Winter Term 2013: Singapore/Vietnam – January 16, 2013

Well, here goes nothing. Today is our first day of business tours and discussions. We are very fortunate to have contacts with two prominent companies close to Saigon. The first is Theodore Alexander, which manufactures high-end home furnishings. Their market is those consumers (worldwide) who view a pair of US $25,000 end tables to be a casual day of shopping. Their products are certainly in the luxury category. Our second visit is Sprinta Manufacturing. Sprinta is a cut and sew textile operation that has contracts with the likes of Adidas and North Face. We researched the company specifically within the context of intellectual property protections during their manufacturing of North Face products.

My first impression upon arrival at TA is that we just entered a militarized zone. There is a gate much like the one the RV crashes through multiple times in the movie Stripes. As it would happen, TA suffered a devastating fire only days before our scheduled arrival. The facility behind the aforementioned gate is actually the foundry (metalworking) as opposed to the main manufacturing facility. This facility is intact. Originally, we were scheduled to tour the main furniture factory that is located in a government sponsored export zone. This facility, as we later saw, is a burnt out shell of a five story manufacturing plant. TA’s leadership is very generous to even continue a conversation with us during this stressful time, much less take a day out of their schedules to tour us around.

The foundry is incredibly interesting from a business standpoint. TA is an extremely labor intensive company. Judging exclusively by the foundry, I can say that they have made no efforts to move toward reduced labor practices. TA is employing old world hand craftsmanship. The resulting products are remarkably beautiful. The business result is that TA’s very existence is dependent on (essentially) free labor. This point is only solidified by the company’s expressed belief that the only other two countries that could house TA are Myanmar and North Korea. Think about that for a second. When we asked the company’s leadership if they plan to leave Vietnam, they said no because the only substitutes would be Myanmar and North Korea. This is the level of reliance on cheap labor that keeps the company alive. TA was very gracious to host us in its facility, and it was incredibly educational. However, it left a palpable concern in the minds of many of the students as to why the company was leaving itself so vulnerable to the whims of country policy and a depressed Vietnamese economy. Worth noting is that Vietnam will not be depressed (by its current standard) in another couple of years. This place is growing at an incredible pace and is a wonderful destination. The growth is noticed and recognized by TA as well. TA makes constant changes to the pay of its workforce, and does so in a very generous manner to glean both goodwill and loyalty.

The day’s second visit is to a very modern industrial park. These parks are set up by the Vietnamese government to support industry and trade. It turns out that the TA main manufacturing facility (the remaining bits) is also in this park. The group did take a picture alongside the building and we wish them the best in their recovery. TA will certainly use this setback as a display of its resiliency.

Our second visit (Sprinta) is also in this same export zone. Sprinta’s facility is a very substantial two story manufacturing plant. On the first floor are the administrative offices, fabric lay out and pattern cutting, shipping, and receiving. The second floor, however, is where the action is. Frankly, this sight is shocking (in a good way). Upstairs are the sewing stations arranged in very organized grids. Each product begins with station one of its line, and progresses from there. Each line is maybe a dozen stations deep. Then we realized that there are probably a half dozen columns of these sewing lines. Overall, there are probably between three and five hundred sewing stations on the second floor of this factory; each one working at a feverish pace. It is positively amazing how much product is flowing through this building. Again, this is a very labor-intensive process. Textiles tend to be so, especially cut and sew of clothes.

The group discussed the intensity of the labor, and the worker conditions compared between the factories. Sprinta is a very comfortable atmosphere. I inquired why this is so from one of the managers at the plant. His honesty was really fun. The cooler temperatures are so the employees are not inclined to drink so much; employees who drink a lot of water to stay cool need to use the bathroom more. The cooler temperatures increase productivity. The airflow also serves an efficiency purpose, while having a very pleasant side effect. The airflow drives lint out of the building’s open windows. By pushing the lint out of the building the machines get less dirty and require less maintenance. The airflow, fortunately, also is comfortable to workers. Gotta love it.

The evening activities included a panel with many of our expatriate hosts and contacts. We are very fortunate to have guests from a wide range of industries from infrastructure to sandwiches. The panel was held on the rooftop bar of the famous Rex hotel in downtown Saigon. The panelists entertained questions about everything from nation building to dating. This group painted Vietnam in such a positive light, possibly drawing one or more of us to submit applications for positions here in Saigon.

Written by: Charles Gaylor


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