In 1989, while running his own consulting business – PCS International in Hong Kong, Ken got an opportunity to carry out a feasibility study for a big hotel project – the SAS Royal Hotel in Lenin Park, Hanoi. It was his first time in Vietnam. 

The project seemed to be going well – until it wasn’t. 

“We got the licence; I got it all funded and then SAS (Scandinavian Airlines), who was going to manage the hotel, had to put in a USD $2 million capital contribution,” says Ken. “And then somebody on the Board said, ‘No way am I putting a dollar into Vietnam.”’

After the collapse of the project, Ken and his cohorts were able to sell it to a Singaporean company. Eventually, VinaCapital took it over, but the project took another nosedive when the Vietnamese government announced that the hotel could not be built in Lenin Park. A burnt-out B52 bomber on the site, which had been removed during negotiations post-licensing with SAS, meant that it had been declared as a place of public interest.

During the time that VinaCapital was purchasing the project and realising they couldn’t proceed with it, Ken had moved from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City and was running Grant Thornton in Vietnam.

Eager to get to the punchline of his story, Ken concludes, “So VinaCapital ended up being compensated by the Vietnamese government. Grant Thornton were the auditors hired to determine what the value of the project was worth, for compensation purposes.”

Ken chuckles at the irony. “I started [the hotel] and ‘finished’ it. So the project went really well for me. I got fees from it that kept me afloat for a good year or so.”

It’s in the Blood  

It was wartime Cairo and his British father, a humble barber from working-class roots in Lancashire, was sent with the RAF to serve as an intelligence officer – or spy – during WW2. 

“My grandparents would not let uniformed personnel into their hotel,” says Ken. “Dad was non-uniformed, so he was allowed in.” They became friendly and, eventually, Ken’s grandparents asked his father if he wouldn’t mind escorting their daughter to school every day. She was 13 at the time; ten years younger than Ken’s dad.

Soon after, Ken’s father was demobbed and sent back to England. He would have to wait another three years before Ken’s mother was allowed, at 16, to set sail to England, in order to marry him. 

Ken was born in his father’s native Lancashire. This time the backyard was not one of the Seven Wonders, but the barren and spooky hills of the Saddleworth Moors, infamous for ghostly apparitions and the brutal Myra Hindley murders.

The romantic days of international espionage and grand hotels had been replaced by ordinary life for Ken’s parents. His father was frequently away driving trucks, and, according to Ken, there was often confusion about whether he was coming home or not. Moreover, his mother suffered from a severe case of miliary tuberculosis and was very ill. 

In 1958, when Ken was ten, the family moved to East London. His mother overcame her illness with a new drug and Ken enrolled into a county technical school where he decided to become an accountant, “cos I was good at mental arithmetic, and a couple of my friend’s dads were accountants, and they seemed to be doing a lot better than my dad.” 

From Side Hustles to Distinctions from the Queen 

Despite undertaking a triple Honours degree in economics, accountancy and law at the University of Sheffield, Ken confesses that he “was not the studious type.” In fact, his best memories include travelling to Manchester to see his favourite club, Manchester United F.C., play live, and running his side hustle, “Mike’s Ices – Recommended by Hospital Authorities.”

“I managed to rent an ice cream truck,” Ken says. “I would drive around with the chimes, with a stop here and a stop there. I made it up and painted it myself. My girlfriend was a nurse, and she used to work a lot in the kids’ wards, so I always used to take ice creams to the kids and that’s where I got the idea from.” 

When asked who Mike was, Ken replies with a chuckle, “Mike’s the guy I rented the van from.”

There’s something a tad Willy Wonka about Ken. His disarming charm comes from a childlike disposition that doesn’t take life too seriously. Approachable and kind-hearted, Ken has a soft spot for children, as evidenced by his years of charity work with both Operation Smile, fixing cleft palates, and Hanoi-based charity, Newborns. 

“With Operation Smile, I was able to help develop systems so that we could actually start fundraising in the country. We took our fundraising from basically nothing to over a million dollars in the ten years that I was chair.” 

For Ken, doing things for others, especially children, is a no-brainer. “It’s about changes. It’s about bettering people’s lives and giving dignity to kids who have these horrible disfigurements, which are so damned easy to fix!”

Ken’s recent award of an OBE (Order of the British Empire), therefore, comes as no surprise. In recognition of his contribution to charities and British companies in Vietnam, Ken has also been Chair of the British Chamber of Commerce and is Vice-Chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board. When offered to receive the award in Vietnam from the British Ambassador, Ken said he’d prefer to wait for the Covid backlog to clear, so he can return to his native UK to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Stopping at nothing, Ken also went after another crown jewel – Vietnamese citizenship, an almost unheard of feat for a foreigner. 

“So I thought, this will be a bit of fun, as there aren’t too many people with dual nationality, and it needed the presidential approval, so I thought hell yeah, I’ll apply.” It took two and a half years to receive his Vietnamese passport.

Patience is something to which Ken is no stranger. Back in the UK, as he was finishing up his studies and about to do his articles to become a chartered accountant, he decided he couldn’t face it. Instead, he moved to the City of London to work as a merchant banker in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War and during the swinging sixties, to which he jokes, “Yeah, but I didn’t have enough money to swing.” 

The move into merchant banking led him to work in new, emerging markets in Eastern Europe, in what was then Leningrad, Russia, followed by China and Vietnam. He flexed his greatest muscle – the art of negotiation – by getting big projects up and “never taking ‘No’ for an answer.” From banking to consulting, he became a trailblazer in his industry.

“I put together the first project financing in China [between] 1979 and ’80,” he says. “Nobody had ever done it, there was no book to read about how to do it. So, it was very much, make it up as you go along. Write the book.”

Ken credits a large part of his success to the good “creative” lawyers he worked alongside. “So 80% of lawyers I work with, they’d say, ‘Oh no you can’t do that’, but 20% would say, ‘Oh yeah, you can’t do that but how about if we look at it from this perspective.’”

As we sit around a grand dining table in his open-plan apartment in downtown Saigon, Ken’s third child, 5-year-old Michael, comes out of the bath to greet me. The 74-year-old jokes, “I still have to put my kid through school and university.” Ken is eager to show me his favourite spot in the house, the corner bar, recalling a forgotten era of colonial leisure and G&Ts on the terrace. A man that socialises and meets with clients five nights a week, Ken shows no signs of slowing down.

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of Grant Thornton (Vietnam), a company that Ken built from “me and three others” to around 240 employees today. After setting up his own consultancy in Saigon in the early 90s, Grant Thornton approached Ken to become a member firm. There was just one problem – he wasn’t an accountant.

Finally, in 2008, CPA Australia granted Ken an honorary CPA (Certified Practising Accountant), which then enabled him to sit his Vietnamese CPA. “At the age of 60, I finally became an accountant!” he laughs. “So here I am in the accounting profession, which I never wanted to be in.” This time, the joke’s on him.

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Tim Burrill
Membership Manager & Executive Assistant
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