot of the main players are savvy 20-somethings destined to influence future industries. Visit AsiaLifeMagazine.com to see the video of Sir Richard’s visit. Here are the stories of two homegrown talents that would make the tycoon proud.

Tin Nguyen

A quick scan of the skyline from this high-rise reveals Saigon’s striking landmarks: the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Bitexco tower and, less familiar, the palm trees that stand incongruously at the top of Vincom.

But 28-year-old Tin Nguyen is far more engrossed in business, pinging off the last email before our conversation begins.

As the boss of Trung Thuy Group, valued at over $100 million, his work revolves around buildings. In fact, his firm owns the very building we sit in today at Ben Nghe ward in District 1.

Branson 2“My biggest challenge right now is basically four big projects,” he says. “My very first one that will start breaking ground at the end of the year is called The Lancaster Legacy.

“It will be in District 4, just before you pass the bridge to District 7. It will have two towers, 35-story each, housing 1000 apartments each.”

Also in the pipeline are two 33-story towers, around 470 apartments each, a 500-apartment complex in District 1 and a resort outside the city.

“In total I’m looking to build around 2000 apartments in the next five years,” he says.

Tin has the fresh face of someone climbing his way up the ladder but he already has the power most businessmen can only dream of.

Put candidly, his is no rags-to-riches story. His parents on the other hand exploited their bilingual skills during the 1980s to open a souvenir shop targeting foreigners.

They rode around on bicycles, opening more shops and restaurants while saving to enter the real estate market.

“It’s their dream to own something that’s permanent,” says Tin. “So all that paid off after 10 years in 1997, 98, 2000. The real estate picked up and they made good money there.

“With that money they kept investing back. The only thing they spent a lot on is my education.”

Tin studied in Melbourne for eight years until graduating from his commerce degree in 2010, but he decided the pace of living in Australia was too slow.

“The people, my parents included, are so entrepreneurial,” he says. “You always go down the street (in Vietnam) and there’s a four-story house and three-story’s are just businesses and they are living on the fourth floor.

“That’s what brought me back – that sense of happening, urgency. Things are moving.”

During high school he dreamt of being an architect however, he admits, his skills were not up to standard.

He recalls receiving a letter from his father saying architects build for others while successful businessmen hire architects to design buildings for them, ultimately stamping their signature on the city.    

After returning to Saigon, Tin worked as a marketing intern in the family business before deciding to follow his own path, loaning $400,000 from his family and launching swanky club Sin Lounge in 2011.

“I thought if I’m just working for my parents I would never be able to have my own failures, make mistakes and learn from it.

“There were restaurants, bars, martini bars, nightclubs, but there was none really like a lounge atmosphere where people are treated with the VIP experience, very good service, but at the same time catered to the Vietnamese, not just the expats.

“The first six months we were just bleeding money and I thought ‘shit, I have a huge education debt to pay and now…everything’, but, you know, I persevered and August 2012 was the peak of Sin.”

The club underwent a revamp and soared in popularity before fading away again. The two-year success paid off his debts, leaving enough funds to open MAMA restaurant, ACE Nightclub and marketing agency Hush.

Tin envisioned operating on a bigger scale, as his penchant for uppercase company names may reveal, and at the beginning of last year his father passed over the reins of the family firm, which is renowned for the Lancaster buildings in Hanoi and Saigon.

Running an 800-staff operation while implementing plans to cultivate District 4 into the next expat hub isn’t quite enough for Tin.

He’s also launching co-working space Dreamplex for ambitious tech and media start-ups this month.

“Young people now days are very entrepreneurial and that’s what pushes me to do Dreamplex,” he says. “We are on our way to make a big change.”

Vicky Ton

It’s on the brink of a downpour and the drumming of raindrops blends seamlessly with the bubbling deep fryer as Vicky Ton, 25, cooks another piece of chicken for tonight’s customers.

Out of Tin Nguyen’s high-rise and into a hem off Nguen Van Giai in District 1, I hear Vicky relay some instructions to her business partner before she sits down.

“By running your own business you can follow your passions,” she says. “Choose the people to work with, get things done faster, and most important of all, you can give back to society whatever you think it needs.”

Vicky recently launched B.O.C Barbeque along with eight other young professionals all in their 20s and they are determined to make this joint selling affordable, scrumptious food a success.

Branson 3

Vicky’s culinary passion took her to the final 12 in last year’s Master Chef Vietnam.

“It is this very special event that inspired me to start up a business of my own, a restaurant business,” she says.

The B.O.C team would like to create a franchise that will not only reach to Hanoi, but grow beyond their home country one day, although Vicky says staying on top of people’s shifting tastes for food is a challenge. The team need to constantly keep tabs on what’s popular and change the menu accordingly.

Vicky landed an accountancy job after graduating from RMIT University in District 7. Now an investment fund manager, she also finds the spare time to export fish to Thailand as a freelancer.

The entrepreneur begins reeling off business ideas – Thai ice cream, trucks selling sandwiches, locally produced home ware – that emerged as she helped launch B.O.C. What drives all of this?

“More strongly than anything else, it is my desire to be independent.

“After all, running a business of my own makes me feel that I have achieved something I can be proud of.”

Anything can be achieved now this diner is a reality, she says, while imploring young people to start their own ventures.

“No matter how humble your business targets might be, and how tired you are at the end of the day, you can always feel pride in building something of your own.”

At the barbecue I discover that a 24-year-old owns the Japanese pottery shop just metres away.

“Dream big, start small,” Vicky says. It seems sound advice for the new era of young Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

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