Case Study: GroupGSA

GroupGSA builds Asia plans on Ho Chi Minh City


Australian architects and designers are building practices across Southeast Asia, and GroupGSA shows how rapidly they can grow. In just three years, this multidisciplinary design firm has established a 20-strong office in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City that is now delivering architectural services across the region and taking overflow work from the company's Sydney head office.

Since 2014, GroupGSA has won design competitions for several high-profile projects and clients, and established its own brand profile in Vietnam's property development industry. In 2016, the company helped develop a $15 million masterplan for the United Nations School in Hanoi, now in construction, and is working on a new five-star resort – a Courtyard by Marriot – which will transform luxury tourism on the island of Hon Tam, off Nha Trang.

According to GroupGSA Managing Director, Mark Sheldon, the pivotal move in his company's expansion into Asia was the decision to create a local office. 'To have a good chance of success in the architecture business, you really need to be on the ground,' he says. 'We discovered a young Australian architect named Matt Young already living in Ho Chi Minh City. We got on well, so took the plunge and helped him build the practice.'

GroupGSA set up a 100 per cent wholly owned foreign enterprise, a corporate structure that allows overseas companies to hire local workers. To help navigate legal and regulatory requirements, Young engaged one of a growing number of Vietnam-based legal firms that specialises in helping foreign-based companies to establish a commercial presence in Vietnam.

'Establishing our first office took quite a while, but it's worth being thorough,' says Young. 'The Vietnamese legal system is strong and employment laws are clear. When it came to opening our second office, this time in Hanoi, the process took just eight weeks. As a foreign-owned enterprise firm, we've sourced highly skilled workers at competitive rates who contribute firm-wide.'

Australian Government and business associations have helped GroupGSA on multiple levels. Young strongly recommends fellow investors join the Australian Chamber of Commerce (known locally as AusCham), as well as other formal networking organisations set up for expatriates. More generally, Australian trade commissioners have helped in expanding the company's business across the region through introductions to potential clients, and general promotion of Australian companies in the local market.

'Wherever I go in Asia, Austrade is one of the first ports of call because they can connect me to like-minded people,' says Sheldon. 'They organise commercial tours and highlight commercial opportunities. In Asia, business relies heavily on relationships, and Austrade has proved an asset in making client connections and opening up relationships.'

For GroupGSA, Vietnam is proving an ideal entry point to ASEAN economies. With an average age under 30 and an expanding middle class, the energy and optimism is palpable. Proximity to the more mature markets of Singapore and Thailand also make Vietnam a regional springboard. The fast-growing Ho Chi Minh City office already earns 80 per cent of its revenue from regional contracts.

'We will grow organically from Ho Chi Minh City, leveraging our growing brand recognition and client referrals,' says Sheldon. 'But expansion in Southeast Asia also benefits our business here in Australia. We bring our Vietnamese employees to Sydney and that's helping our practice become more globally aware in everything from safety standards to contemporary design.'