One young man who survived the Khmer Rouge and lost a lot of family members has come back strong in entrepreneurship. His name is Chy Sila, general director of CBM Corporation.
His latest venture, in partnership with boyhood friend and longtime business associate Sok Ly, is Tous les Jours, a French-style bakery franchise from Korea that has more than 1000 outlets worldwide.
The Phnom Penh Tous les Jours is located on Monivong Boulevard, roughly opposite Phnom Penh Tower, in the building formerly occupied by the Vimean Tep Theatre.
Chy Sila said business had been spectacular since opening, so much so that on several occaisions they had to shut up shop early because customers bought them out of baking stock.
“Now we have increased capacity; we know the peak times, and we know how to adjust the product.”
Tous les Jours staff members spent seven to eight months training in Vietnam and Korea, learning baking techniques and product knowledge.
“We had a research and development team fly over here to check the quality of the products and the ingredients,” he said. “Our Korean partners are good.”
Chy Sila said being a good bakery chef was not easy.
“There are a lot of small things you have to be very careful with and if you’re not serious, you get poor results: things like temperature, timing and humidity are what determine the quality of the product.”
Even with modern machinery, Chy Sila said the Cambodian staff must take seriously the rigorous attention to detail that is required for high-quality baked goods.
He said Tous les Jours’ croissants were the highest quality for the lowest price available in Phnom Penh at 60 cents each. “We are proud of the quality and the consistency and we claim we are the best quality in town. We use the best butter and the best flour and we never compromise on that. If we make a little less margin, OK,” he said.
When asked why he opened the business, Chy Sila said it was because he wanted to offer bakery products to all Cambodians.
“Eighty per cent of my customers are Cambodians. Koreans also know the brand and they love it.”
Hundreds of cakes were sold both on Valentine’s Day and Christmas Day, he said.
In all, CBM Corporation employs more than 600 people.
Born in 1975, the same year the Khmer Rouge took power, Chy Sila remembers walking hundreds of kilometres when he was just four years old. His immediate family survived, but lots of aunts and uncles died during that period.
He’s from an ethnic Teochew Chinese family and his father is from Ning Po near Shanghai. Chy Sila visited his father’s Chinese ancestral home and saw that what had been a fishing village was now full of high rise buildings.
After the liberation in 1979, Chy Sila’s family stayed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for eight months. They heard on the radio that some surviving members of the family were looking for them, so they all moved back to Phnom Penh in 1980, where his parents enrolled him in a local school.
“I knew nothing about school, but my mom and dad said I had to go to school. They had been well-educated and they understood the power of knowledge. My parents told me they may not have treasure for me in the future, but what they could give was knowledge. I didn’t understand it then, but I certainly understand it now.”
Chy Sila came from a poor family where his father worked in a garage and his mother was a schoolteacher who later became a journalist.
His mother is still working as a photographer for one of Phnom Penh’s Chinese language newspapers.
Along the way, Chy Sila became friends at Chinese school with the man who would become his business partner, Sok Ly. The two young Chinese Cambodians worked together as tour guides and then, in 1998 they launched a business called CD World on Sihanouk Boulevard.
“We figured out what people wanted and the business started to take off in 1999.”
He was 25 years old at the time.
Next came the establishment of BB World fast food. Today there are five outlets. More ventures followed - a coffee shop business, now under the T&C brand, with seven shops in total and a restaurant chain called Pizza World, with five outlets.
Adjacent Nagaworld Hotel in the new amusement park complex he set up Khmer Food Village.
“The passion is to bring street food to the table,” he said.
The most recent development in the CBM portfolio is a catering company located near Olympic Stadium which is designed to centralise food production, called Central Kitchen.
“At Central kitchen, we can have consistency, quality, and hygiene in food preparation. We want freshness and quality,” he said. In addition to his entrepreneurship, Chy Sila is active in Cambodia’s Junior Chamber International (JCI), heading up campaigns for cleanup of garbage around Phnom Penh and encouraging young entrepreneurs.
“Personally I love this country. I want to change this country into something. People always have the mentality of the war and become lazy; they just don’t care. There are too many people who take things so easy, even people who are high school educated. “
Chy Sila says he wants to help Cambodian’s become more serious about business.
“You have to care about the business you are doing. You have to be responsible. If you have that kind of mentality, things will change.”
As part of that effort, he brings in experts in recruitment, training and procedures and lets them handle the training of staff and implementation of systems.
“One kind of mindset is not enough. You need experts in the system from recruiting to training and finally putting them in the positions. If people have knowledge of those procedures, they can do it. I’m not an accountant or a specialist in HR. I need those people who can put those procedures and systems in place,” he said.
He said Cambodia needed more support for young entrepreneurs.
“We don’t have much support for SMEs in Cambodia and it is hard to start a business. We don’t have many facilities that help people learn how to access funds or banking. Often you can only get them if you are an established businessman.”
Chy Sila said he hoped JCI, which is present in 120 countries, can help link young entrepreneurs with help and knowledge. In his capacity as president for JCI in Cambodia, he hopes to harness to power of young Cambodians. “This is the mission of JCI: to empower young people to create positive change, and I am a young entrepreneur also, and I want to do that for my country.”
The JCI has more than 100 members. In addition to the “Let’s Do It” clean up campaign of 2012, JCI sponsored a “career corner” to help young people from universities decide on their careers and learn how to go for interviews and submit job applications. “This year we are going to do it again,” he said.
Chy Sila said he hoped Cambodia’s education system would improve.
“Everything starts from education. When you have education your human capital will be improved.”
“With 2015 coming Cambodia will be merging into ASEAN and there is going to be a lot of competition in jobs and business. We have to be aware of this.”
Another business of CBM is the Platinum Cineplex at the Sorya Shopping Center. He hopes to expand the cinema into Myanmar. Another company he wants to expand is called CamBrand. He hopes to bring Cambodian brands and export the Khmer Food Village concept to other countries like Singapore.
“When you get to Singapore you can expand to other countries easily,” he said.