Business Columns & Blogs

Building long-term business relationships is not just about hair

Boise State Executive MBA students visit MK Smart Group, a smart-card maker founded by a 1999 Boise State EMBA graduate, Nguyen Trong Khang. Nancy Napier is the woman in the back row with the no-longer-brown hair.
Boise State Executive MBA students visit MK Smart Group, a smart-card maker founded by a 1999 Boise State EMBA graduate, Nguyen Trong Khang. Nancy Napier is the woman in the back row with the no-longer-brown hair. Provided by Nancy Napier

Two events happened recently that make me realize I’m getting older (but then, I knew that) and how important long-term relationships are in places like Vietnam.

The Vietnamese have a saying that captures longevity and what it means to have a longstanding relationship.

“When foreigners come to Vietnam, they start (in the relationship) with ‘one-color hair’ (e.g., brown) and leave with ‘two-color hair’ (white and brown). Or, they start with ‘two-color hair’ (white and brown) and leave with ‘one-color hair’ (white).”

Let the record show that when I started working in Vietnam I had “one-color hair” (brown) and now I also have “one-color hair” (white), having passed through the two-color state long ago.

I’ve been coming to Vietnam for over 20 years and we have brought our Boise State Executive MBAs for a one-week international residency in Hanoi for eight years. We always visit MK Smart Group, a smart-card maker founded by one of our graduates, Mr. Nguyen Trong Khang (Boise State, 1999).

He started his firm after being in Boise for a semester. He has customers all over the world and continues to grow. We took a photo outside his factory with a sign welcoming us to Vietnam.

Later, Khang reminded me that we’ve known each other for two decades. Over that time, the connection has grown stronger between him and Boise State. Most recently, Khang started a fellowship for first-year Vietnamese students who come to Boise State to study. The connection is so strong in large part because we see each other regularly and have found ways to benefit both organizations — and, I hope, countries — over the years.

When we visit Hanoi with our students, we also meet with the U.S. Commercial Services attaché and officers to learn about doing business in Vietnam from the American perspective. Each year, we learn more about how the U.S. and Vietnam — and even Idaho and Vietnam — are increasing in the amount of trade, and what that means in terms of more U.S. jobs.

Every two to three years those officers rotate, so we’ve come to know several of them. But I found myself somewhat relieved to learn that the ones we have come to know will continue in Hanoi for another two years. That gives us a bit more time to build those relationships.

Interestingly, as well, several of the officers have Boise connections, through being big football fans or, in one case, being married to a woman from Boise (he and his wife plan to retire in Boise).

The takeaway for me: It’s important for business people working abroad (especially in Asia) to acknowledge the importance of building — and maintaining — long(er)-term relationships. Not only can they build business, but they can build country partnerships. Even if it means going from single-color brown to single-color white hair.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University, nnapier@boisestate.edu.

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