As you enter the lobby of the newly built multi-storied National Olympic Committee of Cambodia headquarters in the iconic Olympic Stadium complex, you cannot miss an eye-catching collection of sports apparel and equipment neatly racked or stacked behind huge glass panels.
So what's special about the one-stop shop full of splashy sportswear and don’t-you-want-to-try-me gear, T-shirts, shorts, track suits, boxing gloves, tennis rackets and even petanque boules?
Just another one of those outlets you might think, until you realise it’s an exclusive Football Thai franchise, the fastest growing sports brand in Southeast Asia, which has a market niche. FBT is in 40 countries and counting.
More significantly, this is the first FBT foray into Cambodia as a retailer, despite the Thai manufacturing giant's having been omnipresent in the Kingdom’s sports sphere for a few years now as a provider and sponsor associated with the NOCC and some of its affiliates.
Just about every matchball that was kicked during the second half of the just-concluded Metfone C-League football championship was sponsored by FBT, and so were the referees' uniforms for part of the season.
As many as 4,000 runners taking part in the International Phnom Penh Half-Marathon wore specially designed shirts given away by FBT, whose involvement with Cambodian sports is growing deeper with every passing major event.
When the country’s big contingent heads to the SEA Games in Myanmar, every member will be kitted out in training and competitive clothing provided by FBT, under a purchase deal with NOCC’s main sponsor, NagaWorld.
“Our relationship with NagaWorld has been very cordial and long-standing. They have been using our brand for their football team and we provided clothing to the SEA Games squad that NagaWorld sponsored in Indonesia [in 2011],” FBT director of international marketing Thamchai Chokephaibulkit told the Post in an exclusive interview during his recent visit to Phnom Penh.
“For us, Cambodia has a special place. We want to support Cambodian sports in every conceivable way. At the same time we would like to establish our brand. There are exciting marketing possibilities. We have a strong presence in other ASEAN countries and we wish to add Cambodia to that list.
“As a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer, FBT can control the quality of its products to the end customers, and at the same time have the flexibility to suit all types of markets,” added Thamchai, whose brother Monchai is the deputy managing director, while his three sisters also hold strategic management positions in operations wholly controlled by the family.
Producing high-quality products at affordable prices has remained FBT’s business philosophy, and this market mantra has not only helped the brand flourish but also to stay competitive with some of the world’s best known names.
It was nearly 60 years ago that a then 20-year-old odd-job man stitched up a football by hand when Thailand had mostly only seen Europeans play with them.
Kamol Chokenphaibulkit knew nothing about the game, except that he has had requests from some foreigners now and then to repair or patch up balls.
When he finally managed to get one into good shape and size on his own, it became an obsession — and then a profession that would ultimately change his and his emerging family’s life.
He started importing bladders from Germany, one of only a few countries making footballs at the time. From putting together two or three footballs in a day and selling them one by one, the number increased as he decided this would be his chosen path.
He hired a few hands for help, rented a shop in Bangkok’s Lat Krabang district. He had a clear vision of what lay decades ahead.
He registered the business as a company – Football Thai – in 1952. The rest is the stuff of legend in Thailand’s manufacturing sector and sports goods industry.
Today, that famous combination of letters that adorn the chests and sleeves of millions of brand loyalists generates an annual turnover of $50 million, providing gainful employment for nearly 3,000 workers in two factories where every day 20,000 pieces of clothing, up to 15,000 footballs and 10,000 pairs of shoes are produced.
The company’s product range list is remarkably long and includes numerous other items from American footballs to petanque boules, through punching bags and squash rackets, and even medicine balls.
Yet the man directing the international marketing operations makes it absolutely clear that FBT will not stop looking for continental expansions, greener marketing pastures in more and more countries, while sticking to its vows on high quality and affordable pricing.
“That part of our promise will never change,” said Thomchai.
There is more to FBT in Cambodia than a mere showroom in Phnom Penh. It is bound to prop up its visibility and influence, and in, the context of Cambodian sport, FBT could well mean “For Better Times”.