Tycoon's 10-year crusade to get a Big Mac in Vietnam

Sun Aug 4, 2013 5:15pm EDT
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By Nguyen Phuong Linh and Martin Petty

HO CHI MINH CITY (Reuters) - Tycoon Henry Nguyen mopped floors, flipped burgers and even cleaned toilets over a 10-year campaign to convince McDonald's Corp (MCD.N: Quote) to let him bring Big Macs and Happy Meals to communist Vietnam.

McDonald's is making a late entry into this market, where Yum Brands Inc (YUM.N: Quote) already has dozens of Pizza Hut and KFC outlets and Burger King Worldwide Inc BKW.N has 15 restaurants. Even Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O: Quote) debuted in Ho Chi Minh City in February and opened its second branch last week.

Capitalism has taken root in a country that many Americans associate more with an unpopular war than rising wealth. The super-rich are becoming household names in Vietnam, which showcased its first billionaire in June on the cover of its inaugural edition of Forbes magazine.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who set up Pizza Hut in Vietnam six years ago, says he has lived and breathed McDonald's. He studied its business model as part of his master's degree, and pursued the Vietnam franchise opportunity for a decade - even as he worked with rival Yum. When he visited his hometown of Chicago, he would meet McDonald's executives at the company's headquarters in suburban Oak Brook, Illinois.

The Golden Arches will first appear in Ho Chi Minh City in early 2014 and later in the capital Hanoi, but the expansion will be "step by step", said Nguyen, who worked at McDonald's in the United States as a teenager and again this year at a Singapore outlet.

His timing looks questionable. While rivals have gained a firm foothold, McDonald's is opening just as the economy falters and consumer demand is fading. Still, the 40-year-old is convinced the local market is ripe for a McDonald's franchise.

"McDonald's showing up here shows that Vietnam is a big deal to a lot of people. It means things are happening in Vietnam," Nguyen told Reuters in an interview at his swanky office here in Vietnam's most iconic building. He is the son-in-law of Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam's prime minister since 2006, but insists that isn't why he won the McDonald's franchise deal.

McDonald's spokeswoman Becca Hary confirmed that Nguyen had been discussing the franchise opportunity for many years, and said he made the shortlist out of a much larger group.   Continued...

Henry Nguyen gestures during an interview at his office in Vietnam's southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Nguyen Phuong Linh