Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on December 26, 2013
Nyan Lynn Aung is a former Wall Street banker who returned to his native city of Yangon in March after an absence of 13 years. He is the director of Fine 9, an advisory firm that connects foreign and domestic investors in Myanmar in sectors such as oil and gas, mining, construction, garments and agriculture. He talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about why the time is ripe for doing business in Myanmar.
Why did you decide to return to Myanmar?
For me it was about resource utilisation – how to best utilise the resources you have to be efficient and effective. Take Nay Pyi Taw, for example – billions were spent on building a new capital in the middle of the country, in an area where there’s not much around. I’m not sure that those resources were utilised effectively – that money could have been used on something somewhere else to develop the country. Now if you look at me as a person – if I’d stayed in the United States I would be okay, but I’d be like be everybody else. And I wasn’t born or raised there. So I decided that my own resources will be better utilised if I were to come back and work in Myanmar. Of course the political changes made the timing very good for me, but I’ll tell you honestly that I’d wanted to come back ever since I left for my studies.
How did you connect with Fine 9 – and what is Fine 9?
I wanted to get some experience in Myanmar, so I started working for a bank. But when they asked me to sign a three-year contract after three months, I decided to look elsewhere. I’ve always wanted to run my own business. I heard about Fine 9, which is comprised of nine directors – and when there was an opening after one person left, I became the ninth member. Our directors have really strong business networks and are mostly involved in the garments industry, while others are in automotives. Like typical Burmese entrepreneurs, they each run two or three businesses. We also have a female director who runs a school.
Fine 9’s business strategy is to connect with as many foreign investors as we can, and to partner them up with up with local companies. It’s a business model I came up with while I was working on Wall Street and I’m unaware of any other company in Myanmar who’s doing this. As we have close connections with UMFCCI [the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers, Commerce and Industry], we often hold networking events with interested investors who have met with UMFCCI. Another marketing strategy is to take potential foreign investors on tours of factories. We can set up joint ventures, whether it be a 50:50, 70:30 or 80:20 split according to the sector. Usually what the local partner can offer is land, because we don’t have hi-tech equipment. So the local partner puts in the land value and the foreign investor brings in all the equipment. We can also help companies to source factory staff.
It seems like a jackpot of an idea – there’s a great deal of interest in Myanmar among foreign investors, but few understand the lay of the land and its people. But what would happen if the partnership was to turn sour down the road – will you be involved in sorting that out?
We are an intermediary firm – our job is to get everything moving, to make sure both parties reach an agreement and that business can then get going. You need someone in the middle to do that. It’s like an arranged marriage in India: we find a potential partner and we say, “Look, this woman is beautiful and she’s educated.” And to the lady we say, “Here is a man who is also educated and he makes good money. You two should meet.” We charge a finder fee and we negotiate the draft agreement. But if the marriage doesn’t work in a couple of years, that is not something that we are held accountable for. We present the facts so that people can walk into a business agreement with their eyes wide open.
Some are cynical about whether officials in Myanmar sincerely desire a more open, transparent market. Have your interactions with government officials been positive or negative in securing the necessary paperwork and so work?
My experiences have been positive. I think that in general, people in Myanmar have negative feelings about the government, because for years that was always the case. But when I came back, I didn’t have any negative feelings – I just deal with individuals on a person-to-person basis. I’m neutral and I talk business and there has been a great deal of cooperation.
Where are the majority of your foreign clients based and what are the most common concerns they express about investing in Myanmar?
The majority of our clients are from South Korea, China and Japan. Western countries are being much slower to invest, certainly. Weak infrastructure, high land prices and unreliable electricity are the main problems they mention. In the garments sector, it can be productivity – while workers in China earn about three times what they do on average in Myanmar, they are far more productive in China so an investment can work out the same in the long run. However we are working on the assumption that productivity will improve. There are bonuses given as an incentive for workers who exceed a certain quota and with more experience, their skills will improve. I’m sure other countries have similar incentive schemes, but there’s another upside to Myanmar – there is an assumption that everything is going to get better – electricity, for example, is not going to get worse, because everybody is trying to solve these issues.
Do you think that Western companies are missing an opportunity if they don’t invest now?
[Long pause]. I don’t know. It’s difficult to say, and I want to say yes, because I want them to come to Myanmar.