Vietnam companies see debt recovery as a dead-end

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The stagnant property market has left construction material providers saddled with huge bad debts. Photo courtesy of Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon Online

Chien has been receiving phone calls from his company's accountants day and night.

The salesman at a Japan-owned electronics distributor is working tirelessly to recover bad debts by the end of the year because the extent of his success will decide his Tet bonus.

It's an annual problem for companies, but it's been getting harder every year as Vietnam's slowing economy refuses to pick up the pace. Providers need their money back but are also worried about losing customers.

Chien told Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon Online that retailing slipped significantly this year and many of his customers can't make their payments, which total VND200 billion (US$9.5 million).

He said sometimes he passed the pressure from his accountants onto his customers, only to receive threats that they would return the products instead of paying money.

He said his company is only able to survive the debts because it borrows from a Japanese bank at low interest.

Nguyen Thai Linh, general director of the Lien Son paper and package provider in Ho Chi Minh City, said his company's efforts to recover debts from customers are also going nowhere.

Linh said he has to "beg" borrowers to pay.

In some cases, the company had to threaten lawsuits, only to receive payment little by little. In the worst cases, their customers moved and changed their phone numbers.

His company has set up a debt recovery team that includes accountants, legal experts and sales people. Those in sales hold biggest responsibility and will only be allowed to sell to new customers after recovering money from their old ones.

Salespeople's salaries and bonuses will be cut if there are bad debts to their names and they can even be fired, Linh said.

He said his company set limits for debt amounts and terms at VND1 billion and one month -- and demands that customers reaching the limits pay cash for their next purchases. He said the policy was the only way to keep the company from being "buried" in bad debts.

But many of his counterparts are in worse situations as they were too focused on sales and have been easier with customers.

Linh said a business in economic crisis needs to set capital health as a top priority instead of sales.

"I'd rather not be able to sell than selling at any price only to be in deadlock later."

The general director of a stationery provider who requested anonymity said the company's unrecoverable debts are now equal 15 percent of its revenues. The debts are owed by customers who either planned the fraud in the first place or have since gone broke.

Learning to deal with it

The logistics manager of a distributor of Japanese electronics said he only sold on credit to customers if the debts were insured.

Le Phuoc Vu, chairman of leading iron roof producer Hoa Sen, said his company also asked customers to prove bank guarantees for big debts.

Vu said buying on credit is a habit in Vietnam and any business has to learn to deal with that if it wants to operate here.

He said his group minimizes risks by selectively choosing customers in the first place based on their sales experience, financial strength and their ability to keep payment promises. He said the company then sets specific debt limits for each customer.

Cash payers enjoy discounted rates, he said.

State savvy

Dinh Hong Ky, general director of cement group manufacturer Secoin in Hanoi, said debt recovery has become the biggest problem for businesses other than increasing sales.

Ky said his company has been providing for ODA projects and has been asked to allow contractors to pay slowly.

"And that has become a risk when the contractors are state-owned," he said, implying that it is hard to demand payments.

He said the T1 terminal at Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi has been operating since 1999, but his company has not received full payment for the bricks it provided to the project.

"I consider the money gone."

Ky said projects in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak still owe the company more than VND1 billion after many years due to budget cutbacks.

The contractors passed the buck to the province government, which in turn used the excuse that the central government had cut funding.

When his company resorted to the final option of bringing the disputes to court, the court could only demand that the debtors pay.

"Many payments have been guaranteed by the court, but they're still missing.

"We're now determined to have no relations with state-related projects," he said.

The director said more than 90 percent of the nearly VND4 billion in bad debt to his company this year came from projects with "government elements."

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