NZ firm sees growing market for green energy technology.
If success in business is all about who you know, then Mitchell Pham is definitely worth meeting. The founder and director of Auckland IT company Augen has links to half-a-dozen local business organisations and has spent the past six or so years building business contacts in Asia.
He expanded his network even more this year when he was recognised by the World Economic Forum as one of 190 Young Global Leaders, an annual award that acknowledges recipients' previous work and their potential to shape the world through inspiring leadership.
Pham likes to be involved. "Being engaged [with business] makes you relevant," he says.
He is also a firm believer in a collaborative approach to business and these philosophies have seen Augen expand its business networks into the burgeoning Asian markets.
Through his networks, Pham has created a fledgling "solutions brokering" business, whereby Augen, which employs 35 staff in New Zealand and Vietnam, partners with Kiwi companies to provide IT and green technology solutions to Asia.
Vietnam will be the initial market and a base to launch into other Southeast Asian markets. Pham sees it as a big opportunity for New Zealand to get on Asia's business radar.
"New Zealand isn't as relevant in Asia as we could be, yet we've got so much to offer. If we want to [succeed] there, we've got to be more present and more engaged."
Pham's strongest link with Asia is through his homeland, Vietnam, where Augen has an office.
Pham arrived in New Zealand at 13, after fleeing famine and political unrest in a small fishing boat with 66 others.
After five days, his boat was picked up by a cargo ship and he spent the next year-and-a-half in United Nations refugee camps before settling with a relative in New Zealand in 1985.
He lost contact with his family and didn't see them again until 1997.
In 1993 he set up software company Augen (German for "eyes") with four university friends - Andrew Flint, Stephen Koch, Robert Kang and Peter Vile - in a rented house on Auckland's North Shore.
Their first product was a software package that would deliver the school curriculum online; unfortunately the concept proved too far ahead of the market.
But by the end of the year, Augen had its first customer, Douglas Pharmaceuticals, one of the fastest-growing pharmaceutical groups in Australasia.
The company subsequently picked up some corporate heavyweights such as ASB Bank, AMP, BT Funds Management, Fletcher Steel, Pacific Retail Group and NZI Insurance.
Then, in 2008, the recession hit and many customers stopped spending. Some projects froze in the pipeline and Augen had to lay off staff. That was a "hugely difficult" task, Pham says, because the firm was small and the staff were a close-knit team.
The company did its best to help those people find new jobs.
At the time, the Augen group consisted of 11 companies, some with software still in the development phase and needing investment. "Our focus was probably a bit diluted," says Pham.
"Natural selection kicked in and we had to sell, freeze or consolidate those companies. It was really difficult for two years and it took at least a year to recalibrate and be on a sustainable equilibrium again."
However the recession pointed the firm in a new direction: socially responsible industries.
"We thought hard about where we wanted to take the business.
"We saw that companies least affected by the recession were those involved in things most needed by the human race: green energy, water and air quality, food security, shelter, health and education."
Pham says many Asian countries are facing challenges in those areas so it makes sense to look for business there.
Last year Augen established a partnership with a construction and engineering group in the Vietnamese electricity industry to deliver solar and wind energy solutions to the Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos markets. They were joined by an Indonesian group this year.
The three-way partnership now has more experience and resource capabilities to engage and deliver to their customers, Pham says.
The partnership is working on several solar and wind energy project opportunities in Vietnam and Augen intends to use its AugenASIA arm and this partnership as a platform to work with clean energy companies from New Zealand and Australia when opportunities arise. Software provides another opportunity to collaborate. Augen has shored up a partnership with a New Zealand "green desktop management" software company and aims to take that solution to the Asia-Pacific region.
Green desktop management is a type of software that helps organisations with large computer networks - with many PCs and users - to manage and optimise their use, turning computers off when they are not being used, then on again just before they are needed.
Pham says Augen has established firm relationships with a number of ICT partners with access to or capabilities for software sales in the Asia-Pacific region, most of which have expressed strong interest in the software.
And Augen plans to use its AugenASIA arm to take the software to international channels once the legal framework for its distribution, sales and support services is finalised.
Augen and an Australian partnership (formed through Pham's Vietnamese diaspora contacts) have spotted a number of opportunities to modernise and empower the ICT capabilities of Vietnam's provincial governments.
Pham says partnering with other companies is a faster and more cost-effective way of getting New Zealand companies involved in Asian business opportunities.
"We will already know who the buyer is and what the problem they need solved is, so it's faster than just taking New Zealand companies by the hand and saying, 'Let's find customers'."
While Vietnam's growth has slowed recently, larger international companies are also seeing the benefits of being there.
Companies such as Nokia Oyj, the world's biggest maker of mobile phones, and Wintek, a Taiwanese manufacturer of panels for Apple iPhones, are shifting production to the nation to benefit from cheaper labour compared with China.