Having worked as an accountant in business for six years, I joined BP in 1988 as a country analyst, focusing on Latin America. I soon moved into the oil giant’s East Asia group, specialising in tax matters, although this was more of a forensic role. Working in both Beijing and Guangzhou, my task was to make sense of half-decayed records. Then I was appointed finance manager at BP China.
With the ink still wet on that contract, I was asked to stop off in Vietnam on a flight from Beijing, at which point I was signed on to work there for a year instead. I was one of only four BP expatriate workers in Ho Chi Minh City at the time. The office was a renovated villa in a compound of about 50 abandoned properties overlooking the Saigon River. We lived above the office, so our commute was a single flight of stairs. The city was so quiet back then in 1991 that you could lie down in the middle of the main street and not be run over.
Using my systems experience at BP, where I’d installed SunSystems accounting software in both China and Vietnam, I started TRG International in 1994. My friends, many of whom were CFOs in other oil companies, asked me about the systems that BP was using, so I ended up implementing the same technology for them. After I left BP, the software vendor asked whether I wanted to work for it, as I’d implemented its systems so many times.
I started out with ad hoc projects for my friends and then, as they moved on to their next postings, I usually received a call asking me to install the same systems for them elsewhere. This helped my business to expand internationally. Today it has clients in 80 countries. As the business became busier, I started to recruit people and soon our clients were asking us what else we could do for them. We added systems including retail point of sale, enterprise resource planning, business intelligence, analytics and performance management. I now employ about 250 people and I’m still hiring.
Things are going pretty well at the moment, but there are always challenges in finding more of the right recruits. As we’re moving heavily into cloud computing, we’ve just signed up as only the second Amazon Web Services partner in Vietnam, which is exciting, and we have some new clients moving their systems to the cloud.
We deal with organisations ranging from small NGOs and local firms to state-owned enterprises and multinationals. Our largest clients operate in the hospitality industry, where we provide systems for hundreds of hotels in more than 50 countries.
As I have a background in oil, we have a lot of custom from that industry too, but we’re particularly active in manufacturing, education, real estate and financial services, too. We also have new ventures in the music industry, food and drink, HR and the media sector.
I’m optimistic about the region’s economic prospects because of the trans-Pacific partnership – a trade pact signed by 12 nations, including Vietnam, Singapore, the US and Australia – and the free-trade agreement between Vietnam and the EU. I believe that Vietnam will continue to attract a healthy level of foreign investment as long as the country’s workforce continues to improve its skills.
I am chairman of the ICT sector committee for the European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam; a board member and treasurer for the British Business Group Vietnam; and chairman of the IT group at the Ho Chi Minh City chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. I also chair the CIMA South East Asia regional board, representing the institute at many events, and serve on various other advisory committees.
It’s fair to say that it can be challenging for expats to live and work here. Much of what goes on in Vietnam is alien to most westerners. But I do like it here – the people, the culture, the work ethic. I’ve grown accustomed to life here and have also witnessed lots of gradual improvements in regulations covering accounting and the taxation system, many of which I believe I have influenced.