Tourism is on the rise in Cambodia, and the hospitality industry is growing to accommodate it. The Post’s Robin Spiess sat down with Phal Leakhena, general manager of Cambodia’s hotel and restaurant company Almond Group, to discuss the group’s growth and the challenges it has faced over the past decade.
How has the Almond Group expanded since you began working with the company?
I joined Almond Group in 2007, and during that time it only had one outlet. After that we started to grow each year, opening one or two outlets annually – and we are looking to continue growing in 2018.
This year, a lot of people are worrying about the election. But for us, this year poses an opportunity to grow with the economy. The government has announced a lot of new airlines coming to Cambodia and now there’s also a new airport being built soon as well. The hospitality industry is growing a lot, and you can tell a lot of hotels are coming soon too, so we are taking the opportunity to grow our group at the same time.
We have been catering to the Chinese tourists in part, and we have now several Chinese restaurants, but we are also open to everyone. We have fifteen outlets in Phnom Penh now, but we are thinking of expanding overseas in 2019.
How are you planning to expand in 2018?
This year, 2018, is a great year for us because we will be opening not only one, but four outlets.
We will open two restaurants in Aeon II, and our launch should be later this month. We wanted to expand our brand to the people around the new mall, to make it easy for people near there to enjoy our food. Tuol Kork is a very well-known place and people living around the area are mostly rich and middle-class people, so we believe our restaurants will do very well.
We’re also opening a Chinese restaurant on riverside and a World Dining restaurant – not just a food court, but a standalone restaurant.
We are able to grow because we have a very committed team here. Of the 70 staff who first started out with Almond Group, about 70 percent are still working here, and many have become managers of restaurants. We now have 800 staff, so we’ve grown a lot, and we have grown together. Now, 90 percent of management here is Cambodian.
You were one of the first employees hired at Almond. How did you climb the ranks to become one of the bosses?
The first job I ever got was with Almond Group in 2007, and I have stayed with the company ever since. At that time, we had only one outlet, and I was hiring people to build the hotel. After that, I had a promotion almost every year, and currently I am one of the bosses of the company.
I was still getting my bachelor’s degree when I first started working here, so I would work in the day and study at night. I finally got my degree in 2010.
When I became a sales manager shortly after I started work, I was sent out to be a representative for the company and attend many monthlong training programs. A lot of the time, most of the hotel operators I have met at these events have been older men, and I am the youngest and the only woman – but it is not a problem. I am a very straightforward person.
What are some of the challenges you face in this industry?
It’s not easy to work for a restaurant or a hotel, because it depends on the guests. Sometimes they do not have a good mood and anything can happen. We need to be patient and make sure the guests are happy.
But it’s also a challenge, sometimes, to train the new hires. They often will come from the province, so they might not know how to groom themselves, wear uniforms and makeup. We put a lot of time in training them.
For housekeeping, too, I have to teach the staff how to clean because in their own home, they use the same soap to clean everything, and we have to teach them the type of soap and towels they should use to clean each thing.
Training is important and it can be difficult, but I am happy to open a new outlet each time because it means at least 30 more staff will get jobs and will lead a better life. All staff are provided three meals a day and given a salary, so they can focus on feeding themselves and their families and paying for their homes.
When I meet these people whose lives have changed, I feel I am not just working to grow the company, but I am working for these people to have a proper job as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.