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
"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,"
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
"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
"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,"
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
"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. …