The chaotic, frenetic streets of Phnom Penh are home to a wide variety of vehicles, but one of the most distinctive is the bulky shape of a Range Rover, usually in black, muscling its way through the rivers of motos and tuk-tuks.
These classically British 4x4s, now owned by an Indian company, are sold in Cambodia by a Norwegian, Finn Viggo Gundersen, and his company Envotech.
Gundersen, who has been in Cambodia for 20 years, previously worked in the aviation industry around the world. After five years in Saudi Arabia, he gave it up and was examining his options.
“I was travelling around Europe, trying to decide what to do, when I got a call asking if I’d like to go to Cambodia. I’d always liked Asia, so I said yes,” he says.
Gundersen initially worked for international organisations, but quickly became disillusioned with the mindset he believed they fostered.
“Working for all these agencies, the aim for these people is ‘Give me the money,’ and spending money. In my opinion, it should be the other way round: create something and make money,” he says.
Gundersen’s practical side was matched by a fierce belief in the mechanics of the marketplace: “I’m a bit different from many others, because working for the World Bank and agencies like that, it wasn’t so important to account for what you did, or what you got for the money.
“So I said to myself: ‘This is not my future life. I need to do something more practical.’”
While Gundersen was with international organisations, he got involved with setting up technical training workshops, including one making protective clothing.
“In typical NGO style, they got a project from a British charity to make some local protective de-mining gear, but of course after six months they ran out of funding and said to the six people working for them: ‘Oh, no, now you can go home.’
“So there were these people who had been trained to make protective gear and didn’t know anything else.”
Incensed, Gundersen decided not to waste the training he’d provided.
“So I said I’d take over the whole project, and I expanded. Now we export protective gear to 44 countries around the world. I don’t think there are many other companies in Cambodia that export to so many countries.”
That company, Envostar, has around 35 staff producing protective gear; about 30 per cent of its employees are disabled or the victims of mines.
The company participates actively to get more disabled people integrated in the working environment.
From protective gear, it took a series of steps to get to importing luxury cars.
“I’d been on the technical side all my life, so it was easy to think about cars and the car business. I’d agreed to build up for the European Union two technical training centres, in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng.
“That was the biggest challenge I’d ever had, to train 600 people a year. I’d need three hands to do that. But I did.”
From training people in engineering, moving into car mechanics was a natural next step. “I built up the technical training centres based on theory and practice, the same as you’d do in the UK or Norway. And we got them up and running, and we even started to generate money.
“It went so well, we wanted to turn the centres into private entities. But then the French came in and said, ‘No no, that’s not the way we should do it’ so I said ‘Bye bye.’ Without any discussion, I was being told what was happening.
“They wanted vocational training, and for me technical training is not vocational training. It should be combined with theory and practice.”
Gundersen stresses that it takes a great deal of training to produce a mechanic who can work on luxury vehicles. “You cannot take any mechanic from Cambodia and expect him to work on a Land Rover.
“You need to learn technical English. You need to learn computers. It’s not like when I did my apprenticeship, when you could do everything with a pair of pliers. It’s all about training, training, training.
“Ninety per cent of our staff come from the Don Bosco School. We take people in, and we make them more than garage mechanics; they have a different mindset.
“But I’m very happy with them, and they’re getting a very good basic training.”
Gundersen is very much in favour of organisations like the Federation of Association of Small and Medium Enterprises of Cambodia (FASMEC). “We very much support FASMEC. We started out as a small enterprise, now we’re a medium enterprise, but now I feel that it’s good for us to support FASMEC, and we try to help as much as we can.
“I started off as a one-man company, and I think it’s very important for us as a small or medium enterprise to help and see that other people become successful too.”
He is also full of praise for the government: “To be honest, I think the government has been very good. I cannot really see that there are any kinds of problems.
“I don’t know what else the government could do, they’ve been very good with us: we get assistance, we get no problems with imports or with exports.”
Gundersen does have one or two suggestions for areas the government could improve things: “The government should absolutely get going with promoting its own currency. If you want to buy something in Thailand, you don’t use US dollars, you need to use baht. Why not here?
“I would encourage the government to try to strengthen the riel; absolutely they need to do that.”
The latest Ranger Rover model, the Evoque, has proved wildly popular around the world, but Gundersen says that isn’t the case in Cambodia.
“It isn’t as popular here as it is in other places. It’s very popular in Thailand, but not so much in Cambodia; they want a car that’s a little bit bigger.”
Gundersen thinks the future is bright for Cambodia: “I’m very optimistic. I think the government, Hun Sen and the top people, have shown they can run the country; it’s stable. What I’ve seen since I came in 1992 is fantastic. When I came here, there were hardly any cars, hardly even any roads. Now I’m selling Range Rovers.”