Good Morning, Vietnam St. Louisan Is a Trailblazer for Trade

Article excerpt

Being a scout is never easy-- particularly when no one else wants to follow you in. Just ask William E. Franke, president of The Gannon Cos. of St. Louis.

Franke is one of the few trailblazers for American companies going into Vietnam. He was there five years before President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo this month against the small nation that was the enemy in America's longest war.

"I personally have been going there (on business) since 1989 and we opened our first office there in July 1993," Franke said. "We have offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and we have five American employees." Gannon is involved in real estate and construction.

"When we arrived, other than those with the POW-MIA investigation team, there were just five Americans there for commercial purposes - and three of the five now work for Gannon," Franke said.

During the Vietnam War, Franke commanded a river patrol boat in the Mekong River delta for a year and a half. His interest in that nation now, though, is strictly commercial. Franke sees Vietnam as a boom market.

"Vietnam is the 12th-largest nation in the world in terms of population," Franke said. "It has a 92 percent literacy rate. It has a very strong, stable government and it has great natural resources."

"They are the third-largest exporter of rice in the world," Franke said. "I believe that Vietnam will experience as rapid economic growth as Taiwan did in the 1950s and 1960s, and will come close to Japan's rate of growth" during that period.

Franke said doing business in Vietnam must be a long-term investment.

"But the potential is staggering," Franke said. "The places that will most quickly afford American products are the three major metropolitan areas - Hanoi, the DaNang-Hue area, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). In the rural areas, which is typical, development will lag behind.

"But even in those cities you will have 12 million people," Franke said.

Breaking into the Vietnamese market will not be easy.

"I think the Americans are behind," Franke said. "I think a lot of business opportunities have been locked up."

The hotel business provides examples.

"We had some beautiful sites which were available," Franke said. "One in Hanoi was on a small lake within one block of the square where the Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is located. And the Japanese took it."

Franke said foreigners are now major operators in Vietnam, including companies from Taiwan, France, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

"Everybody is after oil and gas reserve rights. There are lots of people interested in hotels," Franke said. "But there are not a lot of people lining up to get the Cadillac dealerships."

Established in 1983, Gannon is a holding company with 11 subsidiaries specializing in real estate development, construction and high-technology information management. In 1986, Franke became one of the owners of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, in a last-ditch attempt to save the failing newspaper.

Colleen Conway is one of Franke's Vietnam business managers.

"We have three basic areas of concentration: travel, construction and product distribution," Conway said. …