Taiwanese Expats Find Success in ASEAN
Instead of looking for a job in Taiwan upon graduation, Justin Lee, a nutritionist by training, sought a more adventurous life in the Philippines to sell aquaculture feeds. Banker Alex Soung, who has worked and lived in Vietnam for 12 years, has used his language skills to become a sought-after foreign expert in the local banking industry.
Taiwanese Expats Find Success in ASEANBy Kwangyin Liu and Monique Hou
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 605 )
Sales Representative, Grobest Group
It is 7 a.m. as the van careens along a winding mountain road in Tagaytay, some 60 kilometers south of the Philippine capital of Manila. After an hour’s driving on rough roads, Grobest Feeds Philippines Inc. sales representative Justin Lee retains his upbeat mood, still talking cheerfully and cracking jokes.
The Philippine sun has given Lee a dark tan. As he talks animatedly in Tagalog with his Philippine assistant, it is hard to imagine that this is the first job that the 28-year-old from Taipei took after graduating from university.
“This trip isn’t so bad; I have customers near Lake Buhi in the southeast of Luzon Island, and it takes at least 10 hours by car to get there,” notes Lee as he pats the carsick CommonWealth Magazine reporter consolingly on the shoulder.
Back home in Taiwan, Lee first graduated from the Department of Nutrition at I-Shou University in Kaohsiung. Then he obtained a master’s degree in food science from National Taiwan Ocean University in Keelung.
What made him change track and sell feeds for fish farms? At first, Lee simply wanted to see the world. His father, who had early on worked in Taiwan-invested electronics factories in Thailand, always encouraged Lee to go abroad. Many of Lee’s graduate school classmates went on to work for Taiwanese-invested food companies in China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries.
“I didn’t want to stay in Taiwan; I wanted to see what kind of opportunities Asia offers, because I like to get out and explore,” remarks Lee in explaining what made him take a job with the Grobest Group, a Taiwanese-invested aquatic feed manufacturer. Lee is in charge of sales on southern Luzon, which is roughly the size of Taiwan.
Scenic Taal Lake, which fills a large volcanic caldera, is home to nearly 4,000 aqua culture cages. Seventy percent of them raise Tilapia, the most popular fish in the Philippines, while the remaining 30 percent farm milk fish. About 10 percent of Philippine fish farms use Grobest feeds, the only foreign brand among the major aquatic feedstuff brands.
Lee’s dormitory is close by, which makes it easier for him to visit the fish farms and sound out the market situation whenever he sees fit. When Lee had just arrived in the Philippines, he once worked through the night watching his customers catch fish. He got bitten by mosquitoes and contracted Dengue fever, which landed him in hospital for five days in a nearly comatose state. “What can you do about it? Just be more careful the next time!“ he says.
Using Science to Secure Market Share
Grobest is a hidden champion in the global seafood industry. Grobest was founded more than four decades ago by graduates from National Taipei Ocean University. The company’s headquarters in Taoyuan boast a high-tech R&D center, and its main products are feedstuff, feed additives and aquatic feeds. In 2015, the company registered revenue of almost NT$25 billion. In the aquatic feeds industry, Grobest counts among the most experienced in Southeast Asia. Aside from the Philippines, it also has business locations in China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Philippines was Grobest’s first foray into foreign markets, and that was twenty years ago. Last year, Grobest opened a brand-new 14-hectare fish feed manufacturing plant in Tarlac, which boosted capacity tenfold, notes Grobest Feeds Philippines Inc. General Manager Lin Ku-han.
In the Philippines, Grobest has already transformed itself from a feedstuff producer into a service industry enterprise. As Lin points out, collecting payments for delivered goods causes the biggest headaches. Rather than paying their suppliers, local aquaculture business owners prefer to spend their money on luxurious homes, or they ignore instructions on proper feed formulas and ratios, which leads to less-than-ideal yields for harvested fish, which in turn means they cannot recoup their initial investment.
In order to get properly paid, Grobest developed a new strategy: They began to teach their customers how to raise fish. Grobest trained two dozen technicians, who teach the fish farmers how to monitor water quality and how to administer feeds.
Grobest’s aquatic feeds are 20-40 percent more expensive than competing products. How does the company convince buyers that its products are worth the premium? Lee explains that the two largest domestic feed brands each hold a 30 percent market share, whereas Grobest holds a share of 10 percent.
“It is only because our service differs from others that people are willing to use [our products]. Those who are able to do the math know that our price-performance ratio is the best,” Lee points out. A tilapia that is raised with ordinary feed can be harvested only after ten months, whereas tilapias that feed on Grobest aquatic feeds can be harvested in half that time. The feed conversion ratio, which is a measure of how much feed is needed to produce one kilogram of fish, stands at between 1.6 and 1.8 for Grobest feeds, whereas ordinary feedstuffs have a feed conversion ratio of between 2 and 2.3.
A 17-Member Support Team
The secret weapon behind Lee’s successful promotion of Grobest feedstuffs is a team of knowledgeable trainees. Lee supervises two salespeople, five technicians and ten trainees. How does he ensure that the company gets paid?
“We let the aquaculture farmers compare for themselves. We let them experiment with two different brands of fish feed using the same kind of larval fish raised under the same conditions. How can the fish raised with Grobest feeds already be harvested when those raised with the other brand have only grown to a weight of less than 200 grams? This is what makes the difference. If a farmer makes money he is, of course, able to pay his bills,” Lee says.
The Philippines is a country with great potential. “I hope to change the aquaculture market in the Philippines, to make it change from extensive fish farming that only cares about cost to scientific farming that emphasizes the price-performance ratio. Grobest can help them grow together with the industry, to increase their income and improve their lives,” Lee says in describing what drives his professional enthusiasm.
After all, his Philippine aquaculture adventure has only just begun.
(Interview and report by Kwangyin Liu)
Head of Greater China Business, VIB
Casually dressed Alex Soung meets the CommonWealth Magazine reporter in a private club on the rooftop of the landmark Times Square tower in Ho Chi Minh City’s posh Nguyen Hue business district.
Soung is head of Greater China Business at Vietnam’s third largest commercial bank, Vietnam International Bank (VIB). He is the only Taiwanese among the bank’s more than 4,000 employees.
Soung came to Vietnam as an expat at the age of 36 when his employer at the time, Taiwan’s Chinfon Commercial Bank, dispatched him to the rising Southeast Asian country. After Taipei Fubon Commercial Bank acquired Chinfon Commercial Bank, including its two branches in Vietnam, Soung continued to work for Fubon in Vietnam as a senior bank manager for five years.
As more and more Taiwanese and Chinese companies entered Vietnam, the domestic banks became painfully aware that they lacked talent with knowledge about the Greater China business expertise they would need to expand their corporate banking services. All of a sudden, financial experts like Soung, fluent in Chinese and English and also able to communicate in the Vietnamese language, became a hot commodity in the local banking industry.
In 2014, two local banks knocked on his door with job offers. While the salary that they offered was not markedly higher than what Soung made at his Taiwanese bank, the Vietnamese banks offered many more perks. “My other thought was that it wouldn't do any harm if I had a look at another company. After all, having always worked at Taiwanese enterprises, I kind of had the feeling that I had actually never gone outside,” remarks Soung.
The Vietnamese value their private lives; they leave the office when it is time regardless of whether they have finished the job at hand. After office hours means taking it easy, drinking coffee and living a more relaxed life than in Taiwan.
“I am the only Taiwanese [of the 4,000 employees at VIB]; communication and documents here are all in English,” Soung points out. The employees who work under Soung are all in the 25-35 age bracket. They earn monthly salaries between NT$30,000 and NT$60,000.
However, turnover remains high as most people switch jobs every two to three years to move up the career ladder. Employee retention is causing Soung the biggest headache due to the country’s competitive job market. “The Vietnamese economy is good, so it is easy to find jobs. The Vietnamese are used to changing jobs every two or three years,” he says, observing that employees who used to work under him at Chinfon Bank “are now in their thirties and forties. When I run into them they are all driving luxury brand cars and working as supervisors in other banks, all in very high positions.”
Vietnam clearly offers more opportunities than Taiwan. For Soung, the case for Vietnam is compelling. “I often feel the Mekong Delta is such a blessed region; the weather is good and there are few natural disasters. It should be very easy to develop the food industry, which relies on domestic consumption.”
However, Soung feels that, at age 48, it is too late for him to harbor great aspirations. He lives and works in Vietnam, while his wife and children remain in Taiwan. In the middle of his life, Soung shoulders a heavy financial burden, particularly since his son began to study at a U.S. university in September. More than anything else, Soung presently needs a stable income.
“If I had come here at age 30…you can see how well the economy here is doing…I would probably have quit my job to found a company at age 40. If my business had failed, I would still have had time [to start all over]. But now my children have grown up, and they need money to study. Everything costs money, so these are completely different considerations,” Soung says.
After twelve years in Vietnam, Soung strongly feels about the differing economic fates of Vietnam and Taiwan. “The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is rising rapidly, its population is also big enough, and it is a really good market. Therefore, if there are opportunities, young people [from Taiwan] should bravely go for them; even if salaries are somewhat lower in the beginning, there are many more opportunities than in Taiwan,” he says.
Soung suggests that young Taiwanese who want to work in the ASEAN countries should first do their homework, which means understanding the respective country's historic and cultural background as well as its laws and regulations. With sufficient preparation, new arrivals will be able to quickly become members of local society, Soung says.
(Interview and report by Monique Hou)
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz