STARTING any business from scratch is a challenge, but coupled with the premise of selling unfamiliar products to a new country, it takes an individual with brains, bravery and sheer bloody-minded persistence to make it work.
Fortunately, EXL Filmart President Teresa Gutierrez has all three.
EXL Filmart, which set up base in Phnom Penh in April 2008, has expanded from a mini-market selling snacks and beverages to the Filipino community into an import enterprise that provides Philippine products to large franchise stores, including Lucky and Bayon supermarkets and U-Care pharmacy, while servicing outlets in Sihanoukville and Siem Reap.
“I wanted to be in a business that served Filipinos and was ahead of the game,” said Gutierrez, sitting in her second-floor office above one of two mini-mart outlets on Phnom Penh’s Street 51.
The businesswoman first came to Cambodia after being told of the niche for Philippine products in the Kingdom by a friend in September 2007. She arrived in Cambodia two months later with one of her daughters, Charis, and two employees.
“We had very small initial capital to work with, but I thought I could risk it here as the operating costs are lower,” Gutierrez said.
“But we had almost no marketing budget at all to make us known, so we had to be very persistent.”
Initially looking to the capital’s Filipino community for custom, the firm began to target places where local Filipinos would gather.
Churches and restaurants known to be attended by compatriots were all fair game for a sampling campaign.
However, moving beyond the 2,500 registered members of the Filipino community residing in Phnom Penh was crucial if they wanted to do more than cover their overheads, she said.
“We went to Lucky supermarket, and the guards used to always shoo us away. But we didn’t care, we just kept coming back,” she said.
Once the first mini-mart on Street 51 opened, dealing with big companies such as Lucky became easier.
Now, Gutierrez holds monthly meetings with the supermarket’s representatives to introduce new products – in particular snacks from Caloocan City such as Boy Bawang garlic corn snacks and Regent tempura shrimp crackers, as well as Nestea iced teas.
But despite a blossoming market for goods – imported through Philippine-based courier service EXL Worldwide Express – EXL Filmart continues to face difficulties getting some products to wary locals.
Dried mango, one of the most famous products of the Philippines, has been met with distrust from some Cambodians, who say it is eaten only by invalids.
"We need to advertise more and educate potential customers about the product – once they try it I’d said seven out of 10 will buy and have a strong loyalty to it,” she said, and added that the market for canned goods has also yet to develop.
Another pressing issue is the shipping costs involved in importing from the Philippines. Competitors from Thailand and Vietnam have an advantage with access to cheaper overland transport, she said.
“I have to ship in every 30 days. But at the moment, I have to bear with 45 days [shipping time],” she said.
“The cost of the shipping and brokerage is very high and is eating up my profit.”
Despite this, and though she declined to disclose exact figures, Gutierrez said EXL Filmart was running a profit and was set on cornering the market for all things Philippine in Cambodia.
As well as providing all the comfort goods missed by homesick Filipinos, Gutierrez is actively meeting with other Philippine small businesses that are aiming to set up in Cambodia.
After a recent trade fair in Siem Reap, she was approached by several companies who wanted her to help them become established in Cambodian markets, including food, healthcare and beauty products and even karaoke services.
“The most satisfying thing is to help our country, because I take pride in our products, and to help to lift our economy,” she said.
The future of EXL Filmart looks bright.
“Lucky started this small before, you know. That’s what some of our customers told us. I remember this fact, that’s my inspiration,” she said.