Vietnam has been named in the top 10 countries for expats, according to HSBC’s Expat 2019 Global Report released in July 2019. Vietnam Insider talked with Rahn Wood, Deputy Head of Retail Banking & PMO at Eximbank Vietnam, about his experience of living and working in Vietnam.
Mr Wood is an internationally experienced executive with over 30 years of achievements in Retail, Commercial & Digital Banking, Cards and Payments. He has performed executive roles at some of the most prestigious financial institutions including HSBC (Australia, Hong Kong & Singapore), Vietnam International Bank, Techcombank, Saudi British Bank, Macquarie Bank, MasterCard and ANZ Bank. Throughout his career, he has authored, and in many cases implemented, a large range of strategic change programs and startups.
He is an engaging and bold leader with excellent analytic skills who is able to communicate between the boardroom and the showroom.
According to Mr Wood, Vietnam is like no other when it comes to being an expat.
Can you start us off with why you chose Vietnam and what were the circumstances of your decision?
In 2009, I was working with HSBC and had the opportunity to be seconded to Techcombank, in which HSBC was a strategic investor at that time. I had previously only worked in developed countries (Australia, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia), so I was excited to apply my experience to a developing market. Being selected for an exciting role in Hanoi was good luck more than good planning.
Vietnam in that period was growing really fast. It was exciting. The other countries where I’ve worked are all very mature. The banking landscape is well-established and dominated by big banks. In general you couldn’t propose overly disruptive or ambitious ideas; in most situations you only improve on what’s been there for a long time. In Vietnam, especially at Techcombank, they were willing to invest aggressively in growth. I have fond memories of successful meetings where the CEO & Chairman supported my proposal to expand the bank’s network by up to 2,000 ATMs and 300 outlets. They were very bold. And it was the right time to do it.
Were there any initial challenges?
It was a very demanding environment. Although I had just moved from Hong Kong, I didn’t realize this was such a hard-working culture. People worked long days all week and then continued on Saturday mornings. If you proposed something, you were expected to deliver it very quickly. You just had to find a way to get it done. So creative-problem solving is an essential skill.
I remember that in my second year, my target was to expand the bank’s network by 117 branches and 500 ATMs. My cross-functional team made the ATMs target, but ‘only’ completed 107 branches. The CEO said, “Not bad, not bad, but you didn’t quite hit the target.” So the expectations were very high.
I also learned early on that I needed to adapt to the optimum leadership model. I needed to be there, in the moment, on the ground, with my team. You couldn’t simply call a meeting, assign tasks, and send an email a month later asking what happened. Everyone had to get together regularly, keep one another updated and work out any problems that needed solving. That’s the leadership model that works best here. It’s not an autonomous workplace, at least not yet.
Another thing that I realized over time was that Vietnam’s work culture is not entirely homogenous. Working in Hanoi is very different from working in Ho Chi Minh City. In my experience, Hanoi is actually a little bit like the Middle East in that people generally embrace strong leadership, whereas in Ho Chi Minh City management needs to be a lot more democratic. You need to bring people along with you. As I initially worked in Hanoi, when I carried over some of my ’Northern’ habits here [in Ho Chi Minh City], people would sometimes say, “He’s a bit pushy.” And the provinces are different from urban Vietnam. I think that’s another thing that expats should understand, that there is not just one approach to working in Vietnam.
Did you have any reservations about working here?
As a banker, career-wise there were some limitations to consider. Vietnam was a bit ‘off-the-map’ and not well-known as a leading financial services marketplace. If you were lucky enough to be involved in something truly innovative or expansionary, you could add that to your professional experience, but otherwise a lot of it is just catching up on what’s happening in other markets. So at the outset I had to ask myself, “Is working in Vietnam going to give me as many opportunities to grow as remaining in a developed market?”
Over time those initial concerns were outweighed by the opportunities and excitement of working here. I’m still finding new opportunities to enjoy my work and life in Vietnam after 10 years!
What are some positive and negative aspects of working in Vietnam versus other places you have worked?
A big positive is that this is a very young country. When I arrived, approximately 70% of the population was under 30 years old, and banking was quite an emerging industry. There was a tremendous amount of youthful optimism and energy, and everyone was open-minded and hungry to learn. It was really infectious. In developed countries, some banks are over 100 years old, and there is as much risk in changing things as there are benefits in innovating. In Vietnam, everybody seemed willing to try new things. Perhaps that might change as the workforce matures and banks get bigger.
The quality of living in Vietnam is also great. You can enjoy ‘a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget’. The cost of living is much lower, so you can live very well.
And then there’s the freedom. That’s another thing I didn’t expect, the personal freedom. You can dress casually, ride around on a motorbike, enjoy a beer, play golf, and not a lot of people will complain. Obviously you have to be careful to respect local customs, but nobody bothers you about the small things. I recently came back from my home country Australia, and there were regulations for every little thing: no drinking in public places, no eating in stores, acceptable use of public transport, etc. And when I lived in Singapore, they’re very conscious about language and someone might make a comment about your public behavior if you are too boisterous. It seems that people are willing to accept more individualism in Vietnam. I didn’t expect that.
Do you think you are treated differently from your Vietnamese colleagues? Have you noticed a different standard for your behavior, or do you think everyone is treated the same?
I think foreigners are treated quite deferentially. The big positive about this is that colleagues take you more seriously. They might think, “This guy has more international experience, we need to consider what he’s saying.” On the other hand, some people assume that you don’t have a long-term focus. They think, “This guy is only here for two or three years.” At times, there’s a stereotype that one needs to overcome.
Finally, do you have any tips for other expats and for our readers at Vietnam Insider about opportunities in Vietnam, now or in the future?
I would say that some business sectors are more innovative than others. For example, we are doing this interview in a coffee shop. There are so many models of coffee shop targeting different consumer segments that have come up in Vietnam, and some are very successful. Similarly there is an amazing range of restaurants and other industries that have developed very well in this market.
On the other hand, banks in Vietnam have mostly been applying traditional methods in order to close the gap with developed markets. Meanwhile, what you’re seeing globally, there are a lot of interesting developments in fintech models, start-ups, and disruptive innovations. Some of these developments are from new companies, but some of them come from established players like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. In Vietnam, we haven’t seen that so much. Financial services companies are mostly focused on standardization and digitization, in order to improve efficiency. You could call that evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.
We’ve seen some impressive results. Mobile banking is moving up fast, and banking is becoming more efficient and better controlled. But it’s still the same old business model. How do you get customers, especially Millenials, excited? In the coming years, I think Vietnamese banks will have to come up with new propositions, and become more relevant.
By Jenny Nguyen, — With assistance by Duong Ngoc Dung This article was originally published on July 24, 2019. All content © 2019 by Vietnam Insider and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.