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Construction pioneer

Released at: 08:18, 14/10/2014

Construction pioneer

The 20-year Vietnam journey undertaken by Canadian entrepreneur Mr Sami Kteily, co-founder and Executive Chairman of PEB Steel Buildings, has been a remarkable story of success.

by Thong Dat

For many foreigners, especially those from the West, Vietnam 20 years ago was a country that still conjured up images of war and strife. But for Mr Sami Kteily, Vietnam at the time was a beautiful, peaceful and welcoming country with hard working people trying to improve their standard of living after many years of hardship.

Mr Sami Kteily
co-founder and Executive Chairman of PEB Steel Buildings

He still remembers one Sunday morning in early 1994, when he left his hotel at 7am to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. “The shops were already open and the streets were full of people,” he recalled. “The paddy fields along the way were full of farmers toiling away under a blazing sun.” It was such an impressive sight, especially to someone like Mr Kteily, who is a strong believer that hard work breeds success.

Back in 1994 a consensus emerged among the first wave of foreign investors in Vietnam that this was a market where rewards will come to those who commit to long-term development. As part of their strategies, foreign investors showed interest in setting up manufacturing bases in the country. At the same time, local businesses wanted to build new factories and warehouses to meet increasing demand in the local market. Mr Kteily saw an opportunity. All of these manufacturing projects required pre-engineered steel for their factories and logistics centres but lacked the funds to invest upfront and so needed credit packages. “The demand for steel structures was incredible and someone had to satisfy that demand by offering new solutions,” he said. He started well, with his first contract being $4,888,888. “Lots of lucky number 8s - something I learned very early on,” he smiled.

A good start, of course, doesn’t mean the road will always be smooth. On the technical side, the concept of pre-engineered steel building (PEBs) was totally new in Vietnam. What Mr Kteily saw was that local businesses were only familiar with trusses, hot rolled sections and reinforced concrete for buildings, while very few had even heard of PEBs - a US technology that uses sophisticated software to optimise the weight of a building and so achieve cost savings. “The market was sceptical and this meant that if we wanted to introduce PEBs into the construction sector we would have to change the thinking of the design engineer, the architect, the construction company, and also the investor,” he said. Not surprisingly, the Canadian entrepreneur had to invest much time and effort in marketing activities to educate the market about the new product.

His approach worked. Over the last four years PEB has recorded double digit growth. In 2013 it grew at more than 50 per cent, and although Mr Kteily targeted 2014 as a year of consolidation, results to date have been even better than last year. And all at a time when the macro-economic situation has, to say the least, been challenging in Vietnam.

As many companies bemoaned the state of affairs and looked to cut costs by shrinking their operations and activities, Mr Kteily did the opposite. PEB expanded its production facilities twice, in 2009 and in 2011, and is now building a new fabrication facility and opening new sales offices. The company will also continue its expansion spree by opening four new offices overseas in the next four years. “The secret to success is to be different while being courageous,” he said.

Now, with PEB at the forefront of the pre-engineered buildings industry in Vietnam and the region, the ambitious Mr Kteily believes that he and PEB Steel can do even better. “I want our company to be a model of success, a company that can break records of success and a company that keeps re-inventing itself while being a pioneer in technical development and innovation,” he said. His greatest challenge, therefore, is to devise plans to continue the spectacular growth the company has achieved over the last four or five years.

Creating a healthy corporate culture is something that PEB’s management board has strived for from the very first day. The company’s human resources policy is mainly focused on developing personal skills and updating knowledge from experience and, more than anyone else, Mr Kteily wants to ensure that top management is accessible to all employees at all times. “I believe that our success is mainly because we really empower our staff,” he said. “We don’t just talk about empowerment; we do it on a daily basis. This makes us stand out from the crowd and is what really motivates our workforce.” Considering employees as one of the pillars of core competencies, PEB also invests a great deal in training, both in-house and out-sourced. “In addition to the extensive professional training provided by the company, our staff can study any subject they like and the company will happily contribute 50 per cent of the fees,” said Mr Kteily. “Our staff are the dynamo that keeps the company growing and achieving success, year after year.”

In such a competitive business environment, the management style that has led a company to past success may not be the best for today’s challenges. Most of all, business leaders must be willing to change. Mr Kteily believes that rules are made to be broken at the right time as the need arises, but in the right way and in an organised manner. An example is that PEB’s ISO system was among the first in the industry and the company applies it rigorously, but Mr Kteily thinks that the company should not be slaves to the rules it has created. “We should be able to break these rules for the benefit of the overall system,” he said. To break a rule, he believes that a company should have a clear and detailed waiver system, whereby heads of departments can break a rule as long as they can justify the action and take full responsibility. “It is important that such action is well documented,” he stressed.

After 20 years in the country, what still leaves Mr Kteily feeling unsatisfied is that he doesn’t speaks the language, despite many attempts. “The language is very phonetic and I find it very difficult to pronounce, but I don’t accept this as an excuse,” he admitted. With a love of the country and its people, he wants someday to be able to speak Vietnamese. “I will keep on trying and maybe it should be my new year’s resolution for 2015,” he laughed. If and when he has free time he enjoys attending networking events and charity activities. He enjoys sharing and contributing, and taking part in such activities also gives him the chance to extend his network and make new friends.

Mr Kteily’ most memorable moment in Vietnam was when an elderly woman came to hold his hand to help him cross a very busy intersection in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. “It was so touching an experience and reinforced my belief about how helpful Vietnamese people are,” he recalled. His advice to any foreigner thinking of living and working here is simple. “You have to love the country where you work and live and learn to share your knowledge and success,” he smiled. 

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