Chris Dao is the lively director of U.S. Investment Services, a Vietnamese EB-5 consultancy company. Since 2009, Dao and his team have been matching Vietnamese investors with compatible EB-5 projects in the United States. Dao, however, is not new to the U.S. investment game—he began his career over 20 years ago working with U.S. real estate in Atlanta, Georgia. He has since returned to Vietnam, bringing with him years worth of insight into the American market.
We caught up with Dao, one of his prospective investors, and editorial board member Kate Kalmykov for a delightful afternoon during his recent trip to California to meet with project principals. Charming and personable, it is no wonder that a man who prides himself on building relationships has been able to build a successful EB-5 outfit in Vietnam.
How did you get your start in EB-5?
I was living and working in real estate in the United States in the late 2000s when I first learned about EB-5. I returned to Vietnam in 2008 to take care of my mother who was ill, and I spoke to some of my colleagues and friends in Vietnam and found that many people have an interest in EB-5. This gave me the confidence to relocate back to Vietnam and start my business.
Through my research I found that every year thousands of Vietnamese students want to study abroad and that the United States is their number one choice. For a long time I have had the dream that Vietnamese youth would be able to get higher education in United States. I learned about many advantages of EB-5 over student visas. After a year of my own due diligence I started U.S. Investment Services (USIS), which was the first consultancy group in Vietnam that primarily focused on EB-5.
Staff: Vietnamese demand for EB-5 has been growing over the past four to five years. Do you think that growth will continue?
Chris Dao: I strongly believe it will continue to grow tremendously in the next couple of years. Each year I am getting more interest in the program. One of the main reasons is that we build up our reputation. We have a successful record and we get repeat clients and referral business, and that is our strength.
Our company actually played a strong part in bringing EB-5 to Vietnam in the first place. I visited Jay Peak and met Bill Stenger in August 2010. Bill told me that he and his delegation, led by Governor Douglas, was going to do seminars in China and some other Asian countries. I invited Bill to come to Vietnam, telling him about the great potential for EB-5. He accepted and his delegation came to Vietnam in October 2010 to host a seminar in Ho Chi Minh with USIS. The event really helped clear doubt and boosts investors’ trust and confidence in EB-5.
Staff: What makes the EB-5 program attractive to Vietnamese investors?
CD: There are approximately 2 million Vietnamese that live in the United States and they have strong ties to Vietnam and their family loved ones in Vietnam. Every year there are approximately 15,000 students that go to the United States to study. A large number of students study abroad here and that will continue to grow. That fuels the demand for EB-5.
Staff: What do Vietnamese investors look for in a project?
CD: There are so many regional centers and a variety of investment portfolios. My investors rely on our knowledge and advice regarding EB-5; therefore, they put their trust and confidence in us. That’s an advantage, but also means that we have to work harder. We have to do our due diligence more carefully, we have to get to know the project well, inside and out, and they trust us.
Staff: How do you choose a project to market to investors?
CD: Unlike the majority of other agencies in Vietnam, before we refer a project to investors, I will conduct due diligence on behalf of my investors. I prefer to do the due diligence myself in order to make sure I have a thorough knowledge of what my investors may be investing in. Sometimes, I will fund my own trips to the United States and meet the top people of a regional center or a project. I talk to them, I get to know them and get to know about their project as much as I can. I get all the detailed information for each important point that I really want to dig deep on. First, is the project able to create enough jobs? That’s important. I want to assure my investor that, two years later, they will be able to get that approval. Second, has the project structured the exit strategy clearly and safely for my investor? If the language is too vague and the exit strategy does not seem attainable, I am not ready to promote that project. I have to feel comfortable with the people first and then the project. When I completely feel comfortable and I trust them, I trust the project, they meet the requirements that I mentioned above, and then I am ready to go forward and promote the project.
Staff: How do you think that Chinese visa retrogression will affect the Vietnamese market?
CD: I think that it will bring more regional centers and projects to Vietnam and investors will have more of a choice in projects. China has been known to be the number one EB-5 market, but as they reach their cap I think the trend will go toward Vietnam, giving more choice to Vietnamese investors, which is a big benefit.
Staff: Have you experienced this already?
CD: I receive emails from regional centers wanting to market their project in Vietnam almost every week. They find our company through referrals and they want to work with us to find investors. However, we do not work with all who come knocking. Not because they are not good—there is a movie A Few Good Men, and what I look for is a few good men. I would rather do my homework, pick out a few regional span class="Apple-converted-space">centers that I trust and that trust me, and build a long-term relationship with them.
Staff: Are there any cultural considerations that people should be aware of when working with Vietnamese investors?
CD: Trust is very important, and having face time with investors and developing a personal relationship so that they know you have their best interests in mind. With Vietnamese investors, in order to win them over you have to know them well, know their needs, know their mentality—what they are thinking, what they want, what they like—you have to be able to communicate with them and understand their needs and their concerns. I build relationships with my investors just like I’m building a relationship with you right now. Once you gain the investor’s confidence and trust, everything else comes easy. The EB-5 business is all about trust. If you don’t have trust, you can’t do business in Vietnam.
Staff: What are your predictions for the future of EB-5 in Vietnam?
CD: I am always ready and planning ahead. In the next few years, the EB-5 market in Vietnam will grow rapidly and I am ready to expand. We have offices in both major cities—Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
There are several EB-5 agents in Vietnam. However, I am the only American Vietnamese who lived in the United States. And now, having been back in Vietnam for over seven years, I am able to have a unique insight into the concerns of my clients and to provide them with first hand knowledge of what the U.S. immigration process and relocation is like.
EB-5 Investors Magazine