Tycoon confident he'll be Vietnam's first billionaire

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Doan Nguyen Duc says he's sure he'l become the first ever Vietnamese dollar-billionaire next year.

The chairman of Hoang Anh Gia Lai Joint Stock Company (HAG) has maintained his top position on the list of the ten richest Vietnamese citizens for the second year in a row, according to rankings by Thanh Nien newspaper.

The listings rate wealth based on current stockholdings, of which Duc owns more than VND12.22 trillion (US$683.5 million) in HAG.

Last year, he topped the chart with 97.77 million of the Gia Lai Province-based company's stocks worth a total of VND5.8 trillion ($325 million).

No surprise

With his usual confidence and short answers, Duc tells Thanh Nien via phone from a business trip in China that the ranking did not surprise him.

"I didn't feel anything special when I heard. I had predicted that. Only news can be surprising, right?"

The 47-year-old entrepreneur says he is proud of his wealth and fame and has no intention of concealing it.

"I think people deceive themselves when they're reluctant to talk about their riches. I have made money legally and everyone knows that. There is nothing to conceal when you work legally."

That's not to say that Duc has not been followed by rumors of illegal business moves throughout his career.

THE TEN RICHEST VIETNAMESE
BY STOCKHOLDINGS
On October 15

1. Doan Nguyen Duc, 47, chairman of Hoang Anh Gia Lai Joint Stock Company (HAG); VND12,221 billion ($683 million).

2. Pham Nhat Vuong, 41, chairman of Vinpearland JSC and Vincom JSC; VND5,108 billion ($286 million).

3. Dang Thanh Tam, 45, chairman of Kinh Bac Urban Development JSC, Tan Tao Investment and Industry Corporation and Saigon Telecommunication and Technologies Corporation; VND3,932 billion ($220 million).

4. Tran Dinh Long, 48, chairman of Hoa Phat Group; VND3,847 billion ($215 million).

5. Le Phuoc Vu, 46, chairman of Hoa Sen Group; VND1,665 billion ($93 million).

6. Nguyen Duy Hung, 47, chairman of Saigon Securities Inc.; VND1,232 billion ($69 million).

7. Truong Thi Le Khanh, 48, chairman of Vinh Hoan Corporation; VND1,140 billion ($64 million).

8. Truong Gia Binh, 53, chairman of FPT Corporation; VND1,079 billion ($60 million).

9. Nguyen Chinh Nghia, 54, chairman of Royal International Corporation; VND997 billion ($56 million).

10. Doan Toi, 55, chairman of Nam Viet JSC; VND805 billion ($45 million).

Duc says his confidence is misconstrued as showing-off, which prompts his critics to spread rumors about him.

"Many people hate me and have spread a number of bad rumors but I'm not afraid," he says. "I work legally and I am not afraid to tell the truth."

Late last year, HAG asked the State Bank of Vietnam and the Ministry of Public Security to investigate rumors circulating about the company and its shareholders.

The inspections found the rumors untrue and Duc said experts always knew the company's financial status was clear and transparent, but that some members of the public had been influenced by the rumors because they didn't have access to official information.

One rumor last year said that the HAG chairman had been banned from traveling abroad due to bank debts. However, the story turned out to be false as Duc had in fact made several trips abroad during the period.

Business, not pleasure

Asked about his travels around the world, on which he takes his own private jet, Duc says he doesn't live extravagantly.

"I have no time to go around for personal things," he says. "HAG has offices in several countries, so that's helpful."

Duc says he never visits tourism spots or goes sightseeing on business trips. He virtually never relaxes.

He's been traveling for 20 years, but never for pleasure, even though he owns the first private aircraft in Vietnam since 1975. He paid $7 million for a 12-seater Beechcraft King Air 300 bought from the US in May last year, including nearly $2 million for pilot training and other airport services.

Duc is proud to have his craft piloted by Nguyen Thanh Trung, who was an agent for the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam enlisted in the US-backed, Saigon-based air force toward the end of the Vietnam War. Trung became famous when he used one of the regime's own aircrafts to bomb its headquarters, then known as Independence Palace, on April 8, 1975.

Duc and Trung rarely have time to "enjoy" their travels, but Duc says he doesn't consider his busy schedule a sacrifice.

"It's not like I'm paying a heavy cost by not traveling for pleasure. Everyone has their own hobbies and happiness. I know I am working too much but it doesn't mean I am not pleased with my current life. My success at work and watching and playing football are my true joys."

Jeans and a T-shirt

In faded old blue jeans and a plain pull-over T-shirt, Duc does not look like a business magnate.

But the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City found out the hard way that looks can be deceiving.

According to former US Consul Robert Silberstein, Duc was denied a visa to the US four years ago after the visa officer had said "he looked more like a worker than a boss."

Duc shouted at the officer who had rejected him: "I'm chairman of a premier football club! I own a giant corporation with thousands of workers and hundreds of million dollars in revenue per year! How can you reject me?"

Two days later, the consulate called him a back and gave him a visa.

Up for the down stroke

Many international billionaires did not fare well through the global financial crisis, but Duc has made a lot more money than he's lost since the crisis began. His worth has nearly doubled after the crisis, increasing by about VND6.2 trillion ($347.4 million) since 2008.

However, Duc admits that the company had suffered the impacts of the crisis on other levels.

"Our growth did not meet previous targets due to the crisis. In other words, I could have been a dollar billionaire this year, instead of next year, if there hadn't been the economic crisis."

Going international

Duc founded his company in 1993 on a small mill that made tables and chairs for schools in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai. He's since grown the business into a multi-national mini -Vietnamese empire that includes construction materials, furniture making, real estate, property development and professional sports teams.

HAG owns the Vietnam Premier Football Division's (V-League) football club Hoang Anh Gia Lai and opened the HAG â€" Arsenal JMG Football Academy in Gia Lai Province in 2007 under a cooperation agreement between the company and the English Premier League club Arsenal.

"Our target is to make HAGL an international brand and that's what we've been doing over the past three years," Duc says.

"Ten years ago, I never would have thought I would one day be where I am today."

SPREAD IT AROUND

Jonathan Pincus, dean of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, talks to Thanh Nien Weekly about the accumulation of private wealth in Vietnam.

What would be the significance of Vietnam having a dollar billionaire, possibly Doan Nguyen Duc, chairman of the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Joint Stock Company?

Jonathan Pincus: Vietnam will eventually have billionaires, whether now or in the future. This is a natural result of a healthy market economy. Some businesses will thrive and their founders and perhaps large shareholders will get rich. The relevant policy question is whether the tax laws and implementation of the tax laws are clear, transparent and enforced, as a result these rich, successful people are contributing to society through payment of corporate, personal and land taxes. It is also important that the only way to get rich is to create value and compete in the market. If other ways of getting rich are closed off, people will put their energies into running competitive companies.

Will the wealthiness of several tycoons change foreign donors' perspectives about poverty in Vietnam? Does it reflect the economic development of the country?

Development aid has never been very important to Vietnam. Poverty has fallen because of policy changes that allowed companies and individuals to take advantage of market opportunities. Farmers were allowed to sell into national and international markets. Foreign and domestic investors could set up companies for export and for the domestic market, creating jobs for millions of people. Development aid has helped build needed infrastructure and has provided balance of payments support. But it was never decisive. In any case, most aid donors will be pleased that some Vietnamese people are succeeding and becoming wealthy. This will not change their view about Vietnam.

Anything else you'd like to share about the accumulation of private wealth in Vietnam?

It is important to remember that the stock markets and land markets go down as well as up. In the United States, homeowners felt very rich in 2007 because house prices had risen so quickly. Many of them thought house prices would go up forever, and so they borrowed too much money and bought big houses that they could not afford. When house prices fell, they were unable to pay back their loans. This set off the chain of events that eventually led to the global crisis of 2008- 2009. This was not just a failure of individual households. It was also a failure of the system. Rules were in place to prevent people from borrowing too much money, but these rules were not enforced. The same applies to Vietnam and other developing market economies. Asset price bubbles are a major source of economic instability. Rules must be in place to prevent companies and individuals from borrowing too much money.

Reported by An Dien

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