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Tony the Tiger

By: Duncan Forgan Posted: August-26-2010 in
Tony Salzman
Duncan Forgan

Seventeen years after setting up shop in an undeveloped country in dire need of foreign investment and expertise, Anthony Salzman has become one of Vietnam’s most valued friends in the business world. Duncan Forgan meets the entrepreneur to hear his remarkable tale.

Soothsayers and mystics might want to argue the toss, but accurately predicting the future is generally a pastime fraught with danger.

Nevertheless when someone like Anthony Salzman tells you that Vietnam will be the most influential power in South–East Asia within the next 15 years, it pays not to dismiss the claim as mere speculation.

The native New Yorker, the chairman of V–TRAC, a distributor of construction materials and equipment, has just had one of Vietnam’s most prestigious honours – the Friendship Medal – bestowed upon him for his services to the country. And after 17 years of doing deals and helping to broker momentous trade agreements here, what he doesn’t know about doing business in the nation could probably be written on the back of a sheet of rice paper – something you can’t say about many foreigners. Hardly surprising then that he is known in business circles as “Mr Vietnam”.

When The Word meets Salzman for breakfast at a sleek Saigon coffee shop, he looks no more or less remarkable than any other off duty businessman. His smart casual clothes are tasteful and expensive–looking and his packed suitcase sits next to him ready for a dash to the airport and a few days of R and R with his family in Singapore.

However, Salzman has a back story several shades more colourful than that of your average, hugely successful suit.

Risky business
Having cut his teeth in the boardrooms of multi–million dollar firms American Express and the now defunct investment company Lehman Brothers, Salzman threw the business world a massive curveball back in 1993 when he opted to swap the sharp suits and gilded lifestyle of Wall Street for the infrastructural nightmare that was Vietnam at the time.

To many, Salzman’s decision to up sticks and set up shop in a country where English was barely spoken, fax machines had to be registered with the police and making an overseas phone call was prohibitively expensive and often involved a wait of up to three hours for a line, looked like an exotic exercise in career suicide. To the man himself, however, the move was informed by the kind of vision requisite for anyone with a desire to be a pioneer in the business world.

“I’m an entrepreneur,” he explains. “My grandparents were too. The bug missed a generation when it came to my parents (his father Herbert was a famed economist who advised four US presidents), but I think I have managed to resurrect the family tradition here. I thought that Vietnam had the potential and I’m satisfied that we have benefitted mutually through our association. I think that my coming to Vietnam was a bold statement of confidence in what this country could achieve with the right kind of expertise.

“Without wishing to sound big–headed, I think that my decision to base myself here was a real statement of intent and faith in Vietnam. People looked at my background and realised that I was a serious individual. There were plenty of foreigners in Vietnam when I arrived, but many of them were opportunists. They could not make it back in their own countries and they cheated and conned. That was actually a major setback because it gave a bad impression of westerners in a country which already had historical reasons to be suspicious of outsiders.”

Despite his confidence in Vietnam as a place in which he could do business, Salzman was not without his own initial misgivings. “My brother Jeff thought I was crazy when I decided to relocate,” he recalls. “I didn’t fully know what to expect so I said to myself that I would just cut my losses if it turned out to be dangerous. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Nobody spoke English, true, and I was stared at constantly as I walked around town, but it was out of curiosity not malice. That same curiosity extended to the brands that I was bringing over.”

Communication breakdown
The fact that danger wasn’t part of the equation didn’t mean that difficulties weren’t. Likening setting up shop in Vietnam in the early 1990s to “playing basketball while blindfolded”, Salzman cites a litany of problems, including communication headaches, overweening bureaucracy and a dilapidated transport network as significant barriers to getting things done.

Lesser individuals would have headed home (or at least to a more developed Asian hub such as Singapore), but Salzman toughed it out and soon began to reap the fruits of his toils. He lobbied for the dismantling of the US trade embargo against Vietnam which was lifted in 1994 and promoted the Bilateral Trade Agreement between the two former enemies in 2001.

Now, after almost two decades of doing business in the country, his enthusiasm for Vietnam’s potential remains undimmed and has, if anything, grown stronger. PricewaterhouseCoopers named Hanoi as the fastest growing city in the developing world in a recent report, while Vietnam’s youthful and increasingly educated and anglicised workforce represents a vast and high value pool of talent.

With both expert analysis and circumstantial evidence to back him up, it is hardly surprising that Salzman is tipping his adopted home to race ahead of the local competition over the next 20 years.

“It will become a very major player strategically,” he asserts. “I have bet a lot of bottles of champagne on this. We used to say there was nowhere to go but up, though there were many ifs to that sentiment. ‘If’ is no longer part of the equation. Now, we’re sprinting from milestone to milestone.”

Republished with the Kind Permission of Word HCMC


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