Wharton Leader: Thuy Dam, WG’96

During Her Tenure With ANZ Bank, Thuy Dam Has Helped Modernize the Vietnamese Banking Industry

By Robert Preer

 

During Vietnam’s long transition from a planned economy to a burgeoning market economy, Thuy Dam, WG’96, has often found herself at the leading edge of change in the country.

 

A few years after graduating from the University of Hanoi in 1985, Dam and four friends launched a consulting firm to advise foreign companies on entering the Vietnamese market. The country had just decided to allow foreign investment, and the new firm, InvestConsult, was Vietnam’s first privately-owned company. It would provide crucial help to some of the world’s largest companies, which were trying to gain a foothold in the country.

Two decades later, after getting her Wharton MBA and becoming established as an international banking executive, Dam returned to Vietnam to head the Australia-New Zealand (ANZ) Banking Group’s Vietnam operation. Under Dam’s leadership, ANZ won a government license to operate as a local bank and launched a dramatic expansion, growing from two branches to 12, boosting staff from 100 to 700, and quadrupling revenue. ANZ helped to modernize Vietnam’s financial sector, introducing Internet banking, credit cards and new financing options for local businesses.

“I like building things,” says Dam, 49. “I’m probably not very good at being a caretaker. I get bored very quickly.”

Dam has been with ANZ, the third largest bank in Australia and one of the leading banks in Asia, since leaving Wharton, which she attended as a Fulbright Scholar. Like many of her classmates in the mid-1990s, Dam planned to work on Wall Street, but her scholarship required her to work outside of the United States for two years after graduation. Melbourne-based ANZ hired her to help guide the investment bank’s expansion in Asia from a recently-opened office in Singapore.

“I always had an intention of staying for two years and then going back to the States to work,” she recalls. “But I can say now that one should never plan anything in life. I ended up spending 10 years in Singapore and really enjoyed it.”

In 2005, ANZ assigned Dam, a native of Hanoi, to head the Vietnam headquarters in the city. In Vietnam and other countries without a well-established banking sector, foreign banks usually bring in executives from the home office to run local banks. Dam was one of the first Vietnamese to head any foreign bank in the country. And when she arrived, she didn’t know what to expect.

“Being away for a long time, I thought going back in a new job would be difficult,” she recalls. “But I landed in Hanoi around lunchtime, and by late afternoon, I didn’t feel like I was starting anything new. It all seemed so familiar.”

A young child in the 1960s, Dam was living in Hanoi with her parents and brother during the difficult times of the Vietnam War. Her father was a college professor in chemistry and physics; her mother, a biologist at the Pasteur Institute. To protect children, the North Vietnamese government split up families, sending children to the countryside where they would be less vulnerable to attacks. Adults also were separated so that families would not be wiped out in a single raid.

“My father was in one province. My mother was in another,” Dam recalls. “My grandparents stayed in Hanoi because they were very old and didn’t want to move. My brother and I were together in another province.”

She says the experience instilled a sense of independence. She remembers living among 30 or 40 children, cared for by a couple of adults. “They cooked for us, and we just looked after ourselves. I don’t know how we did it, but we managed.”

After college, she worked for nearly two years for Vietnam’s patent office before deciding she needed a change. This was the mid-1980s, and the war had been over for a decade. East-West relations were thawing, and Vietnam was opening to the outside world. She and her cofounders of InvestConsult saw an opportunity. “Vietnam had been closed to the world for such a long time,” she says. “When you open up, there is always a huge gap between what the foreigner looks for and what the government wants. We believed there needed to be a bridge between the two parties.”

She says that she and her partners ran the business largely on intuition and their own first-hand knowledge. Realizing she needed a broader understanding of business, she decided to apply to Wharton. She remembers having a difficult time applying for admission and the scholarship. The United States had only just lifted its trade embargo, and relations between the two countries were still tense.

“Everything was so new. It was hard to get information. Trying to find a place to sit for exams was challenging,” she recalls.

She describes her two years at Wharton as an intellectual awakening.

“What Wharton taught me most was not technical skills. It was the things I learned from my friends and classmates [that stood out]. There was this entrepreneurial spirit there,” she says. “People tossed around ideas, and professors were ready to entertain ideas. I had come from a society where ideas and thought were shaped by somebody else.”

While she is reluctant to make any predictions about her career, she expects to be in Vietnam for some time. Last year, ANZ gave her responsibility for the bank’s operations in Laos and Cambodia, as well as Vietnam.

Although the world financial crisis hurt Vietnam, the country has fared better than many others, according to Dam. Vietnam relies heavily on exports, and while the global recession did weaken demand for the country’s products, Vietnam’s emerging banking industry never got entangled in the disastrous investments that brought down banks elsewhere.

 

“There are still quite a few challenges the country will have to deal with, and there will be bumps in the road,” she says. “But being in this country and being Vietnamese, I have to be optimistic about the future of this country and this market.”

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