When Post Media Ltd CEO Chris Dawe first landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in the late 1980s, the business landscape was barren and there wasn’t much infrastructure for taking care of visitors.
“I vividly remember stepping off the plane and walking into a tin shed where my suitcase was delivered on the back of a truck and from there it was placed in a pile which I then had to find as everybody together scrambled to find theirs, no trolleys - total confusion,” Dawe said.
“Finally after escaping customs, there were no taxis no anything just thousands of locals surrounding me and offering me everything from foodstuffs to women. I finally succumbed to the pressure and accepted a lift in a cyclo to eventually arrive at my hotel exhausted.”
“The hotel, suffering from a “normal” temporary power cut (that lasted 12 hours), hence no lifts, no air-conditioning, no room service, but if I wished to go to the candlelit restaurant they would be able to quickly whip me up either some tasty boiled eel or indeed some turtle soup. I declined their kind offer and attempted to sleep. Welcome to Vietnam circa late eighties.”
The next afternoon after wondering around for half a day, Dawe discovered an oasis, the Saigon Floating Hotel, which he describes as the catalyst for most of Vietnam’s early foreign business deals. The Floating Hotel also turned into the main meeting point for all the foreign businessmen coming to a newly-emerging Vietnam.
The trip got Dawe thinking about Vietnam and he returned, full-time, in 1989 to scout business opportunities.
“I used to stand at the bar in the Floating Hotel as the businessmen were starting to come in and listen to them complain about the lack of information in English.”
That’s when he and his initial partners got the idea of starting a newspaper, but he knew it was going to be a challenge.
In 1991, using a borrowed laptop as the Soviet Union started to collapse, and following endless meetings and cups of lukewarm tea with the Vietnamese ministries, the Vietnam Investment Review rolled out its first issue under a business cooperation contract with the State Committee for Cooperation and Investment.
The first headline was “Floods wreak havoc in Mekong Delta” and he admits that the story was based on sketchy information “although it was during the wet season and somebody had said it was flooding down there.”
Dawe said he was able to get the license because the Vietnamese Government realised that they needed major capital inflow and the role the media could play in attracting this foreign investment.
“Vietnam needed an outside voice to announce that Vietnam was coming of age and was opening its doors,” Dawe said.
In celebration, Dawe and the Vietnamese officials drank snake bile mixed with rice wine.
“On special occasions like this you also included the snake’s live heart which continued to beat as it passed down your throat. I had to do that on three occasions. It is definitely not very pleasant,” he said, laughing.
With no newspaper background, no local knowledge and only an inkling of producing something resembling The Australian Financial Review, Dawe and journalist Ross Dunkley, who had won Australia’s top journalism prize, the Walkley Award in 1982, commenced operations in late 1991.
Only two weeks into the operation, the Vietnamese government decreed that the Vietnam Investment Review had to shift locations from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
Dunkley’s job was to head for Hanoi and make things happen.
“Ross was the main strength behind the whole publishing side of the newspaper”
During the early 1990s, as the only foreign-owned publication in Vietnam, the pages had to be approved by a government-appointed censor from the Ministry of Information.
“It was really tough.”
The censor appointed to deal with the Vietnam Investment Review was none other than the infamous Nguyen Tri Dung, who served as the radio Voice of Vietnam from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, with propaganda broadcasting aimed at the United States during the Vietnam War in the1970s.
“He was a very interesting and colorful character,” Dawe said. “He was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Vietnam Investment Review.”
“We were the first source of any business information, our Vietnamese partners, the State Committee for co-operation and Investment (SCCI), was also the licensing body, so every project in Vietnam had to be approved by them,” Dawe said, which meant they were in a key position to know what was going on.
Standing at the bar in the floating hotel a few years later, Dawe heard businessmen complain that they couldn’t bring certain key staff to Ho Chi Minh City because there was no foreign education available for their children.
In 1993, Dawe set up Ho Chi Minh City International Grammar School, Vietnam’s first. He staffed it by making a deal with the Sydney International Grammar School and ended up with more than 1,000 students from around the world. At about the same time he sold the VIR, he also sold the school, which flourishes to this day, and is ranked as the number one international school in the country.
Dawe and the VIR received a medal presented by the Vietnamese Prime Minister which he was told was the first awarded to a foreigner outside of war, the medal of labour - third class.
The first foreign bank on the scene was ANZ, set up by Dawe’s good friend, the late Scott Armstrong.
“Armstrong and I were great mates and helped each other wherever we could because life was difficult.”
During those early years in Vietnam, Dawe met lasting friends including John Brinsden, who worked for Standard Chartered Bank. Today, after helping Cambodia’s ACELEDA Bank grow rapidly, Brinsden represents the Hong Kong conglomerate Jardine-Matheson in Cambodia.
“Brinsden and I went to all at the same functions, drank a lot of Tiger beer and got to know each other really well. He’s one of the guys who have stood the test of time.
At the Floating Hotel, out of which everything flowed in those days, Dawe met an English guy who was studying Vietnamese in Hanoi so he could speak Vietnamese with a Hanoi dialect. That man was Dominic Scriven, founder of Dragon Capital, for which Dawe was also one of the founding directors. It was the first-ever investment fund in the country.
“At its peak, Scriven’s Dragon Capital had USD $2.5 billion under investment, and Dragon Capital was the largest investor in Vietnam’s stock market. The fund is still run by Scriven today. Dom and I are still the best of friends and often spend time together having a good yarn and I especially enjoy my visits to Mango Bay staying at his eco-resort on Phu Quoc Island.
Another associate was Michel Dauguet, who worked for the Vietnam Investment Review setting up CD ROMs of the publication and selling them. Later, Dauguet served as CEO of Post Media Ltd and today serves as CEO of the Phnom Penh law firm DFDL. Dawe later became a director and shareholder in a software development company started by Dauguet.
By the time the VIR became successful, Dawe decided he’d had enough of publishing, and it became known there was an interest in selling the VIR.
Rupert Murdoch personally flew in to meet Dawe at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi.
“Murdoch was direct and he was completely up to speed with all things to do with publishing. I was very impressed. His main thrust was obviously to get a television deal in Vietnam. The other potential purchaser was Kerry Packer, whose son James came and met with us.”
The Packers had the biggest stable of magazines in Australia and they were interested in that segment and also getting into Vietnam’s television market – getting a foothold for their Australian listed company Consolidated Press Holdings (CPH) and their Channel Nine television network.
“We had two extremely large media companies vying for the VIR.”
Dawe and his partners, through their good Vietnam government relationships, signed the first-ever television deal in Vietnam with Hanoi Television (HTV) to provide programing and translations as well as to sell advertising.
“We approached our partners and told them we had two possible suitors: Packer and Murdoch. The Vietnam Prime Minister’s department advised us that Murdoch wasn’t a suitable partner mainly because Murdoch was having problems with his television deals in China at the time.”
In the end, the Vietnamese accepted the Packer purchase of the VIR, including a deal to keep Dawe and Dunkley on for an additional year.
“I will never forget some of the wonderful adventures James and I enjoyed together including the Jet Chopper ride and subsequently staying at Kerry’s magnificent property at Scone in New South Wales.”
“We sold for a fair price, and after paying all of our debts we still had some left over,” Dawe said. “The newspaper really took off when the American embargo was lifted.”
Packer ended up losing money in the fullness of time, Dawe said, spending a fortune on television experts and editing suites, but unable to get exactly the right deal they sought. The ownership of the VIR eventually reverted back to the Ministry of Planning and Investment - formally the SCCI - and Packer pulled out completely.
Today, in his role as CEO of Post Media Ltd, which he took up in early 2012, Dawe remembers the challenges and fun of making a newspaper successful in Vietnam.
One element of the VIR’s success was called Friday Review, a party on the last Friday of each month.
“That’s what inspired the Finishing Post and what inspired the color of the masthead of The Phnom Penh Post and in turn the color of the Myanmar Times masthead” Dawe said.
During his years as chairman of the VIR, Dawe entertained every Australian Prime Minister of that era, the first of which was the former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who arrived to investigate the possibility of opening a racecourse on behalf of Sir Peter Abels.
“Hawke arrived in Vietnam just after he confessed on national TV about being unfaithful to Hazel.”
Dawe said Hawke was “Very much a bloke’s bloke, swore a lot.”
Paul Keating, was much more debonair and elegant, according to Dawe.
“Keating was quietly sophisticated and serious, and he was PM at the time on a routine government visit to Vietnam.”
Keating’s Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, opened Dawe’s International School.
“He praised the Australian government’s initiative and Keating had previously stated we had to become the clever country and export education regionally. The Australian government never gave me assistance, but they took the credit. In my follow up speech I pointed out it was not an Australian government initiative and it wasn’t funded nor contributed to in any way by the Australian government,” Dawe said.
After selling the VIR and returning to Australia, Dawe was asked by John Howard and Peter Costello to run as a candidate for the federal seat of Burke in Victoria on behalf of the Liberal Party.
Dawe ran and lost during his brief foray into politics, for a seat that was firmly held by the Labour Party.
With regard to former Prime Minister John Howard, Dawe says he’s smarter than people think he is.
“Howard is a very astute guy and he’s underestimated in a lot of people’s minds. He is very knowledgeable in a lot of areas and extremely well briefed.
Dawe enjoyed his conversations with Kevin Rudd who he felt was extremely intelligent and a good Labor Party leader
“I admire Rudd who was the first Australian leader to apologise to the aborigines. Finally somebody had enough strength of character to make an official apology,” Dawe said.
“The two leaders I would love to see running against each other, would be Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, who are probably the only two capable political leaders that Australia currently has at either state or federal level.”
Dawe also expressed some bitterness against the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, saying the top job in Austalia had been stolen in the coup led by her against Kevin Rudd.
“Many overseas Australians, like myself, feel she does not have the personal stature and character to be leading our country.”
A primary reason his team was successful in the emerging media market of Vietnam during the 1990s was the respect the Vietnamese held for Australians, both as worthy opponents in the capacity of Australian troops to fight, and in the fact that Gough Whitlam was the first western leader of a country involved in the war to resume diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
Dawe says it is tremendous for Australia to be finally engaging with the people of the same region.
“Too long we have been pseudo English”
In Vietnam Dawe met both Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. Having told his son, aged 7, that leaders were big men, Dawe’s son looked up at Mitterrand and said “Dad, I thought you said all he was a big man.”
“Mitterrand just looked down at my son and smiled.”
Dawe found Jacques Chiraq to be a much stronger character.
“The French always tend to think of all these countries as Francophile which is far from the truth, and generally exaggerate the importance of France in this region. The French tend to stick with the French.”
Other celebrities he met in Vietnam included the late, handsome John F Kennedy, Jr.
“I remember all the girls flocking around him.”
Another memorable encounter was with Bruce Willis.
“I asked him about Demi Moore and he said you couldn’t imagine waking up to a better sight in the morning.”
Dawe said Willis is “a nice guy to have a chat with”.
Speaking about living in Cambodia and working at The Phnom Penh Post, Dawe said enjoying living here. “The people are all smiling and friendly. I hope they can maintain that image.”
Dawe says The Phnom Penh Post is unique amongst media in Cambodia.
“We’re the only newspaper that pays tax here. The others all function like charities and don’t pay taxes and don’t pay their workers correctly. Their workers are encouraged to take money from different organisations on both sides of the story and the one that pays the most money get the most favorable report. We are the only media that reports accurately and with integrity. We are creditable and we offer an intelligent opinion.
“We are the only media that reports accurately and with integrity. We are creditable and we offer an intelligent opinion and of course we all very proud of that.”
Dawe is optimistic about Cambodia’s future.
“I’m very encouraged that Cambodia’s leaders have principally designed their economic growth strategy based around the ease of setting up and conducting business. It is by far the least restrictive regional country to operate in, and I can understand why foreign businesses are flocking in droves to set up here”
Dawe says he hopes Cambodia’s property market does not go through the same overheating process that leads to tremendous expansion initially, and then a huge contraction later on, exactly the problem Vietnam finds itself in at present.
“I hope Cambodia doesn’t suffer from this same tropical disease of other developing Asian countries.”
Dawe has three children including James, 33, with his first wife, a Scottish lady. James works as a project manager on high-rise buildings in Melbourne and has provided Dawe with two grandchildren.
He has two children with his second wife Dianne, an Australia. Tim is 27 and his daughter Elli is 23.
His last marriage was to a Dutch art historian, Helene. Today Dawe enjoys being single and says he has no immediate plans for any further marriages. “I certainly could not afford anymore,” he said, smiling.
Dawe said Asia is one of the few regions of the world where paper publications are still very viable.
“In Myanmar we are going from a weekly to a daily as of the first of April. We are the leading newspaper in Myanmar as we are here in Cambodia and as we were in Vietnam.”
Dawe said Post Media Ltd was now in profit for the first time since it was acquired in 2007.
“We’re going to be here for the long run and we intend to diversify. We’re just in the process of purchasing a new sheet-fed press which will enable us to develop our magazine division, We always aim to offer people to best standard of journalism that’s possible. And in the future I would like us to become more involved in the television sector.”
Concluding the interview, Dawe took the time to promote Ross Dunkley.
“Dunkley is by far the best publisher I’ve ever known and a totally dedicated newspaper man, one of the last of the Mohicans. He even went to jail for 47 days and there has been a movie made about that. He felt that strongly about perusing his dream. Ross is a great friend and comrade and I look forward to working alongside Ross until we drink the last drink.”
“Happy Australia Day from a truly proud Australian,” Dawe said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]