Last updated: Sunday, January 25, 2015
GANNON BallPosted: Thursday, May 06, 2010
As Vietnam anticipates another decade of growth, The GANNON Group – led by its visionary CEO, Walter Blocker – has positioned itself to keep pace.
In November 2009, when powerhouse financial services group PricewaterhouseCoopers issued its annual Outlook Report forecasting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as the two fastest growing cities on the planet over the next 15 years, no one who’s spent any amount of time in Vietnam of late could have felt surprise.
Evidence of exponential growth is as clear as a Vietnamese street at 2 a.m. And it’s especially glaring in Saigon, where new buildings, bridges and bars go up like Lego models, and companies — big and small, local and foreign — seem to set up shop every minute.
Walter Blocker saw this coming. A graduate of the prestigious Hampton-SydneyCollege in Virginia, he moved to Ho Chi Minh City as soon as the U.S. trade embargo was lifted in 1994. He saw the opportunity to be a player in a nascent market and put his entrepreneurial spirit to work. He formed Asian Trade Alliance, merged with St. Louis-based GANNON International five years later, and now oversees the most dynamic and important foreign enterprise operating in Vietnam today: The GANNON Group, a collection of business units ranging from beverage production and beer distribution to car rental, warehousing, flooring and industrial development.
“If it were a level playing field and all the rules were clear and everyone had exactly the same advantage, I don’t think I would have come,” the 41-year-old says from his new office space at 21 Phung Khac Khoan Street, in District 1. “But I saw the development phase as greatly advantageous. I was not afraid to work through the challenges.”
Blocker, like many a steadfast businessman in Vietnam, has faced his share of adversity over the past decade and a half. The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the recent Global Economic Crisis had their consequences — on exports, on currency, on investment, and more.
But, as Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” It’s continually proved, by the likes of Warren Buffett, the YouTube founders, and, indeed, Blocker. The Kentuckian with a killer instinct quickly recognized the fact he could be the modern-day equivalent to the 19th century’s industrial-era migrants who moved from Europe to the U.S. to find their fortunes in the New World.
“Ten years ago I was afraid the big guys would come in and eat our lunch,” Blocker says. “In the end, we became the big guys, the ones with the people, the local know-how, and the infrastructure to get things done. The barrier of entry has become huge. We want to put more space between the competition and us so that it never catches up.”
GANNON is on the right track. In the past 18 months alone, the firm has become the official distributor in Vietnam of Budweiser, one of the world’s best-selling beers; assumed the franchise rights for Budget, an internationally renowned car rental brand; and been granted license to spend US$90 million on the construction and operation of a brewing facility in Long An Province.
It also recently entered a joint venture for the establishment of the first U.S.-led industrial park in Vietnam: DeerfieldIndustrial Park, near the new ports in DongNaiProvince. Blocker expects the environmentally advanced facility to open in 2011 and allow GANNON to connect to a new range of opportunities and markets as it works to satisfy the needs of the park’s tenants.
“The pace at which Vietnam is developing is very comfortable for us,” Blocker says. “We expand every year and 2009 was no exception. When everyone put their foot on the brake, cut expansion plans and projects, I sat down with my team and we agreed to push the gas pedal completely to the floor and drive growth and innovation throughout our organization.”
Translation: GANNON found ways to execute its core businesses better and got aggressive about acquiring new customers. And it implemented a vertical integration construct similar to the one that’s made American Apparel the largest clothing manufacturer in the U.S.
“What I find most satisfying in the next stage of our business is the incorporation of all of our skill sets — brand building, distribution, marketing, manufacturing and brand owner — into one project,” Blocker says. “This was what we worked to accomplish since stepping foot in the country in 1994 and now that dream is being realized on a large scale.”
As a new decade begins, and as Vietnam faces questions about its decision to devaluate its currency and tighten its grip on socialism, Blocker is as sanguine as ever about the country’s ability to push forward anyway and realize the amazing potential implicit in the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ forecast.
But he also knows success won’t come automatically, or by wishing for it. Rather, it will come by adopting a long-term approach — “accounting for what your business will look like next year, in three years, in five years, in a decade,” he says — and considering platforms carefully.
“Companies will have to get much bigger, too” Blocker says. “They’ll need to build the horsepower now to meet the scale of things to come.”
“This is where many companies in Vietnam may fail. As they make money with early success, they risk falling into the trap of believing they ‘made it.’ That’s how you lose your edge. Status quo doesn't last very long in a dynamic market. The leaders that step up and focus on refining and improving their strategies and invest in their people, systems and internal infrastructure will be the ones that stay ahead of the curve and grow. That’s a blueprint for success.”