The Quiet Princes
Carving Out a Kingdom in Vietnam
When their father took his own life, Albert and Arthur Ting suddenly faced the huge task of finishing his half-built empire. Shunning the spotlight, they have spent half a decade quietly constructing a sprawling new suburb south of Saigon.
Carving Out a Kingdom in VietnamBy Hsiang-Yi Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 458 )
"I know that the media like it, but please don't call me a tycoon, and especially, don't call me the King of Vietnam."
Albert Ting, 39 years old, 190cm tall and sporting a thin mustache, stands on the rooftop of the Lawrence S. Ting Building, gazing out. "I'm only doing my best to fulfill my father's wishes," he says. "My brother and I only want to finish the projects here."
Formerly known as the Gateway, the highrise along the 10-lane Nguyen Van Linh Boulevard was renamed after the late tycoon. It is one of the landmarks in Saigon South, or Phu My Hung, in District Seven of Ho Chi Minh City, the gigantic urban development project that Lawrence Ting spearheaded as head of Central Trading and Development Group (CT&D Group). The rooftop offers a panoramic view of the red-tiled roofs of American-style villas and townhouses, the just-completed Saigon Exhibition and Convention Center (SECC), the largest of its kind in southern Vietnam, and a new waterfront mixed-use development complex with apartments and offices for rent that rivals the Tokyo Bay urban renewal project. With an area of 3,300 hectares, the Saigon South project, built on reclaimed land along the southern edge of Ho Chi Minh City, is so vast that even from the rooftop it seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
According to his business card, Albert Ting has many identities: He is the chairman of Taiwanese speaker part maker CX Technology Corporation, Vietnamese brokerage Phu Hung Securities Corporation, and Freshfields Resort and Conference Hotel in Taichung. He also serves as board director of Taiwanese financial services company Mega Holdings. But he insists on being interviewed in his capacity as chairman of the Lawrence S. Ting Memorial Fund, an educational charity organization.
Rising to a Heavy Legacy Overnight
Albert's younger brother Arthur is chairman of Phu My Hung Corporation (PMH), a joint venture between CT&D Group and a Vietnamese state enterprise. As the developer of Saigon South, PMH has become a household name in and around Ho Chi Minh City. International accounting firms estimate that the company posts annual revenue in excess of NT$30 billion. In order to explain PMH's miraculous development of Saigon South, we need to tell the story of its mastermind, Albert's and Arthur's father, Lawrence S. Ting.
In 1989 the area was nothing but a desolate marsh. Back then Lawrence Ting had just become chairman of CT&D Group, run by Taiwan's then ruling Kuomintang (KMT), following long careers in the military and the plastics industry. Lawrence Ting personally led a large "construction force" to Vietnam, building the Hiep Phuoc Power Plant and the Tan Thuan Export Processing Zone, and handling the land reclamation project for Saigon South. Over the following decade Lawrence Ting suffered a severe setback when the KMT pulled out its stake from CT&D Group. However, together with his business partner Ferdinand Tsien Peng-lun, a former director of Swire Trading of Taiwan, he poured in over US$10 billion in investments to build a new municipality from the ground up, with state-of-the-art infrastructure and facilities based on the Taiwanese experience. To date no other Taiwanese entrepreneur can boast achievements of such a scale in Vietnam.
In 2004 when Lawrence Ting had already earned himself the admiring moniker "King of Vietnam," a battle for control of the company erupted with another major shareholder, shipping magnate Chen Ching Chih, the owner of Wan Hai Lines. Eventually, Chen sued Lawrence Ting on charges of breach of trust and embezzlement. As investigations were underway, Lawrence Ting took his life by jumping from an office building, sending shock waves through the Taiwanese and Vietnamese business communities.
Back then Albert Ting, a graduate of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was working in London as vice president of Morgan Stanley's investment banking division. Overnight, the 33-year-old had to join forces with his younger brother and take the helm of the large business their father had built in Vietnam.
The leadership succession under such dramatic circumstances triggered particular attention and curiosity. But the Ting brothers kept an extremely low profile, shunning the limelight and refusing press interviews for three years. They were also seldom seen at social and public events. Instead, they quietly assumed their father's legacy, which was surely a heavy burden, given that both were still only in their early thirties.
"The brothers are professional, modest and very polite. But to be honest, Vietnam's political and economic environment was highly complex at the time, so in the beginning very few businesspeople thought that things were looking good for these two youngsters," recalls a heavyweight member of the Chinese National Federation of Industries who has known the Ting family for a long time.
In Taiwan the brothers were still able to rely on their father's longtime business connections. But Vietnam was another story. There they had to rely on themselves to stage a comeback.
Over the past half-decade the brothers demonstrated to the world that they have their father's mettle. Saigon South has become an iconic urban development project that has not only won numerous awards in Asia, but is also a must-see on the itineraries of Vietnamese and Taiwanese entrepreneurs as well as Chinese local government delegations.
Winning the Hearts of Vietnam's New Elite
The Phu My Hung Corporation's Vietnamese success story is based on a foundation of twenty years of constant investment, building up from scratch, and involving countless delicate adjustments in commercial and political relations between Taiwan and Vietnam. It did not follow an established business model that other Taiwanese entrepreneurs or foreign investors could easily replicate. Yet the Ting brothers' experiences still deserve to be taken as reference by other Taiwanese entrepreneurs who plan to enter emerging markets.
Albert Ting notes that Vietnamese real estate prices have been skyrocketing since 2005. As a result developers are going for high density in downtown Ho Chi Minh City and its suburbs, overbuilding the available surface area to the extreme. Saigon South, however, is bucking the trend, with an average floor area ratio of just 2 percent and an expansive, landscaped waterfront area with riverside greenbelts, parks and other public amenities.
Such luxurious space planning – reminiscent of the generous layout of affluent suburbs on the U.S. west coast – cannot be found anywhere else in Vietnam. While this means sacrificing opportunities for making a quick buck from selling condos, Saigon South offers the Western lifestyle to which Vietnam's growing affluent middle class aspires.
Homes in the various residential projects that PMH has launched since 2007 have been snatched up by Vietnam's nouveau riche as soon as they have been put on the market. On one occasion, PMH sold 1,000 studio apartments in a single day. And Saigon South real estate prices have also hit US$5,000 per square meter (about NT$500,000 per ping) – a nationwide record for areas outside District 1, the prime real estate area in central Saigon.
Saigon South's Vietnamese name, Phu My Hung, meaning "Wealth, Beauty and Prosperity," has become a brand that the Vietnamese associate with their dreams and aspirations. "Three years ago I moved to Phu My Hung, into a medium-priced condo. It was actually not more expensive than apartments in the city center, but now my colleagues all look at me with envy," notes 41-year-old Ngyuan Trun Hum, who works as a senior manager for a foreign bank.
The Ting brothers were smart in that they placed their bets on the rapid rise of Vietnam's middle-class over the next decade.
Albert Ting was correct in his judgment that in Ho Chi Minh City urban development would reach its limits and that in the future not only residential housing, but also commercial activities would be forced to move further out from the crowded old city center. Therefore, PMH began to also develop commercial real estate, rental apartments and shopping malls after its residential neighborhoods with villas and townhouses had reached a certain scale. From Japan the company adopted the latest model of multi-use complexes combining offices, residences and shops. Next to the SECC, PMC's newest project, the Crescent, is nearing completion. The complex consists of four low-rise buildings along the curving banks of an artificial lake with serviced apartments and offices for lease and waterfront retail space. The adjacent 45,000-square meter Crescent Mall, Vietnam's first international shopping mall, is still under construction. The idea is to satisfy residents' every need – living, working, shopping, and entertainment – within the community. So far, the Crescent is able to boast an occupancy of 70 percent.
Behind the Crescent are Albert Ting's plans to expand PMH's business model beyond that of a mere developer. "Urbanization is still gathering pace in Vietnam. Land acquisition will definitely become much more expensive in the future, so developers can no longer rely on one-time profits from property sales. For stable returns, we need to shift to the long-term management of serviced apartments and offices," he says.
But aside from urban development Albert Ting has a keen interest in helping Vietnam build a good education system. He has poured US$10 million into the construction of an experimental high school and recruited Ting Ya-wen, a former principal of Taiwan's prestigious Taipei First Girls High School, as its principal. Since he is also bullish about Vietnam's financial market, he had Taiex-listed CX Corporation buy a stake in Vietnamese stock brokerage Phu Hung Securities Corporation. In June Phu Hung listed on the Hanoi Stock Exchange. "Now that the business my father left us is back on track, I can divert some of my attention to my favorite interest, the financial industry," says Albert Ting with a smile.
The success of the sons of the "King of Vietnam" is not incidental, let alone dictated by fate. As the low-key Ting brothers tried to honor their father's legacy over the past several years, the duo very likely laid the foundations for their own business miracle in the decade to come.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz