In 2004 James Sullivan ’87 published Over the Moat, his highly acclaimed memoir of falling in love with and marrying a young Vietnamese woman named Thuy. He planned to follow that success with Dorchester Heights, an 800-page novel about a South Boston family during the school busing controversy of 1974, a book he conceived at Colby. But it was not to be.
When Sullivan’s budding literary career stalled amidst demands that he cut his novel in half, he started looking for another way to support his wife and the couple’s two young children. What he found was his own entrepreneurial spirit and a whole new way of life.
Today Sullivan divides his time between Scarborough, Maine, and Hue, Vietnam, as a founding partner of Mandarin Media, a public relations firm focused on publicizing travel, including golf trips, to Southeast Asia.
It was 2005 and he was living in Yarmouth. He was 40. His wife was homesick for her family. It was clearly time for a major change.
Sullivan had leveraged the success of Over the Moat to land story assignments in Vietnam from the New York Times and National Geographic Traveler, but the game changer came when National Geographic commissioned him to spend two years in Vietnam writing a guidebook, National Geographic Traveler: Vietnam.
In the course of researching the guidebook, Sullivan found himself talking to hoteliers, resort owners, and golf course managers. But how many Americans ever think of taking a golf vacation to Vietnam?
“I realized that Vietnam had a really compelling story to tell that was no longer about the war,” Sullivan said, “but they were not communicating it.”
In partnership with Hal Phillips, who had edited Golf Course News, Sullivan launched Mandarin Media. Former magazine editors, Sullivan and Phillips decided that rather than prospect for stories with press releases, they would commission stories themselves and get them placed in English language publications.
“We take a journalistic approach to public relations,” Sullivan explained. The formula worked.
Four years later, Mandarin Media has offices in Hue, Saigon, and Singapore, a staff of 12 and growing, and annual billings of $800,000.
“And it’s been debt-free growth,” Sullivan said.
The major obstacle to doing business in Vietnam, Sullivan found, was negotiating the bureaucracy in order to get permits. Having documented his two-year campaign to secure a marriage license in Over the Moat, Sullivan was prepared to be patient and persistent.
“Now I’m grateful it’s so difficult,” he said. “If it were easy, lots of people would be doing it.”
—Edgar Allen Beem