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'I resolved never to work for another'

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In 1993, entrepreneur Khaou Phallaboth began his business with only 30 employees and $80,000. He has since built up an empire that employs thousands and spans several sectors

Photo by: Nguon Sovan

Khaou Phallaboth, head of the Khaou Chuly Group, is involved in security, construction and rubber plantations.

Can you say something about your education and personal background?

My parents sent me to France in 1970, where I studied psychotherapy and spent five years as a monk in a Buddhist pagoda.

I returned to Cambodia in 1992 and became an entrepreneur the following year with my father Khaou Chuly. Even though I grew up in France, my mentality remains Khmer. It is my heritage, and the heritage of my parents and grandparents.

I never forgot my roots, and that is why I returned home. I am married and have two daughters living in England.

Do you have any specific entrepreneurial training?

No. I don't have any skills in construction, business, accounting or finance. I don't have any background as an engineer or architect.

I learned to lead the company on the job from my father and Japanese partner, the Maeda Company. So, my leadership skills come from my real-world experience.

What is the history of the Khaou Chuly Group?

It was first established in 1953 and became a well-known construction company until 1975 - the year the Khmer Rouge regime arrived. We resurrected the Khaou Chuly Group from the ashes in 1993, and it continues to prosper.

It had only 30 employees in 1993, with initial investments of US$80,000. Now, we have 4,000 employees and the company continues to grow.

Our biggest concern at present is the possibility of getting listed on Cambodia's future stock market, or on indexes in Singapore or London. We have discussed the matter and have set this as a target for the next five to seven years.

What types of companies comprise the Khaou Chuly Group?

Our companies include interests in private security, construction, rubber plantations, business development and, early next year, I plan to invest $11 million in a ready-mix concrete plant.

In the future, I hope to enter the agriculture sector in agro-industry and agro-trade, if we get sufficient support from the government. These sectors are the focus of most of our foreign investment.

We plan to seek land concessions of 20,000 to 30,000 hectares in Mondulkiri and Kampong Thom provinces to develop rubber plantations, and another 70,000 hectares for rice and bean crops. My plan for the Khaou Chuly Group is to create about 50,000 new jobs for Cambodia. The profits from all my investments will be used to expand the company's operations.

What do you credit most for your success in business?

I began doing business at the age of 32 as an entrepreneur - a late age to get started in business for Cambodians. Some start as early as age 10. I collaborated with my father, who is now 79 but still looks fit and leads the company.

I had a clear vision of what I wanted the company to be and worked with diligence, patience, struggle and a lot of self-confidence.

My approach is not simply to help myself but to help others through job creation and further developing the nation.

Since I was young, I resolved never to work for another person, even if it meant a lucrative paycheck. Instead, I wanted to do something meaningful.

How would you characterise the business climate in Cambodia?

To speak frankly, doing business in Cambodia presents many obstacles that affect local and foreign investors. But our roots are Khmer, and we want to contribute to the development of the nation.

As an investor, I am concerned that other businesses acquire land illegally. This is a concern for us. But this is a reality. Some of this is instigated by brokers or officials who fuel such problems for personal advantage. I am a local investor who is taking risks to invest in the country.

As an entrepreneur, what is your vision for Cambodia's economy?

I believe the future of Cambodia's economy is agriculture, agro-industry and agro-trade, not tourism or light industry such as the garment sector. These are not as stable as agriculture. No one can take from us the rice, beans, cassava and rubber that we produce. No one can remove them to other countries where costs are cheaper.

The tourism industry is fragile and can be affected by political or social troubles. We should also not put much hope in oil and gas. If we can develop these sectors, it would be a bonus. But we should focus on what we already have. Agriculture will provide stable development and help reduce poverty. I believe that if the government has the political will, Cambodia can accomplish great things in agriculture in the next 15 to 20 years.

Do you have any interest in politics?

I have never been interested in politics. Some still invite me to take part in politics, but I am a private person.

I have my own freedom. I can accomplish anything according to my vision, and I am helping the nation in part through job creation.

I am proud of this. If I can create tens of thousands of new jobs, I will be very happy.

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