In January 2000, we opened our first branch in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. The director of this branch was a patriotic Vietnamese from the diaspora.
But the American dream didn’t come true for us. After only one year of operation, FPT USA had to temporarily cease operations due to lack of customers. We tried everything, with different people trying to take the reins of business development. From a Vietnamese expat to a graduate of prestigious MBA programs. What we received was criticism, describing our managers as “delusional about our business capabilities” and our programmers “low on expertise and language skills.”
It was a total failure. No one cared about a faceless company from Vietnam, a country then only known for its protracted war. One of our potential clients at the time was surprised to learn that it only took an hour to fly from Hanoi to Bangkok. He couldn’t imagine that the places were so close, even though he visited Bangkok frequently.
Desperate as we were, we tried again to contact the local Americans directly. The more they knew about Vietnam, the more willing they would be to work with Vietnamese and the more they could put aside their prejudices to discover the strengths of our company. We received help from many kind American friends.
The first Americans to help us were an elderly couple, Walley and Eileen Boerger. Eileen was CEO of a small company called ProDX in Portland. The couple ended up treating our employees like they were part of the couple’s family. Somehow, ProDX and Eileen agreed to work with us, even though both parties don’t understand each other very well due to language barriers. Eileen even hosted several FPT employees in her home, just so they could more easily learn how to work better with ProDX. I myself stayed several times in Eileen’s house, which we later jokingly referred to as the “grand Boerger hotel”.
The next American friend was a financial expert from the American investment bank Morgan Stanley, who worked on transactions worth billions of dollars every day. He is the indirect manager of the wife of the director of FPT America, Tung, who was the first to propose FPT’s entry into the American market. The financial expert ended up helping Tung in a personal capacity, from renting a house to establishing the FPT America office. Even though the tasks were minor, the American friend was there.
Next to help us was Paul Vivek, a former senior executive at US-based GE Healthcare and technology services company Wipro. He came to Vietnam with the aim of acquiring FPT stakes at a lower price before FPT’s IPO in 2006. After the transaction, Paul returned to the United States. Although we know Paul through work, he has become a personal friend to many FPT leaders.
Tung rented a house next door to Paul. The two met for coffee quite frequently, which sparked a flurry of meetings and advice. As Tung was then a bright young professional with great listening skills, Paul took a liking to his young friend and helped Tung attend several professional conferences in the information technology field. “I can only give you the opportunity to meet these people,” Paul said, “the rest is in your hands. These are the major leagues.” It was just a simple piece of advice from him, but it contained a thousand words.
Another time, when Vietnamese employees were worried about our prospects in the American market, Paul gave us some advice: “We are a company that manages humans who make technology, we are not a technology company. We need at least two large markets. understand customers as best as possible. We need the most extensive recruitment and training network possible. Never forget who we are and where we come from.”
Ultimately, our team has become more confident in what we do, with improved quality of work and products. We have maintained good relationships with everyone who has helped us along the way.
Besides the American friends who helped us, there were also American counterparts who taught us many painful but necessary lessons. We once received a blue-chip client in the aerospace industry. The pilot project went well and we were hopeful of winning a contract of this magnitude. We made plans and changed the team’s organization, all in anticipation of the big blow. But the client suddenly changed his attitude, sending us a notice of “14 points of violations in contracts”, with some alleged evidence of violations. We naively said sorry, hoping to appease the customer, but our goodwill apology was used as an admission of guilt. The client and his legal team attempted to terminate the contract and claim “losses” from us.
None of us were aware of the legal process in the United States, which exposed us not only to financial losses but also to legal action. None of us foreign workers were prepared for imminent forced deportation. We had to take steps to protect ourselves and contacted a Vietnamese lawyer who reviewed the case and agreed to represent us.
The attorney ultimately wrote a careful email, refuting all of the client’s allegations and denouncing the client for violating the contracts himself. After several rounds of discussions, we managed to recover two thirds of the total contract amount that the client did not intend to pay us. A decent settlement for a case in which we thought we lost everything.
We learned a big lesson: if we want to work in the United States, we need to know how to protect ourselves, especially on the legal battlefield. Legal battles require lawyers, who charge a lot of money per hour. Many court cases are decided simply based on how long each side can extend the attrition money needed to pay the attorneys. It is therefore important to reassure lawyers about the financial strength of the company, so that they can focus on protecting the company’s rights within the legal framework.
After many years of collaboration with foreign partners, we have learned many lessons, all of them unique. Ultimately, conflicts of interest arise between each partner. To ensure that both parties can have a beneficial partnership, both parties should learn as much as possible about the win-win interests that the two companies share, learn about the legal basis of each market, and have cooperation plans based on an understanding of the culture and business practices of the foreign partner.
For example, when working with US partners, legal compliance is a top priority. In the event of legal uncertainty, the American partner immediately considers taking legal action. This is not a last resort, but simply a way out if both parties cannot resolve the misunderstanding themselves. But for the Vietnamese, taking legal action might seem like a solemn promise to persecute another.
In partnerships, Vietnamese companies are generally the smallest and least experienced. We may need help and advice, but in any partnership both parties must clearly state their respective interests.
In addition, to work with foreign partners, Vietnamese companies need to understand the partners’ culture and way of thinking, as well as how to comply with the laws and partner system. Only by knowing, understanding and respecting each other will a partnership stand the test of time.
*Nguyen Thanh Nam is a businessman.