Casey Barnett, who is now president of CamEd Business School,came to Cambodia in 1999 from New York with the intention of working abroad for a couple of years, and then returning to the United States to do a post-graduate degree. As it happened, he didn’t return to New York until 2005, undertaking an MBA at Columbia Business School and Chartered Financial Analyst qualifications.
Today, he is back in Cambodia with a thriving business that provides Cambodians with internationally accredited degrees in accounting.
“When I got here in 1999, I worked as a consultant for the World Bank in the field of public financial reporting,” says Barnett. “But I also started to network with businesspeople here in Phnom Penh, and to figure out what they needed, and one thing they needed was training for staff.”
In the early days, Barnett was a one-man show – “just me, a hand-phone and a laptop,” as he puts it.
“My first clients were Tiger Beer, Asia Pacific Breweries, and a French pharmaceutical company called Servier,” he says.
But demand for staff training led to rapid business growth.
“By 2003, I’d decided it was time to specialise,” Barnett says, adding that idea was planted in his head a year earlier by Cambodian- born Sam Ghanty, who now teaches financial management at CamEd.
Ghanty, who left Cambodia in 1970 on a Fulbright scholarship, finally earning a PhD and a full-tenured professorship in accounting at the University of Wisconsin, recommended that Barnett’s business specialise in what it did best – accountancy.
“At that time, we were still heavily engaged in training, but we had no training facilities,” says Barnett.“Our first office was in the Economics and Finance Institute. We provided tailored training on the company premises. We originally moved to a villa near the German Embassy, before moving to our current location.”
CamEd is internationally accredited by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). The ACCA qualification leads to licensing in Cambodia as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).
Despite a rigorous process of online examinations carried out in conjunction with the British Council, as well as tests and interviews of its own, to all prospective students, CamEd continues to grow, with some 300 students studying in a temporary location, while the school secures a lease for a second building – a process Barnett expects to take from four to six weeks.
The new space brings the total number of CamEd’s students to close to 2,000, although, as Barnett points out, “A lot of those students are professionals, and in the case of professionals they might just be taking one or two classes.”
Nevertheless, many of CamEd’s students arrive at the private academy at the age of 17 or 18 for the school’s four-year Bachelor of Accountancy and Certified Accounting Technician (CAT) program. About two-thirds of applicants pass the examination hurdles for entry, according to Barnett, and many graduate and go on to work for well-known international businesses such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Canadia Bank.
On the subject of the changes he’s seen in Cambodia since his arrival 15 years ago, he says what has struck him the most is the quality of the English-language skills his students have today.
“There was a huge shift in the competence of students three years ago – it was like night and day,” he says. “In 2011, we suddenly started seeing large numbers of students with very strong English and communication skills, as well as problem-solving skills.
“I think these students – they were born in 1990. 1991, 1992 – have been to primary school, to middle school, and they have a strong foundation in the English language, as opposed to when I first came here, and the people I was training perhaps might have studied English for a couple of years.
“It’s basically a very promising signal in terms of Cambodia’s development,” says Barnett.