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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - From ATMs to fried chicken

From ATMs to fried chicken

Cambodian-Australian tycoon Kith Meng talks about his expanding business empire, his plans for the future and why he feels life is too short to get angry

HENG CHIVOAN

Royal Group president and CEO Kith Meng speaks in his office in Phnom Penh last month.

KITH MENG: a youthful tycoon
Kith Meng is one of the nation’s best-known businessmen and president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce. Some say he represents the new face of the nation’s booming economcy – others that he is a ruthless “cowboy” capitalist who rides roughshod over competitors. Either way, he is doing very well. The 40-year-old is the president and CEO of the Royal Group of companies, which includes the ANZ-Royal Bank partnership, the Mobitel mobile phone network, the Cambodia Television Network (CTN), Infinity Insurance, the Hotel Cambodiana, Western fast food outlets like KFC and sundry other activities. His latest venture is a partnership with Australia’s Toll Logistics to renovate the nation’s railway lines from Poipet to Phnom Penh and Sihanouville, and eventually up to Stung Treng. Kith Meng rises early and goes to bed late, and in between he is never idle for a moment.

What's the key to being successful in business?

You know, I can't say that I am the most successful businessman in Cambodia, but I can say that to be successful you have to work hard. Success does not come easy. And you've got to be patient. Then, when the right moment comes, you must strike decisively. That's how I see it. Although I am patient, I like to do things fast. You can't be slow or hesitant. I make decisions fast based on my business sense. When I see something is going to work and is the right thing to do, I act.

Is it fair to say that the Royal Group, which is very diversified and entirely owned by you and your family, will go into any sector if you think it can be profitable?

Well, Cambodia needs a lot of things and there many sectors that have not been developed yet. So when I see an opportunity, I go for it. And I enjoy that. You know, you see an opportunity, you go in and put the right mechanism in place, the right management team, the right marketing strategies. It's very satisfying when it succeeds. Like our recent KFC franchise, you can see it's doing very well selling chicken legs, the wings, breast. We are the ones who brought it in. And it was not easy because the KFC people said the market here was not ready for it and we had to persuade them. So it's nice to see that we were right and that it is successful.

You think Cambodia needs that kind of food?

KFC is not junk food. It's Western-style fast food like they have in America. It will help us here, because our younger generation likes Western things. Pizza Hut is another Western brand they like. Our younger people are very modern now and they like a modern, sexy taste. That's why they go abroad to places like Singapore and Hong Kong to eat that kind of food. But now they don't need to go, because we have brought it here for them. I like KFC myself once in a while. It tastes good with a Coke.

What would you say to a foreigner who wants to invest here?

I would tell them that Cambodia is a land of opportunity. The national economy is doing well and growing fast, so there are many growth areas open to investors. And if you are a genuine investor and you do the right things, I believe you will be successful. Remember, the main focus of Prime Minister Hun Sen is economic growth. He is pro-business and he has put in a very robust team to plan and execute economic strategy. As chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, I talk to these people regularly. They are all very efficient and fast-thinking. And that's good for the country. So I think we are on the right path. That's why the people support the prime minister and re-elect him.

But some foreign investors apparently worry about the enforcement of contracts here.

I've never had problems in that way. From my experience, I would always advise investors to do a careful check of their potential partners first. Check their background, see that the credibility is there. Then, if you draw up a contract according to the law here, it will be OK. Of course, if you try to cut corners and just sign any piece of paper and put down some money - and then you say the deal was not honoured, you don't have much to stand on. In my opinion, you must have a lawyer to do contracts for joint ventures, shareholder agreements, management agreements and so on. That's what I do. And I don't have any problems.

There are plans for a Korean-managed stock market to open here on September 9 next year - 090909, a lucky number. Will any of the Royal Group's companies be listed?

We are looking into it. We have people assessing the prospect at the moment. That's what we do because we want to do it properly. It's a commercial decision basically. You know, if a private company lists, two things can happen: It can work out well or it can end up being delisted. If you are delisted, it means you are not doing well. Normally, if a company is healthy and doing well, most people want to list it. And when you are listed, you sell shares and get cash. Then you use the cash to manage your company and expand. But eventually you've got to give a return to the shareholders. And if you don't get it right, you'll be in trouble. Your earnings will come crashing down. I would forecast that a lot of companies here will try to be listed because they need liquidity. They need cash. That's okay if they want to depend on public money. But if a company is strong and solid, you will be able to create a lot of funds abroad.

Are you concerned about the disclosure requirements for a listing? Some people say there is a lack of transparency about your business operations.

Really? About mine? That's very strange. I mean, I run a company that has the most international partnerships of any company in Cambodia. Mobitel. KFC. Pizza Hut. And look at all my business with ANZ bank, there are no secrets.

So how are things with ANZ? Haven't there been problems because you are pushy and act as if you are the boss although you are only a minority shareholder with 45 percent?

That's just talk, rumour. They say I go into the boardroom and argue with people and act pushy. Shit. I mean, I am the chairman of the board of ANZ Royal. I conduct the board meetings. Of course, I push. I am the boss. I'm the chairman. They report to me. It doesn't matter that I'm a minority shareholder, I'm chairman of the board. I have the right to ask any question I like. Simple.

I'll tell you one thing: We have a three-year rotational chairman at ANZ. It's the agreement. I'm chairman now, but when my time is up, I told them I don't want to do it anymore. But they don't want me to give it up. They want me to continue. ANZ is very aggressive here because I plan the strategies. That's probably why a lot of people have been talking about a divide-and-rule policy at the bank. They talk about ANZ doing this or that without letting me know. That they try to divide the trust. But what do they know? The fact is my main focus is just to develop the business. My time is spent making proposals to develop the business, to get growth and create opportunities. That's my plan.

Do you get upset if other board members or people in general don't agree with your plans?

No, I don't get upset. Why would I get upset? If you want to go and have a drink with a girl and she does not agree, do you get upset if she doesn't want to drink with you? Obviously, she doesn't like you. Everything is an individual decision. And you must recognise and respect that decision. So why would I get angry if they don't agree with me? I just move on. Life is too short to get angry. I just focus on my own businesses and let the market judge. Are you going to be much longer? I can give you 15 minutes more.

Understood. So you don't get angry when people say negative things about you?

No, I don't pay any attention to that. I mean, you should ask those people who spread these kinds of rumours: How big is your dick? How big is their business? I mean, they probably do it out of jealousy because I'm successful. And most of them have never met me, they would not know what I look like if they walked into me. I know some people might judge me based on what others say, but I can't help that. For me, I don't go around talking badly about other people. Cambodia can't afford to be giving bad signals anymore. The people of this country have suffered enough in the past. So I don't have time for that. If I see someone is successful, I adore and appreciate their success. Others don't see it that way. If you are successful, they consider you a threat. But you can't sit around worrying about that.

You're now going heavily into the leisure sector with the Hotel Cambodiana, the $2 billion Koh Rong island resort project with the Millennium Group, and so on. You see this as a future boom area?

It's the next phase that we hope to develop. So we are doing a lot in that sector. We have just modernised parts of the Cambodiana. The hotel needed a lot of work when we bought it and we're doing it step by step. It's much better now. We have also leased the building next to the Post Office in Phnom Penh and we plan to turn it into a boutique hotel. And we have a 99-year lease on Koh Rong island off Sihanoukville, and we want to develop it as a holiday resort for rest and relaxation. It is going to be a tough and risky.

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