Almost 30 years ago, it was also one of those days near TET – a young Australian came to Vietnam with a passion for next endeavour during the journey to build his own business in the far-away-land. 30 years ago, it was when Vietnam played its very first intro notes of the “Doi moi” symphony, the economy was full of potential and changes. The Australian names Jef aka Nicholas Stokes, the Chairman of Maxport, a leading garment company in Vietnam…
Nearly 30 years – witnessing the changes of Vietnam economy and same 30 years of growing together with Vietnam garment industry – to him, the love to this S-shaped piece of land already engraved deeply within. So, even after many mishaps and break-up…. and even after all the faith-broken, betrayal … he has never regretted about coming to Vietnam.
Then he started sharing with me about the story of a young man 30 years ago, about the first seed planted for Maxport JSC, about the Mentor-Disciple, co-workers, about trust gone wrong… Seems that the chill of Hanoi’s Tet weather has done its good job .. enough for a man of “been there-done that” – upon recalling his past – readily to get everything off his chest.
Early 90s, Vietnam’s economy started its very first move in the wake of Doimoi. Vietnam’s Textile and Garment at that time was considered the spearhead of its industry. State-owned companies accounted for 70% of total output and enjoyed many privilege. Early 90s, Jef came to Vietnam, having orders for export – signing CM contract with GMT 40. His office was just a small room rented from GMT 40, with one phone, one old fax machine, one humble chair… things so simple..
In 1994, the company had only one customer… in 1995 it had 3 customers … then 5 by 1997. He still remembered how he and his team were striving to build the company. Many white-nights … it could take half a month to prepare a set of sample. Our hands full of chalk marks.. Even much more pressure when our orders totally counted on production capcity of GMT 40. It was hard to manage from A to Z… so many times, Mr. Jef had to pay hundred thousands of dollars for compensation. Many cases like measurements out of tollerance, wrong fabrics .. we had to pay for it. And because of power cuts, GMT 40 delivered 2 days late, we had to pay, too. For contracts signed with European customers – everything must be 100% right.
“The works were exhausting… I always try hard to find new customers and build company system… Otherwise each mistake will be a disaster and very soon I would have to shut the company down”.. He smiled again… “In one case later, I found that – our team – seeing my weariness, they talked with each others and agreed on no need pay-rise. I felt so blessed”
It was a race with full of energy which Mr. Jef and his team could never forget…. about the starting time – low on cash but high on spirit. With those efforts, from 1998 to 2004, company received lots of orders… Many more new hirings to meet the demand of production.
When Maxport was just a small office within GMT 40 compound, there are 5 key people, one was in charge of company “vault”, one in charge of produciton, someone in charge of quality… among those 5, Mr. Jef always trusted Phuong – full name Nguyễn Tiến Phương, joined company from 1996 an introduction from a colleague.
“It was a very good first impression of him. Smart and fast. He has done a good job. I trusted and considered him as my son, gave him all responsibility”
From the very first day of establishment until the day Maxport made its name in market, Phuong was Mr. Jef’s right hand. In 2006, he bought his first home in Hanoi. But, since he wish his loved “son” would be well settled, he gave Phuong the house.
“That year, he worked very hard for company. I saw he had 2 kids and lived in a small house. In 2007, I transferred the ownership of my penthouse in Golden Westlake to Phuong, as a gift for his contribution. 2 years later, I bough for him the 2nd penthouse just right next to the current once and connect become one of the biggest penthouse with best view, best location in Hanoi, he and his family is living there at 25th floor West Tower -Golden Westlake. More than anyone at that time, I though he deserve for this, so I grant him permision to use the house and his family got better off to a higher-life”.
Many times, he did not hesitate to land a hand .. bailed “his son” out of difficulties.
2004 – there were so many orders, when Mr. Jef – after consulted by a partner – decided to setup a company to acquire GMT 40. At that time, there’s no law allowing foreigner to register for setup company. He discussed with partners and decided to go all-in by giving loans to his partners without any papers signed, to be proxy-investors for him. All bound by moral /oral commitment, paying back money if making profit – if not, giving back to him all the shares. Phuong registered company under his name as biggest share-holder.
“I thought, well - we had been together all a long way.. like family, brothers and sisters … there’s nothing I should hesitate when entrust them to use my money to buy GMT 40”.
On Jan 20, 2004 – Maxport JSC officially established. That day, Mr. Jef had his high hope on the miracle growth of Maxport.. and also in that year, Phuong – the trusted man got titled as company Director.
During the time, Mr. Jef always gave the utmost trust to Phuong… more than anyone else. He then focused on looking for new/good customers for us, layout strategy .. and especially – he was the sources of “source” for restructuring and growth. Phuong was only on behalf of him on management of tens of thousand of employee in Vietnam.
“Phuong was legaly representative of whole company on front side, fully liable before laws – in return, we were clear and fair about contribution and distribution. I was care-free about money since I entrusted all my faith on Phuong”.
And then, life started its show of irony ... which until now, the 70 years old man was still pondering and struggling to understand.
When company achieved revenue of thousands of billion VND, our business division robustly developed .. then Phuong gave idea of moving to Thai Binh. At that time, we respected each other. I told Phuong to move slowly. I was not aware that Phuong got it ready for a total cleansing, consolidating power into his hand very quickly…just like a well-prepaired-long-term game plan.
Anyone who was not with Phuong or close to me would be removed by one way or another… Hao, Giang and some of Phuong’s aids got installed into key positions in Thaibinh. In Hanoi, only remained Representative Office. Business Division got totally “erased”. All high-level staffs knew it but no one dare to blow the whistle because they saw that I trust Phuong the most.
When seeing wave of high-ranking personnel left, I thought about restructuring the system. But… my wish could not come true because the tsunami has arrived.
During the rage at year-end party 2012, Mr Jef said “ Phuong, you couldn’t do that… must not just fire them like that… they are our brothers”.
Recall of those days, his eyes dimmed with “melancholy”. He slowly share story … like getting it off his chest.. . wiping it off his mind, he wished.
In 2016, many orders got cancelled because of Phuong’s emails sent to customers.
“Official name of company is Maxport – MXP for short, but he deliberately changed company name to MXP when I was away on health care trip. The announement of changing company name - sending to partners (like that) would cause chaos and confusing for customers/ partners everywhere. MXP is code of Maxport in the garment industry. Any company who’s doing business internationally would need a code for recognition which is essential”.
How ever, I did let it go when I was back since harm have been done. I was just upset because “my brother” did not talked with me about it first. I did not have any doubt untill later .. found that this was one of many steps that Phuong prepared for his next gambit. I thought he was just restructuring the company. Even when loosing key people, and company name changed, I still thought that he has done so for the benefit of everyone … his decision could be right or wrong, he could make it or break it.. but I want to support him because the responsibility he took … together with me and our team. At first, Phuong proposed to have some big customers to sign contracts directly with MXP in stead of signing with Maxport LTD HK, I did not have any doubt and readily support him… until he changed company name as the last move to oust me from my turf”… it was little too late when I find out the truth.
“In 2014, we discussed about internal equity swaping. I wanted to change to FDI. I got this plan long time ago, since Vietnam laws allow it, but Phuong got many excuse to delay. At that time, he was the legal representative so I respected his opinion. However in 2014, the situation made me procrastinate no more… my decison was – after changing company model, I will give 35% of equity of both companies in Vietnam and oversea to everyone who were working side by side with me until then. Because to me and to everybody, Maxport JSC actually has not yet been a true joint stock company.
In 2014, Mr. Jef laid out the plan of stock option which Phuong will have 25% of not only Maxport JSC but also of all Maxport Group. For Mr. Jef – it’s simply the most generous plan for Phuong.. but Phuong already has other thoughts.
Perharps he never imagined that one day, the worst could happen like that. He even could not understand why there’s such a change of heart so easily. Friends of today just turn foes of tomorrow like that. And for long, the groundswell was down there.. gradually eroding company from within … which now was clearly visible to him.
“I still remember clearly they days of negotiating with Phuong. He asked me to pay him $12 millions as profit sharing to get back my shares and 50% of Maxport asset. I did not accept… He lowered the ask to 7 millions which I also rejected. For me, it was more painful when my trust got betrayed. I thought all of us were one when in same boat. But turned out it wasn’t. When I was back to Hanoi, my brother moved so fast… which made me keep asking “Why so?” … I just keep walking around in my office and could not understand why my people just keep leaving like that”.
One afternoon – very last day of the year in chilling Hanoi, Jef calmly shared with me.
“During the time of splitting proceed – I always looked right into his eyes.
The way Phuong tactically delayed the pays to workers of GMT 40 at Hadinh – even when company had money …. but he lied that MXP could not pay because Maxport did not pay the CM. For decades, I have never ever failed to pay workers on time.. it’s an unbreakable rule. I can suffer for the sake of my workers… Phuong knew it and tried to psychologically hurt me with this trick. I learnt about this through Tuyet, Director of GMT 40 in Hadinh at that time.
Not only that, I learnt that “someone” spreaded the news that I got cancer at final stage … dying, Maxport was going to collapse. And I would go back to Australia with nothing but a pair of flip-flop after all the years building my business in Vietnam. I thought “we all die one day.. myself or Phuong, but why it had to be that way? What have I done to deserve his terrible disloyalty.
Because I trusted him like brother? Because I gave him the 1st penthouse I could afford .. as gratuity to his family and his efforts. Because I have built Maxport and company culture together with him and team. Because that I shared the strategy and worked closely with him. Because I brought orders and customers from all over the world to Maxport. Because I gave money to Phuong without signing any papers? He’s my brother..
Finally, the way Phuong did not pay the CM for big customers – accusing Maxport for not paying (he meant the money I had to pay to buy my own shares as he’s pushing me .. to get back 50% of my own assets), so he could not release the shipments for customers. What Phuong did harm to customers actually did harm to Maxport system which included MXP.
I did… (paused)… worry about the future then…
The pain of lost… of broken trust. “I did trust Phuong as my brother, my son. But the worst thing just happened. Finally, I had to pay for having back half of the company I built. I accepted it… because I had other partners. I accepted it because I mistakenly trusted the wrong guy. I wanted to revive my hope together with other partners. Maxport should never got drowned into the complicated legal battle. I never allow the collapse of the whole system, of loosing all customers, I did not want to see my people and their families suffer. I decided to rebuild everything”.
In 2017, the split of Maxport happened. Mr. Jef lost 4 out of 8 factories to Phuong.
Before the hand-over, Phuong – his brother still managed to secretly replace new/good machines with old/worn-out ones… causing much trouble and damage to production of Jef’s factories… Phuong also took the code MXP of Maxport, to confuse the market … so he could steal Jef’s customers.
Finally, the storm is over now for Jef. The ‘fantasy” of “old man flip-floping back to Australia would never turn reality. Some of company’s veteran happily responded to his call and started their reunion with Maxport. Many customers knew the whole story, including Nike – they only recognise Jef’s company and refused to deal with MXP.
Sitting in his office – canopied under the umbrellas of tree – where he laid the first brick to build Maxport… (the design of tree-surrounded-offices is very Jef’s signature), his dream of 500 million dollar company could have come true if not hindered by the brutal “night mare”. But the 70 years old man found peace after the event of having his trust wrongly-placed . After only 2 years, Maxport under his helm and together with old team had risen with great strength.
With a warm smile, said Jef “I am happy to have many Vietnamese brothers and sisters by my side, rebuilding Maxport… Something that will be unforgetable”.
And he is still in love with Vietnam just liked it was 30 years ago… He can only get deeper in love as his youth, his big chunk of life have been devoted to Vietnam and to Maxport – a leading garment company in this S-shaped country