When Alain Dupuis first came to Cambodia in 1969, it was to marry a Cambodian woman he fell in love with while both were studying the German language in Bavaria.
Dupuis had already finished law school in 1966 and had served as an officer in the Belgian Army paratroopers, with the rank of lieutenant, when he enrolled in the European business school INSEAD. After falling in love with a young Cambodian lady in Bavaria, he came to Phnom Penh in 1969 to marry her. They stayed at Le Royal Hotel, which today is called Raffles Le Royal.
Born in 1944 in the French-speaking Walloon region in southern Belgium, Dupuis was the son of a lawyer who suffered a fatal heart attack when Dupuis was only 12. Just recently, he lost his mother who was 95 years old.
He has one brother, a neurologist.
Today, Dupuis and his wife Meas are majority owners of the Blue Pumpkin restaurants and a number of other food-related businesses here in Cambodia. Dupuis sat down for an interview for the Valentine’s Day special report and described how he became connected to Cambodia, his life in the restaurant business and his plans for expansion in the country.
“Phnom Penh in 1969 was sweet, protected from the war. It was a tribute to the ability of Sihanouk to have avoided that Cambodia would be in the war,” Dupuis said.
“The atmosphere was laid back, very agreeable; the Cambodians were eating a lot in the restaurants, mostly Chinese and Vietnamese and some French. Everybody was living very happy; it was a very sweet life, but not very active.
“We knew that eastern part of Cambodia was occupied by the Vietnamese to make the Ho Chi Minh trail and everybody knew that to buy the peace Sihanouk had accepted that. It was the price to pay for your tranquility, to be outside of the war. We also knew the port of Sihanoukville transported weapons for the Viet Minh.”
Dupuis and his wife left Phnom Penh on the same aircraft with Norodom Sihanouk in January, 1970, after getting married. His first job was in the Congo in Africa for Unibra and managing, among others, the Skol beer brand, in charge of marketing for five breweries.
Another Phnom Penh restaurant personality, Nathalie Ferrero of Elixyr on Street 466, is old friends with Dupuis.
“I knew Nathalie’s parents very well. They had a restaurant in Kinshasa called La Deviniere.”
After two years in the Congo, the young couple returned to Europe and this time Dupuis went to work for the French Accor group. Dupuis launched a highly successful meal vouchers program in Brussels and then nationwide in Belgium.
“To advantage the employee, we gave meal vouchers and enjoyed the benefits of tax exemption,” Dupuis said. At the same time Dupuis implemented the meal voucher system in Belgium, it was also launched in Italy, Spain and France. Today this system is in operation in 50 countries in the world.
In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Dupuis found himself with the responsibility of taking care of eight family members. So, he opened a Khmer restaurant called Le Cambodge in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.
Le Cambodge served mostly Chinese food and was so successful, employing Dupuis’ Cambodia family; they opened a second bigger one in Brussels and another in Antwerp. By 1980, the family had three Cambodian restaurants in operation.
By the end of the 1980s, the Accor Group asked Dupuis to head for the United States and search for a chain of restaurants to buy and launch an operation of meal vouchers in the US similar to the successful one in Europe.
Dupuis and his family arrived in New York City in December of 1990. He discovered that the United States tax structure didn’t offer any tax advantage for meal vouchers, so he looked into buying a chain of restaurants and found one in California called Seafood Broiler.
He bought all 11 restaurants on behalf of the Accor Group, took over the CEO position and then moved out to Los Angeles with his family to supervise and expand the operation which had 1,000 employees.
By the time Dupuis was finished, the group had expanded to 39 restaurants, including locations in San Francisco and San Diego.
“We were by far the number-one seafood chain in California."
Along came national chain Red Lobster in 1989, which didn’t have a presence in California and made Dupuis and Accor “a proposal we could not refuse”.
“We were by far the number one seafood chain in California,” he said. “They all became Red Lobster.”
The Accor Group wanted Dupuis to run a chain of restaurants in Germany, but his children were in 10th and 11th grades and they didn’t feel like moving to Germany.
He took a job in New York instead with National Cleaning Contractors, which had 20,000 employees, all union at a company which cleaned 20 per cent of New York's office space. “The fascinating part was to live in New York. That was great. We had an apartment at 87th and Park Avenue, and bought a small house in West Hampton for the weekend. Our daughter was in Sacred Heart School, where Jackie Kennedy attended and our son Gerald was at Loyola.”
Today his daughter Anne Sarin lives in Paris, works for Louis Vuitton, has three children and her husband works for Euro Disney. His son Gerald lives in London and is a banker for the Royal Bank of Canada. Gerald, who is half Cambodian himself, had one child from his first marriage, and then married a Cambodian in his second marriage. Now he has a set of 14-month old twins.
“We have all degrees of Cambodianity in our family,” Dupuis laughed, “from zero to 100 per cent and all variations in between.”
In 1991, Accor bought Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the historic operator of the Orient Express Trains and international hotel and travel logistics company. Accor asked Dupuis to run the Eurest catering division, one of the largest contract food service companies in the world.
Dupuis took the Eurest job and moved to Paris. He spent a lot of time traveling, opening offices in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, China and India. Dupuis visited all those places, doing a lot of sleeping on planes.
The company provided catering services to staff, oil rigs, in-flight and for schools.
During this period, he made about 100 acquisitions in food service, the largest of which was a Japanese public company, SEIYO Food Systems. Dupuis was the first non-Japanese to buy a public company in Japan.
“You would start out with one acquisition and you would complement it with three or four,” he said.
“We were local in every country. We served the food that people have eaten when they were young from their mother. That was the food we served.”
Dupuis negotiated the sale of Accor’s Eurest to Compass for $4.5 billion French Francs, with 50 per cent of the deal being in shares of Compass, enabling Accor to become the largest shareholder.
“We multiplied the value by five and sold finally for one billion pounds sterling,” Dupuis said. Dupuis stayed on the Compass board for 12 years and retired at age 63. Now he’s 68.
Since his return to Cambodia, from his home in Verbier, Switzerland, in 2007, he’s opened with associate Dick Wong, the Emperor of China restaurant near the Olympic Stadium, bought a majority share in The Blue Pumpkin, and he’s happy to have kept founder Arnaud Curtat on the payroll as part of the deal.
His Sajibumi company won the concession to operate the restaurants and bars at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports. Dupuis’ main operating company, Meas Development, operated by his wife of the same name, also bought out the NGO called Hagar Catering and is keeping 10 per cent of the profit going to charity.
“Now we are accelerating the development by opening more Blue Pumpkins, one on Mao Tse Tung and one in Siem Reap as part of a placed called King’s Road Angkor, inside of which will have a Blue Pumpkin.
Dupuis is also opening an Italian Terrazza restaurant in Beung Kang Kong 1 and considering a Japanese beef bowl franchise concept. He’s also developing Vietnamese restaurants, having recently signed a contract for the Pho 24 franchise.
“I’m going to develop the business, give employment and make money,” Dupuis said.
“I like very much to continue to play monopoly. I like it here and I’m bullish on Cambodia,” he said.
Dupuis dislikes firing people and operates according to a philosophy of promoting from within. “Instill them with confidence and empower them. I don’t see the merit of being mean.”
With regard to making money, Dupuis said everything he does requires investment.
“It’s a little bit of playing monopoly and the score game is measured by money. I need cash in the first place and cash in the business to grow more. Every year we invest more than we make,” he said.
Dupuis speaks Flemish, French, German, English, Spanish and Italian.
“I’m a citizen of the world and my heart is in Cambodia.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]