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Entrepreneur embraces Buddhism on path to a new life in Viet Nam

Update: November, 13/2014 - 09:55
Talking shop: Chris Freund (right), founder and partner of Mekong Capital.
by Thuy Anh

HCM CITY (VNS)  — Some people may assume Buddhism is only for Asians, but to Chris Freund, founder and partner of Mekong Capital, a company that manages private equity investment funds in Viet Nam, "Buddha's teaching is equally applicable to the West as it is to people from the East."

"Since high school, after reading a book called Be Here Now (on spirituality, yoga and meditation), I was always interested in the nature of reality, like what is the ultimate reality in the universe, what is consciousness, what is it to be human. That interest originally led me to Asia," he says.

Pursuing his interests in Buddhism, Chris completed a Buddhist studies program in Bodh Gaya, India and lived in a temple in Ubon Thani, Thailand.

He first explored Viet Nam in 1992 as a backpacker, and found that he wanted to stay in the country because of its friendly people, its working opportunities and the love of his life.

"People here are very open, outgoing and excited about the future, which makes it fun to live here," he says.

"When I was in Viet Nam in the beginning, I made friends everywhere I went, especially in Nha Trang, and decided to come back here more permanently. So when I graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz in early 1995, I immediately came here and worked for an investment firm called Templeton," he recalls.

Happy family: Chris with his wife and two daughters.

In 2001, Chris founded Mekong Capital, Viet Nam's first private equity firm.

"I wanted to start my own business. I wanted to be in Viet Nam, and I believed that private equity was the best investment style because it is not subject to external forces. Success depends on how effective we are at adding value to our investee companies," he says, adding that Mekong Capital has allowed him to achieve his goals.

That same year, he expanded his activities by co-founding the recruitment company Vietnam Works with his high school friend Jonah Levey.

Between 2006 and 2009, Mekong Capital-managed funds have invested in leading companies, including ICP (International Consumer Product Corp.), MobileWorld, Traphaco, Golden Gate and Masan Consumer.

Only after several years of the first phase between 2002 and 2005 did the company start to prosper.

Investment in Golden Gate was completed in 2008, and the divestment from that company recently resulted in a return of more than nine times its original investment.

Meanwhile, MobileWorld now trades at a price per share of around 50 times the price per share at which one of the funds of Mekong Capital invested in 2007.

Chris attributes the success of the investments to consumer-driven businesses that have a strong focus on building management teams of investee companies, with support from Mekong Capital.

"I believe the key to success is to build a strong team of professional managers and a strong corporate culture around a shared set of values," he says.

"Many new investors or those setting up business in Viet Nam hire people or find partners who they think have great relationships with some government officials, but normally that doesn't work out as expected, and they often end up with a lot of problems," he adds.

Over the years, mistakes were made but lessons were also learned.

Chris says if he were starting again, he would invite two or three partners to be co-founders.

Each of them would add value in different but important ways. "I would reach out more to international experts, get them involved and learn from them when making decisions, if the situation requires changes or when opportunities present themselves," he says.

For that reason, he has invited Chad Ovel, one of the few professional CEOs in Viet Nam who has twice achieved huge growth at companies where he was CEO.

"We have both been here for 18 to 20 years, so Chad and I have very deep roots in the country and a wide range of relationships which are helpful for Mekong's business," he says.

While working here, Chris also met a Vietnamese woman, who is now his wife. The happy father of two daughters, though busy, always spares his weekends for the family.

Although some people assume that a cross-cultural marriage might be difficult, Chris says that depends on your point of view. He and his wife share similar commitments to their family and life, and do not feel as if they are from two different countries, he says.

"As a family, we can easily move somewhere else, but 100 per cent of my work activities are here in Viet Nam, and I'm so committed to the long-term success of Mekong Capital and enjoy what we're doing that we just can't leave Viet Nam." — VNS

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