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Staying the course

Released at: 23:14, 05/12/2014

Staying the course

Mr. Ken Atkinson, Executive Chairman of Grant Thornton Vietnam, determined a different way for the company to grow.

by Thu Trang

In July this year Grant Thornton Vietnam merged with Nexia ACPA Auditing & Consulting, which will practice under the Grant Thornton name. The merger brings together a leading professional services firm in Vietnam with an excellent team of 14 partners and more than 220 professional staff in offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It was a critical decision made by Mr. Ken Atkinson, which doubled the size of Grant Thornton Vietnam and put in place a robust succession plan for the business. 

Mr. Ken Atkinson
Executive Chairman of Grant Thornton Vietnam

Decisions to make

The merger is no doubt one of the biggest of its kind in Vietnam’s professional services sector and will help to strengthen Grant Thornton’s position as the undisputed leader in its chosen market - providing assurance, tax and advisory services to dynamic organizations and helping them to excel in Vietnam, across Asia Pacific, and in global markets. “Grant Thornton has ambitious expansion plans and a key part of this is to build the business through mergers and acquisitions,” Mr. Atkinson told VET. “The merger with ACPA is a demonstration of our commitment to expanding our professional resources.” 

No one can build and lead an organization without dedication and passion about the business. Mr. Atkinson has always believed in working hard and leading by example. He started his career in international banking in 1976 and after 14 years, with assignments in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia, he set up his own consultancy business specializing in deal structuring and financing projects in China and Vietnam. With over 35 years emerging market experience and 32 years of Asia experience, he has undertaken corporate finance transactions in many emerging markets worldwide.

When any of us look at our lives there are certain pivotal moments, and so it is for Mr. Atkinson. “Setting up my own business back in 1983 was a major step for me,” he recalled. “Another was to refocus my business from China to Vietnam back in 1989 after my first visit to Vietnam.” 

In 1996 he was diagnosed with and had extensive surgery for cancer. The decision had to be made at that time whether to stay on in Vietnam or return to the UK or Hong Kong, and he decided to stay. Then the decision to become a full member of Grant Thornton in 1998 was critical for the future development of the firm in Vietnam. 

When he started in Vietnam the main focus for Grant Thornton in the country was advisory services for new investors entering the market and in particular for SMEs and owner-managed businesses, while the other major international firms were primarily focused on their global multinational clients. In 1998 Mr. Atkinson saw the opportunity to provide audit services and tax advisory services to a similar client base, as again at that time the larger international firms were still very much focused on audit and tax for their global clients. 

Today, however, many local audit firms and the large international firms have been focusing on Grant Thornton’s target client base as they all compete to build revenue. So there are a few ways Mr. Atkinson can differentiate Grant Thornton in the company’s service delivery. “We aim to be responsive to our client needs to help them grow,” he said. “In our structure we have much fewer staff per partner than our big international competitors. And we positioned ourselves as a local firm with strong international connections and expertise, rather than the local office of a major international firm.” 

Through the recent merger with ACPA, Grant Thornton has an additional ten partners and has significantly increased its capability in the tax advisory area and also in the area of Japanese business. They have over 150 Japanese clients and have now established a Japanese Desk.  

Grant Thornton is a network of independent member firms and while the parent provides technical and training support it does not provide financial support. So, according to Mr. Atkinson, one of the biggest constraints as an owner-managed business building a business that is staff- and training-intensive has been the financial constraints of limited capital. “The other constraint has also been the lack of qualified staff in the market and having to grow our in-house capacity through graduate recruitment and training,” he said. “With the recent merger and 14 equity partners the financial issues are less today than before.” 

Mr. Atkinson does not want to describe himself as a good leader even though he was the founder of Grant Thornton Vietnam and has managed the firm for more than 20 years. He believes leaders need to have a vision for their business, which is shared with and by all employees and they need to be strong in the face of adversity and retain their staff’s belief and trust. 

Rewarding experience

Like many, Mr. Atkinson likes to enjoy life to the full and spends time with his family and friends. However, he works hard and has worked hard to build a business, but not so much for financial gain, as work has been very much a hobby for Mr. Atkinson since he was in his early 40s. He also looks to give back to the community wherever and however he can.

His role as former Chairman of Operation Smile Vietnam has been one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences of his life. “While I have been community-minded and have always tried to give back to the community in one way or another, Operation Smile was just amazing,” he said. When he first joined Operation Smile Vietnam they were raising very limited funds locally and arranging surgeries for about 200 children each year. In his last year as Chairman, however, he and the organization raised over $1 million and arranged surgeries for close to 2,000 children in Vietnam. Since that time it has grown their fund raising base and now arranges surgeries for close to 3,000 children a year. 

Operation Smile provides relatively simple life changing surgery to children and young adults and each surgery touches so many lives in just 45 minutes. “To be there and see that and to see the look on a mother’s face when a child is handed back to her with a normal face and gone are the hole in their face and their protruding teeth, is just so emotional and hard to express in words,” Mr. Atkinson said. “I am proud to be part of Operation Smile and so pleased, in my small way, to have been able to help so many children and families in Vietnam.”  

My first time in Vietnam was in November 1989 when I visited Hanoi with a client who had asked me to prepare a feasibility study for a hotel development they were considering investing in in the capital. Now, so much has changed. 

In 1989 there were only two international flights a week to Hanoi from Bangkok and I believe one from the Soviet Union. There were two flights a day from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, both on old Russian aircraft, so when you compare the number of international and domestic flights today it is quite incredible compared to those early days, as are the improvements in the airports themselves.

Infrastructure and transportation have improved considerably. It was only in 1993 or 1994 that we had taxis and in the early days, before traffic became an issue, it was a wonderful experience travelling around by cyclo, particularly in Hanoi.

The tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City back then was nine or ten storeys so you only have to look around to see how it has changed. The first internationally-managed hotel in Hanoi was the refurbished Sofitel Metropole and in Ho Chi Minh City the Floating Hotel, and now there is an abundance of international standard hotels both Vietnamese and foreign.

These fairly basic developments as well as government efforts have helped promote investment and trade, which have helped improve living standards. I do not think many people would have even dreamt of having a Honda in 1989. Total foreign trade in 1990 was $5 billion; a fraction of what it is today.

As well as the development of basic infrastructure there has been significant development in business infrastructure, with the development of laws and regulations in so many different areas. Back in 1989 there was the Foreign Investment Law and the Civil Code and not much else. By and large the culture has not changed much in spite of the desire of many young Vietnamese to be “western”, which I strongly believe is good for the country.

Certainly, as a foreigner living in Vietnam, it is a much easier place to live today and in fact it is a great place to live, but unfortunately for a foreigner it is still a challenging place to work.

Mr. Ken Atkinson, Executive Chairman of Grant Thornton Vietnam

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