AN American lawyer who enjoys special status among Cambodia’s leaders says businesses worldwide are starting to take serious notice of Cambodia because of positive signs in the country’s development.
Brett Sciaroni, who serves as chairman of the International Business Council of Cambodia and Chairman of the American Cambodian Business Council, first came to Cambodia in 1993 on a two-month contract.
“I found Cambodia to be an exciting place with a lot of opportunity. I thought it was more interesting than practising law in Washington, DC.
“What has attracted people’s attention to Cambodia is, first and foremost, double-digit GDP for most of the past decade. That got us on people’s radar screens.
"When they took a closer look, they saw we had a positive track record of legal reform and political stability. All of these things combine to make Cambodia an attractive place for foreign investors.
“One of the reasons why businesses are attracted to Cambodia is that over the years, you can see the Cambodian government has engaged on a course of legal and regulatory reform with the WTO and with technical assistance with bilateral and multi-lateral donors.
“If you take a look at the laws being adopted now, these are international standard laws.
"Even though we don’t have all the laws we need as the foundation of a modern commercial country yet, what investors see is the commitment of the Royal Government to get everything in place.
And that's what attracts international attention."
Sciaronihelped negotiate the first investment under the 1994 investment law, which was the Asia Pacific Brewery which makes Tiger beer.
Since his early days in Cambodia, he has enjoyed close relationships with senior officials, even serving as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s lawyer from time to time.
“It was my good fortune to meet the senior leadership of the government when I arrived in 1993 and establish good relationships with them which have carried on to this day. The government is open to outside business.
"The creation of the Government-Private Sector Forum has created dialogue between government and private sector to improve the economy and make this a more attractive place for investment.”
Today, his company, Sciaroni & Associates, is an investment and legal advisory services firm that helps introduce Cambodia to the international community.
“What I’m here for is to help guide investors through not only the established procedures of government and business but also the unwritten rules and the way the local culture affects how business is done.”
Sciaroni says potential investors in Cambodia have to spend time here, meet people, go slowly and understand more.
“You really do have to spend time, not just studying the laws, but if you are going to have a joint venture partner you have to know the parties to have a common understanding.
"A lot of time they don’t spend the time and they don’t have a common understanding _ and that leads to problems.
“What I tell people is that there is no substitute for coming to visit Cambodia. You can do all the research on Google, but the only way you can know is come and see for yourself.
"If you do that, usually you come away impressed, not only with the opportunities that are here, but with the resilience of the Cambodian people, who suffered greatly but are bouncing back.
“We’re trying to promote Cambodia. What we try to do is help international business understand is there is a world of opportunity in Cambodia, 20 years after Cambodia opened up to the world, it remains a largely unknown quantity to international business.There are a lot of people who are just discovering Cambodia and we want people to understand the wide array of opportunities available."
Sciaroni says there are all kinds of opportunities across all the sectors of the economy in Cambodia.
“People ask what sectors we recommend. My answer is there are very few sectors that I don’t recommend. Most sectors are either under-represented or not at all in terms of business opportunity.
" Whatever your area is, you look at it and you see in almost every area is things that can be done that are not being done _ or things that are being done, but not being done very well which means there is room for competition.”
Sciaroni says the financial crisis had a silver lining because increased commodity prices kick-started the agricultural sector.
“We are starting to attract food processing, seafood processing, and sugar cane processing and rice mill operations. These will all help grow the agricultural sector and keep value in Cambodia,” he said.
“We’ll do the value added here rather than having it done abroad. We’re starting to get more light manufacturing. This fall we’ll have a Ford assembly plant opening up in Sihanoukville."
Sciaroni says it’s significant Cambodia will be the chair of the ASEAN association next year.
“Cambodia is assuming its rightful position on the world stage.”
Another positive factor is the friendly and welcoming nature of the Cambodian people.
“Cambodians are genuine and they are welcoming ofany foreigners that come here. I’ve never been made to feel more welcome.
" The people help sell the country. They’ve had a tragic history, but they all are optimistic about their future and they have high hopes for their children’s future.
"They all want to go to school. They all want a good education.”
As for the future, Sciaroni says people can expect expansion and growth. “The government is committed to it. They are very focused on all the young people, and that’s why they are keen to have foreign investment, to improve the business climate to do business.”