​From Pol Pot to Nestlé A milkman's run through history | Phnom Penh Post

From Pol Pot to Nestlé A milkman's run through history


Publication date
22 May 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : James Eckardt and Pok Sokundara

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Keo Sun has doggedly supplied Cambodia with canned milk for nearly three turbulent decades. It's been a pretty tough sort of managerial career through Lon Nol's civil war, Pol Pot's genocide, Vietnamese occupation, and the post-UNTAC Kingdom of Cambodia.

But now Sun (below) is facing what could be his biggest test to date. From capitalism to communism and back again, on May 1 his factory was taken over by Swiss multinational giant Nestlé.

Keo Sun's life is a microcosm of modern Cambodian history.

Born 53 years ago in Kampot, Sun came to Phnom Penh after finishing high school. In 1969, after a single year at a technical college, he reported for work at the Sokilait milk factory on the riverfront along Russey Keo Road. He has never left.

"I was here at the very beginning," Sun recalls. "At that time the factory had 150 employees.

"Sokilait was a joint venture: 30% the Australian Dairy Board and 70% Comin Khmer, a joint venture Danish firm.

"There were seven expatriate supervisers.

"We produced 30,000-40,000 cartons of condensed milk per month, 48 cans per carton, and sold milk under four brands: Golden Bird, Cow, Jasmine and Baby. We also produced powdered milk, ice cream and butter.

"We had a monopoly in every province."

Sales plummeted during the civil war of the early 1970s as the KR strangled Phnom Penh.

During a lull in the fighting, Sokilait's Australian managers built up a huge stockpile of raw materials: milk powder from Australia, palm oil from Malaysia, sugar from Thailand. These stocks were to save the factory - and the life of Keo Sun - during Pol Pot's regime.

"When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in April 1975, I had to leave like everybody else," Sun recalls. "I was in Kandal when the Khmer Rouge asked for technicians to return to the city."

"You were lucky you weren't killed?"

"Yes!" he laughs. "But the Khmer Rouge cadres had little knowledge. They didn't know how to run factories. Besides Sokilait, I was also made factory manager of an instant noodle plant in Phnom Penh."

He said he persuaded KR cadre to reinstate ten former technicians at the Sokilait factory, who came back with all their family members.

"Another 70-80 workers were Khmer Rouge people," he says.

"From 1975-1978, we produced only condensed milk, working off the stocks the Australians had left behind. Of course there was less demand. We produced only 2,000-3,000 cartons a month which went to hospitals."

In a deserted city without money or markets, how did his people survive?

"We were allowed 'independent living'," Sun explains. "We were alloted rations of rice and fish but were also allowed to raise food for ourselves, but only in Phnom Penh. If you raised the food you could eat it. Our factory organization raised pigs, for example. We had to report to the Khmer Rouge what we had, and if we had more pigs than we needed, we had to give them back. If we had 100 pigs and the Khmer Rouge said 50 were enough, 50 went to them. But our factory was okay for food. We never went hungry. We had fish and pigs. Other factories, like the machinists, with a lot of staff, were poorly fed.

"Along this road, Russey Keo, other factories were open: textiles, vegetable oil, the SKD distillery which provided medicinal alcohol for hospitals. There was an international market at the Pailin Hotel where diplomats could buy fresh meat, vegetables, even wine."

But by late 1978, Khmer Rouge purges were sweeping through the city. "There was a lot of fear," says Sun. "New Khmer Rouge managers were brought in and they didn't trust the old workers. I was kept on because I also ran the noodle factory and because one of my relatives was a Khmer Rouge official. But two months before the fall of the government, the ten families of my old workers were sent out into the countryside. Over half of them died in just two months, either killed or from disease."

In January 1979, Sun saw Vietnamese tanks rumble across Monivong Bridge.

He ran to Monk's Hospital and put his family aboard trucks bound for Kampong Speu. There KR cadre confiscated the trucks, leaving Sun and his family to walk to Battambang, a journey that took twenty days.

"People were heading for the jungle," recalls Keo Sun. "But I had my family with me. We slipped into Battambang town which was controlled by the Vietnamese. From there we walked for ten days to Pursat, then hitched on a Vietnamese supply truck for five chi of gold. A day later we were back in Phnom Penh."

Back in the capital Sun went to work again for Sokilait, this time under the People's Republic of Kampuchea, which would later become the State of Cambodia.

With a staff of 75, still working off the Australian stockpile, his factory's production of condensed milk gradually rose to three million cans a year. But they began to run low on raw materials, especially powdered milk. The factory managed to get some supplies from Vietnam and foreign NGOs.

"My old Australian managers, Mr Cummeen and Mr Barry, came to see me several times after the war," Sun recalls. "The Australians did not want to take over the factory again, being afraid of safety and security. Australia also did not have good relations with the new government. In 1989, a Khmer Chinese businessman took over the plant, the first one privatized in the country. This businessman had left Cambodia in 1975, made a fortune in Thailand and returned to Phnom Penh."

The new owner began to arrange imports of raw materials again. From 1990 to early 1996, the factory's 100 employees were turning out up to 15,000 cases a month, but production fell again after last July's coup. The factory's output last month was 10,000 cases. On May 1 Nestlé Dairy (Cambodia) Limited bought 80% of the company shares, leaving 20% with the owner, Lay Ngy. With its $5 million investment, Nestlé has ambitious plans.

"We intend to double or triple production of con-densed milk," says Dominique Peterhans, the business development manager of Nestlé Dairy (Cambodia).

Newly installed in his office, his desk a glass slab over two Nestlé milk barrels, Peterhans jokes that his first task to was stop the roof leaking onto his computers and fax machines. As Nestlé's representative in Phnom Penh for the past two years, overseeing sales of Milo and Nescafé, Peterhans outlines the company's new move into manufacturing.

"First we will refurbish and upgrade all factory equipment to international standards," he says. "At the same time, we will develop a dairy district for the production of local fresh milk. This means establishing milk collection centers, the training of dairy farmers, and supplying veterinarians and agronomists to the project. We've received full support from the government. This project will both improve the local diet and keep money home rather than spending for imports."

The refurbished Sokilait will be Nestlé's 490th factory, while Cambodia is its 63rd manufacturing country.

"The advantage of a big company with an international network of expertise is that we can bring to bear our experiences in other countries,' explains Peterhans. "In setting up a Cambodian dairy district, for example, we can draw upon our recent projects in Pakistan and Vietnam."

Within the factory, human resources will also be upgraded. "We will conduct staff seminars and on-the-job training," Peterhans continues. "We'll also send people for further training in Thailand where we have six factories and 2,600 employees."

As for Keo Sun, nothing has changed. Yet.

"I still retain the title of factory director," he explains. "If I show the capacity, I will be kept on and given further training. If my ability is not enough, I will be retired."

"What will you do then?"

"I'm too old to find another job," he replies. "I have seven daughters, aged from 10 to 27. Some are in high school, some at university, some married. If (Nestlé) allows me to continue, I will."

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