Cambodia’s beaches are full of enormous potential for visitors, he says
With a background in engineering and a resume that includes supplying the steel mills of China and Asia for French industrial giant Air Liquide, Etienne Chenevier now spends most of his time in Cambodia, promoting the development of the Ream area on Cambodia’s southern coast.
The civil engineer and concert pianist, originally from near Paris, today serves as CEO of a company that owns the Amanjaya Pancam Hotel which includes the well-known K-West bar and brasserie along Phnom Penh’s riverside as well as Le Moon Terrace Bar on the top floor.
Chenevier, 56, spent a good part of his career as an engineer not only with Air Liquide, setting up joint ventures in China, but also for Rio Tinto, selling talc from mines in Montana, France and Australia to clients all around Asia.
For the last several years Chenevier has been preparing his next adventure: the development of the Alila Project which includes a five-star boutique hotel with 150 rooms on Koh Russey, a Cambodian island about six kilometres from Sihanoukville.
He’s a big believer in the potential of Cambodia’s southern coast.
Before he left Rio Tinto following a restructure of their talc division in 2005, Chenevier had looked around for opportunities with one of his old engineering school friends who was involved in the property market in France with companies including Vivendi and Nexity. That friend, Jean-Louis Charon, was an expert in the art of the leveraged buyout (LBO) and had never worked outside France. Charon asked Chenevier to find something meaningful to do in Asia. Today, Charon serves as Citystar’s Founding Partner and Chairman, while Chenevier serves as Partner and Chief Executive in Asia.
Both Charon and Chenevier are engineering graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Nationale des Pontset Chaussées in France. More information can be found about the two and their projects on Citystar’s website on www.citystar-cambodia.com.
“I told him an LBO could not work in Asia because Chinese companies never dispose the control of a company. It is not in their culture.”
So, on the lookout for some property opportunities in Asia, they arrived in Cambodia at the end of 2005. In addition to the Amanjaya Hotel/K-West property, they began to look around Cambodia for opportunities and at the end of May, 2006, decided to purchase land in the Sihanoukville area.
“We decided to buy land in the Ream area and we believe the hospitality market is potentially twice that of Siem Reap,” Chenevier said. “The Western visitors want to go to the beach after visiting Siem Reap and they want a one-week package like they can get in Bali or Phuket.
“The potential of Sihanoukville as a tourist area is huge. The Ream area is full of forest, still very green, nice beaches and few inhabitants.”
Since 2008, Chenevier and his associates have invited a total of 14 hotel brands to visit the property. Out of those, four memoranda of understanding were written.
“We have a master plan of 10 years with room for 12 hotels,” Chenevier said.
“Alila is a five-star luxury boutique hotel brand created by a former executive of the Aman Group,” he said. “Alila is going to bring the brand and we are going to build the hotel with an initial investment of $16 million and the eventual complete cost is $70 million. It will be a 150-room hotel with 50 hotel rooms in a few two-storey low-rise and 100 1-bedroom bungalows with a swimming pool for each, 30 two-bedroom and four-bedroom villas, and in addition a series of 47 duplex private apartments” he said.
The estimated hotel room price is $180 per night for standard hotel rooms, $390 to $530 for a luxury one or two-bedroom villa and more than $1,200 for a luxury four-bedroom villa.
The total footprint of the Alila project is 25 hectares. The Citystar Group has purchased a total of 550 hectares, including 200 of freehold land on the coast as well as government concessions on the islands of KohRussey and Koh Takiev islands, acquired between 2006 and 2008. They are organised into four big blocks divided into 11 sections, which are available to developers.
“It was not easy,” Chenevier said.
“When hotel investors come and want to make hotel and property developments, they need to have space,” Chenevier said. “We are packaging for large developers.”
Chenevier says the whole Ream development is a long-term project.
“Relatively speaking Cambodia is easy,” he said. “This is almost the only country in ASEAN which is almost a totally free market. They made a fundamental choice in 2004 to go free market.”
Now a Cambodian citizen, who also keeps a residence in Singapore, Chenevier says the Ream development has 99-year concession agreements with the government.
“I am going to vote this year,” Chenevier said.
“I like this country and the potential it has. The problem is to find the good investors and good projects. The best businessman without the right human resources can be doomed.”
The Alila Project has an architect from Singapore, a French engineering company in Vietnam on board, investors from France and a brand that involves an American citizen based in Singapore.
Citystar is a Singapore-based group of companies with subsidiaries in Cambodia that include for each project a group of about 40 investors, with a dozen of them representing the main portion of the capital.
“All of the investors are private individuals and one French bank with a small stake, which is also a shareholder of ACLEDA Bank,” Chenevier said.
He described his role as Chief Executive: “I’m the guy who signs everything here.”
CityStar wants the development to be a green project, endorsed by the Australian label “Earthcheck” which sets a standard for green hotels in sustainable design.
In addition to success in property development, Chenevier loves playing the piano. That’s why he likes to stay in Singapore, to be close to the Symphony Orchestra and partners for organising concerts.
He’s also happy to have chosen engineering as his field of study.
“When I was 18 years old I had to choose between piano and engineering,” he said. Luckily, he’s been able to do both.
Chenevier expects events along Cambodia’s southern coast to gather momentum later this year when direct flights from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville begin regularly scheduled service.