ONE of the strongest proponents of American culture and business in Cambodia is not an American, but a Palestinian who manages RMA Cambodia, the group that represents a number of American heritage brand names including Ford, Chevrolet, John Deere and Swenson’s ice cream.
Rami Sharaf, 44, is completely confident about the United States of America and its leadership role in the world. For Sharaf, all one has to do is look at the outcome of the Cold War to get answers about why the people and highly developed systems of the US will continue to exercise a leadership role in the world.
“You had two different models during the Cold War. One model collapsed, the other model led. I’m a firm believer that United States was, is, and will continue to be the leader of this globe, the leader with its values, the leader with its invention, with its technologies and the leader in setting the example to follow.”
Sharaf, who is one of the six governors of the American Cambodian Business Council (AmCham), says the Fourth of July is a day of pride for Americans.
“What is better for the fourth of July than American products heritage? We have Ford with more than 100 years of heritage. Chevrolet, with General Motors -- another symbol of that heritage.”
A former executive with one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Sharaf is well-known for his thought-provoking public speaking.
As a speaker on Business Ethics & Anti Corruption in Brussels in 2008, he brought a bed sheet from his hotel room and fixed a black dot to it with a pin in the centre. He asked everybody what they saw, and they all replied they saw a black dot.
“Nobody was looking at the big white space. Everybody was looking at the black spot, and that shows how the world will perceive a company following a scandal.”
Sharaf emphasised business ethics as the most important tool to keep a company’s reputation intact.
Sharaf was singled out for top honours as Man of the Year in a company with 30,000 employees – before he joined RMA and came to Cambodia two years ago. Sharaf remains very optimistic about Cambodia.
“Cambodia at this stage is a dry sponge. The potential for new investments, the potential for new businesses, the potential for new entrepreneurial ideas are unlimited.”
One of Sharaf’s recent successes was the launching of a car rental service – a move in which he and the RMA team noticed an opportunity in the marketplace and used their own strengths in car supply to fill it.
“We built a fleet of brand new Fords and Chevys, fully insured. Now we have a fleet of these cars renting to NGOs, renting to tourists, individuals,” he said.
As the licensed dealer for Ford and Chevrolet, Sharaf in his role for RMA recently helped create a new organisation called the Cambodia Automotive Industry Chamber (CAIC), which has been registered with the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior. Sharaf serves as CAIC’s first chairman.
He thinks the long-term trend for Cambodia will be more legitimacy in terms of authorised dealerships.
The idea of CIAC is to have an association of all the authorised car dealers to work on agendas of common interest. “We want to work on awareness, traffic safety; we want to differentiate our authorised dealerships from what I call ‘car shops’. Born in Nablus in the West bank of Palestine in 1967, Sharaf feels like he’s a citizen of the world because he has worked in so many countries, has colleagues and friends of all nationalities, races and religions around the world.
“This is how I raised my kids too,” For the Ford brand, Sharaf says RMA is investing in a huge dealership with a state-of-the-art service centre and launching new Ford models.
“We are launching the all new Ford Fiesta, which has a 1.4 litre engine. We believe the socio economic middle class in Cambodia will upgrade from two wheelers to four wheelers. The Ford Fiesta costs about $28,000 and includes a three-year warranty.”
Sharaf thinks the new Ford Explorer will be the SUV of choice in Cambodia for its safety record and comparatively low price of $85,000.
“Today if you talk about SUVs there is nothing less than $140,000 or $150,000,” he said.
He says the competitive advantage is the after-sales service that keeps the car running and keeps people safe.
Sharaf said customers were more likely to stay safe in a vehicle that was available for recall if the manufacturer found something unsafe.
“We should differentiate ourselves from those unauthorised dealerships,” he said.
In terms of volume and value, Ford is RMA’s most important brand in Cambodia.
“A customer of Ford is coming to get his third or fourth or fifth car from us. He will never change,” he said.
“We started with one showroom for Ford, then we added another new showroom on Russian boulevard on the way to the airport. In June last year we launched our Siem Reap Ford dealership with service centre.
“It is fully fledged with what we call 3S: sales, spare parts and service.
Now we will open our fourth dealership which is on Monivong next to the Vietnamese embassy and that will be another Ford showroom and service centre. For the Chevrolet brand represented by ASC (Automotive Sales Cambodia), one of the RMA group companies, is offering the Chevrolet Spark for $16,500. The Chevrolet Spark with the 1-litre engine is the smallest and least expensive car available and this is the one for the masses,” he said.
The RMA group of companies has a big office in Bangkok and operates a car modification plant in Thailand.
RMA also operates an ambulance modification factory in Sihanoukville, under contract for the US Army, to prepare about 1,000 ambulances for shipment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
RMA employs 700 people in Cambodia and expects to expand to 1,000 by the end of this year.
As for the type of people Sharaf likes to hire, knowledge is what matters, “but it should be crowned with the right attitude”.
“He or she should be passionate about the job he or she is doing.” Sharaf is proud that RMA is 95 percent operated by Cambodian staff.
In addition to Ford and Chevrolet, RMA manages Swensen’s Ice Cream, with three outlets and another one opening this week at Paragon.
RMA’s big American brand name for agriculture is John Deere, famous around the US and the world for their reliable green tractors.
Here in Cambodia, RMA sells whole fleets of John Deere tractors for use on big plantations for rubber, palm oil or other products.
Until recently Sharaf served on the executive committee of the International Business Chamber. “The IBC has the widest umbrella, because it includes members of almost other chambers,” he said. The RMA group has “major strategic projects” underway in both the short and long run, mainly in the car industry in Cambodia, and “that is another proof that we are in Cambodia to stay.”