TWELVE years ago Phnom Penh’s riverfront was a “strip of dirt with a few pubs like The Pink Elephant and Happy Pizza”, according to Stephen Nyirady, chief executive officer of venue management company S&A Enterprises.
In 1999, Nyirady was an NGO worker living in an upstairs apartment on Sisowath Quay, in a space now known as Riverhouse – the cocktail lounge and restaurant which forms part of the six-company strong S&A operation.
A registered nurse trained in the United States, Nyirady was an associate director in charge of health programmes at an NGO. He worked in six Cambodian provinces at a time when the Khmer Rouge was still active in the countryside, and military checkpoints and landmines riddled the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
His career change came unexpectedly in 1999, after he met his now wife at a Moroccan restaurant in the capital called Casablanca.
“The restaurant my wife was working at was closing down,” said Nyirady. “The staff were saying: ‘Why don’t you open your own place and we’ll come with you? Open your own restaurant’. She said, ‘Why not?’”
With an initial investment of US$12,000 they opened Riverhouse Restaurant in 2000, under the umbrella of S&A Enterprises.
“We didn’t have the money,” said Nyirady. “My wife sold her jewellery to pay for the bills to build the restaurant and when we opened it was all or nothing.
“We did so well within six months that we made back the initial investment plus another $10,000.”
The success of the venture led S&A Enterprises to expand by opening a cocktail lounge above the restaurant – in what was once Nyirady’s apartment.
Today S&A oversees the now popular nightclub, along with Lemongrass Restaurant, Noodle House, Sarika Garden Grill, and Harem Shisha Lounge.
Nyirady said Phnom Penh’s small size in comparison with other Asian capitals made it an ideal place to open new venues.
“If we had started off in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur ... it would have been a big challenge. It would take a lot more money, a lot more capital. It would take a much higher standard of everything.
“Being in Cambodia 10 to 12 years ago, we could open up a family restaurant and be successful because it’s a small town and people come because they know you.”
The rapid development of Phnom Penh over the past decade has upped competition for S&A Enterprises in the food and beverage industry, leading Nyirady to shift his focus from an expat to a Cambodian target market.
The move, he said, is in part responsible for a 20 percent year-on-year growth in business.
“Cambodians are the ones who are going to be your clients forever. This is their country. Expats come and go,” he said.
“Khmers will spend, on average, about 20 to 30 percent more than foreigners will, per head. We’re not subject to the ups and downs of the tourist market.
“The [Riverhouse] Lounge, for example, when we first opened was about 80 percent foreigners. Now we’re about 80 percent Khmer.”
But the businessman has not forgotten his NGO roots.
Despite his departure from the sector, Nyirady argues that he still works in community development by nurturing his employees’ skill bases.
S&A Enterprises has a structured training program, requiring all staff to attend weekly sessions.
“We’re developing human resources,” said Nyirady, “I’ve got about 150 staff now working for me.”
“When you’re working in the NGOs, one of the biggest focuses is trying to be sustainable, so you’re doing capacity-building for your staff.
“Hopefully when your project ends, the staff will continue on, or the knowledge and skills that they’ve developed and learned will benefit them in the future.
“I enjoy developing people and projects and that’s what I’m doing in this business.”