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Entrepreneur Asia Profile – Henry Nguyen

Reporting by Adam Bakhtiar, writing by Liza Tan
Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014 | 7:09 PM ET


From his perch on the 57th floor of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest and most stylish office tower, Henry Nguyen is at the top of his game. In February, ten years of campaigning finally paid off as the city’s first McDonald’s has opened.

His entrepreneurial journey is also one of many firsts. McDonald’s aside, he introduced tech-venture capitalism to his home country in 2004 and invested $100 million in a maiden fund for IDG Ventures Vietnam.

Read MoreMcDonald’s goes East: McNuggets come to ‘Nam

“I always look at Vietnam as the last of the East Asian tigers… What we’ve seen in the last two decades is the unleashing of the natural talent, the unleashing of this golden generation. You have perfect demographics here in Vietnam and this young generation is the one that’s going to take Vietnam, a low income country, to a first world country and I feel that that’s inevitable,” Nguyen said.

Since its inception, IDG Ventures Vietnam has invested in over 45 companies and continues to invest in four to six companies a year. As managing director Nguyen’s focus is on fast-growing businesses in the consumer, media and technology sectors that are in seed to growth phases of development. Some of the notable names he has funded include VC Corporation, YAN Media Group and Vat Gia.

As many continue to make comparisons between China and Vietnam, Nguyen said his native country’s time is just on the horizon and while there are similarities to how China evolved in the technology space, there will also be “leap frog” opportunities.

A mother takes picture of her daughter in front of the company's logo during the opening ceremony of the country's first McDonald's restaurant in Ho Chi Minh city on February 8, 2014.

Le Quang Nhat | AFP | Getty Images
A mother takes picture of her daughter in front of the company’s logo during the opening ceremony of the country’s first McDonald’s restaurant in Ho Chi Minh city on February 8, 2014.

“Here in Vietnam, you don’t have an installed base of much other technology so mobility in terms of mobile services and digital services, is not necessarily some evolution from the old, it’s just what is new and that’s what people are already doing,” he said. “You’ll have different behaviors and I think that creates different opportunities in terms of Vietnam as a market, versus China or even the U.S.”

While opportunities abound in frontier markets like Vietnam, knowing the right people can help you get ahead. And in Nguyen’s case, many cynics have linked his success in winning the McDonald’s franchise to his father-in-law, the Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung.

It’s a question Nguyen is used to fielding an answer to. He said “Does it benefit me? Absolutely, I think I am a very lucky man because I have a great wife but beyond that both of us have very supportive parents. We have parents that obviously want to help us and want to support every endeavor that we do, but I think we also connect because we have very similar up-bringing and very similar values,” he said.

His current focus may be on growing the McDonald’s franchise in Vietnam but his other interests have not taken a back seat. “Someone asked me how I would define myself recently and I said, ‘You know what? I’m an entrepreneur and I’m an investor’ and that’s who I am. Obviously McDonalds is one of my latest and greatest projects but my passion is building businesses,” he added.

McDonald’s localizes menu in Vietnam
McDonald’s opens its first location in Vietnam, reports CNBC’s Adam Bakhtiar.

Building McDonald’s into a successful franchise however, could be challenging, as the fast food giant does not have the first mover advantage. Rivals Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut are already well established. Nguyen however, isn’t put off.

“Just because you’re not first, doesn’t mean you’re not going to be the best… the challenge here is taking that (McDonald’s) footprint and model and making it work. It’s about execution,” he said.

Nguyen is also Chairman of Good Day Hospitality, the main franchisee for McDonald’s in Vietnam and for him, it was also a personal feat after a decade-long effort to woo the world’s most iconic fast food brand. After all, he did spend some of his teenage years in the U.S. working at the burger joint. But it wasn’t until he went to business school that the idea of a McDonald’s franchise came to mind; one of his professors suggested that he consider becoming a McDonald’s franchisee.

“I always had a concept of franchisees as you make the investment, they tell you what to and you hire people and do it. But as we got to learn more, especially through business school and business cases, I actually got to meet a lot of McDonalds franchisees in the Chicago area. I really understood what that meant and realized that would be a great finishing school for being an entrepreneur,” he said.