Renato Buhlmann, the managing director of alcohol and fine food distributor Quarto Products who helped bring the joys of the grape to Cambodia, discusses the burgeoning Cambodian wine market
Photo by: VINH DAO/MELON ROUGE
Managing Director of QP Renato Buhlmann, stands in front of rows of wine imported by the company, which is soon to change its name in Cambodia to Wine and More (Top). The company imports wine from across the world, including Europe and South America, to Cambodia.
What is QP’s primary activity in Cambodia?
We import wine and food into Cambodia, supplying mainly hotels and restaurants, but we also sell to some shops and also some private customers – an aspect of the business which is growing more and more.
The business is basically 90 percent wine distribution and the rest consists of food product distribution, mainly Italian. The wines are from all over the world and range in price.
Tell us a bit about QP’s beginnings.
I established QP [he is currently 30 percent shareholder] in 1997 with my business partners in Singapore.
We first opened for business in Yangon, Myanmar. We opened offices in Cambodia and southwestern China in late 2004 and today have about 70 staff across the board.
We’ve just moved our head office to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap.
Why did you make Siem Reap the head office in the first place?
At the time Siem Reap was booming. We were a new company – a small company – and in Phnom Penh it takes a bit more time to get to know the ins and outs and who’s who. Also in Siem Reap, as we specialised in hotels and restaurants, we could get an easier grip on the market.
Now, Phnom Penh is developing faster than Siem Reap. First of all there were the economic issues, then the Thai problem, so tourist arrivals in Siem Reap are not the same as before.
Tourists don’t spend that much money anymore and not as much on wines. Phnom Penh is more dynamic.
So are tourists a key client base?
The main client base is always restaurants and hotels. But obviously they also depend on their surrounding climate. So in Siem Reap, if there are fewer tourists, it’s very difficult for them to do good business. Here in Phnom Penh you don’t only have tourism but also local and international business.
What wines sell well in Cambodia?
When I first came a few years ago, French wines very much dominated. But now even French restaurants are offering New World wines. Restaurants answer to the demand of their customers but it is not just taste driven, economically things are a bit different.
Until a few months ago, the euro was very strong, so European wines were not very attractive, so too Australian wines because the Aussie dollar was also quite strong. At that time things like Chilean and Argentinean wines did quite well.
But now it’s changing again, the euro is more favorable again. But still, New World wines have definitely been on the rise.
What is a New World wine?
In terms of wine, the Old World would be France, Spain, Italy, Germany – most of central Europe, for example.
New World wines are newly discovered wine regions with usually a 200- to 250-year history. Europe has a history of a few thousand years.
You mentioned currency shifts affecting the market, how about the global financial crisis?
I was saying how the currency affected the sales mix. But of course the economic situation can also affect sales. In terms of our business [during the crisis], it just didn’t increase as fast. We are a new company, so it’s growing in general, but last year it basically just got stuck. It didn’t really go backwards, but there was no development.
How much revenue do you make in a year?
I don’t really want to talk about the numbers, but we’re a small company, and we started from zero. So in terms of measuring how much we’ve grown, our sales are growing year on year by about 30 percent.
Cambodia brings in about 20 to 25 percent of revenue. In Myanmar, where we’ve been the longest, growth is about 45 percent and China makes up the rest. But the mix of food to wine in each place is different.
And how have things gone in the first six months this year?
The first quarter of the year was very strong, mainly due to the tourism season. Siem Reap was also quite strong until the end of March. But now we’re into the low season. That’s okay, it’s a pattern. The strongest months are end of October to end of March.
You are in the process of changing your name to Wine and More. Why?
We’re just changing the name in Cambodia. It’s still QP in Singapore and the other regions. We’ve had some interest from private investors here so we thought it’s better to have a different identity in Cambodia to reflect the new interests.
If you were to tell a potential investor about your company, what would you tell them?
We are in countries where business is getting more and more developed. There are huge possibilities. For instance in China, we are in the part that is still to be developed, and we are the only company directly importing there – so I think we are in a spot which will grow a lot in the future.
There’s also going to be some diversification with the company, not to move to other countries, but some other ideas I don’t want to mention here yet.
You’re originally from Switzerland. Why did you start this firm in Asia?
My background is the hotel industry, and I ended up in Asia. I liked it – I had my friends here and my connections here. In terms of Cambodia, you can grow with the market as it develops.