Profit Pioneer

A capitalist crusader takes the free market to Vietnam.

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Rough cultural waters haven't slaked Chris Kamm's thirst for economic reform. - Walter  Novak
Rough cultural waters haven't slaked Chris Kamm's thirst for economic reform.
Chris Kamm has come a long way since the afternoon in 1992 he was touring the tunnels of Cu Chi, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, the hiding place and stronghold of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. The lone American among a group of foreign tourists, Kamm suddenly found himself on the business end of an M-16 being pointed at his head by a Vietnamese guide.

Snap! Kamm jumped, but the gun was empty. The only explosion was of laughter among his guide and the other tourists.

"It really scared me," Kamm recalls. "It was supposed to be a joke. But deep in his heart, I think that guy felt a lot of animosity toward Americans."

The wicked prank only briefly dampened Kamm's enthusiasm for Vietnam. He has been back about 20 times since, and in the interim both he and the country have changed. Tourists at Cu Chi now get to shoot M-16s at targets instead of being targets themselves. And Kamm is a budding businessman in Ho Chi Minh City, where he manages investments in Vietnamese companies and is advising the national government in its nascent effort to build a capitalist economy.

"I'm fascinated by the culture and the progress it's making," Kamm says. "If you look at what's happening in China, you can see where the growth in Vietnam is going."

Maybe. Though there have been dramatic changes since the war ended in 1975, Vietnam is in many ways still a primitive place, with a tenuous infrastructure and factions fighting either to keep the old Communist system in place or replace it with a free market economy. Doing business in such a volatile environment is, in a word, different.

"It's a huge risk," acknowledges Kamm. "Even for a developing nation, it's way beyond what you could put on a risk orientation chart."

Vietnamese businessmen are, for example, notoriously coy about sharing information. Kamm wasn't even allowed to see the financial records of the first company he invested in. And his proposal for an Internet café turned out to be very successful -- after the people he was discussing it with turned around and did it on their own.

"Vietnam is a tough place to do business," acknowledges a U.S. State Department official. "Good rules of law, courts that enforce contracts, legal protections for investments -- all of that is absent right now. If Vietnam is to fully develop its potential, it needs to clean up and restructure its financial system."

The United States has tried to encourage such measures as part of a bilateral trade agreement that Vietnamese negotiators agreed to, in principle, last July. But final signatures on the agreement have not been forthcoming, largely because government officials are reluctant to abandon the strictures of a state-controlled economy.

In short, Kamm is paddling upstream -- and couldn't be happier. "I feel like a pioneer," he enthuses. "An awesome pioneer."

A buttoned-down business major, Kamm, 32, hardly looks the pioneering type. He grew up in Fairview Park and earned his MBA at Baldwin-Wallace, where his father taught business and economics. In 1992 Kamm was running the Wilkinson Company, a laundry and garbage chute manufacturer with export interests in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, struggling to overcome the devastation left by generations of war, intrigued him immediately.

"It's not like any other place in the world," Kamm says. "You can't think like an American businessman when you're there. You have to let all your expectations go."

Through trial and error, Kamm learned that business relationships are a function of personal relationships -- having tea together, showing respect, creating a bond over something as important as a child's education or as frivolous as a night of karaoke. "It doesn't matter whether you're a single person or IBM," he says. "Your success is based on whether people like you or not."

Since the Vietnamese tend not to show emotion, it was often difficult for Kamm to gauge his progress. But with patience and persistence, he was able to develop a network of contacts and sources who advise him on investment decisions and will vouch for him when the deals go down. The Kamm Investment Company now has a total of $500,000 invested in five Vietnamese businesses, ranging from a garment company to a beverage distributorship.

It was through lectures at the Ho Chi Minh City Economics College, where Kamm regularly preaches the virtues of capitalism, that he caught the ear of government officials. Taken by his enthusiasm for the U.S. stock market, they asked him to help create one for Vietnam. The process has been slow and burdened by cultural quirks. It took a year and a half of regional squabbling to decide where the offices would be located (Ho Chi Minh City finally beat out Hanoi). And since it's considered impolite to be first, companies have been slow to apply for membership.

"There's a long way to go," Kamm admits. "But I'm confident we'll have something up and running by the end of the year."

Given the difficulties and frustrations of working in an economic nether world -- and the fact that Kamm has a healthy $250 million investment business here at home -- why does he keep going back? A combination of capitalist zeal, altruism, and ego.

"It's not uncommon for me to look at a balance sheet and see that Vietnamese companies don't even know how to list their assets properly," he says. "They have no idea how competitive the outside world is. If I can help them become competitive, that's going to help me in the long run financially, too."

Like many Americans who have been to Vietnam since the war, Kamm also feels a sense of obligation to help the country rebuild. "One thing I'm planning to do is bring teachers over who can train Vietnamese students in business practices," he says. "If we can help them find their way in the world, I think both our countries will benefit."

Then there's the sheer star power of being able to stop an entire roomful of women at sewing machines simply by striding through and being tall, prosperous, and American. That's happened to Kamm, though he prefers to talk about the time he stood on a street corner a few days before Christmas, wearing a Santa hat, and passersby stopped to wave, laugh, and shake his hand. For someone who has labored for years to bridge an enormous cultural gap, it was like an epiphany.

"When you can make people there smile and laugh," Kamm says, "you know you're getting through to them."

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