When the top chefs of Phnom Penh want the finest Australian beef and lamb, they usually go to Simon Roe, CEO of Auskhmer Export Co Ltd.
Roe took time last week to talk about the trends in the evolving Cambodian market, his products and the importance of training staff.
“As the people are getting more and more money, traveling, they’re looking for better quality products and tourism is growing. The government is focusing on developing tourism.”
Roe says the next five years in Cambodia are going to be an interesting time because the market is maturing and people are starting to really know what they want.
“People are looking for better quality products, better cars, better food and life. They’re starting to appreciate it and want it. And there’s definitely a middle class developing. When I came here there were only two classes, rich and poor, and no middle class. You can see that has changed now with all the coffee shops developing around town.”
Auskhmer is the largest importer in Cambodia of Australian foods, mainly chilled meats and cheeses.
Originally from Adelaide, Roe grew up around the South Australian wine country. His grandfather was winemaker for Hardy’s Winery, the second-largest Australian winery in Australia. Roe’s father also worked for Hardy’s for many years.
While employed by an Australian beef company, he was sent to Indonesia to conduct marketing and feed lotting of cattle. Later, he set up Auskhmer in 2001.
One of the most sought-after beef brands he sells is Cape Grim, which comes from Tasmania. Topaz Restaurant in Phnom Penh has exclusivity on Cape Grim beef.
“At Topaz we work with them exclusively on Cape Grim, which is the exclusive brand. At Topaz, all the Australian beef is Cape Grim, and the lamb is also from us.”
Similarly, Raffles le Royal Hotel has exclusivity on Stockyard Beef from Queensland.
Raffles’ Executive Chef Steve Van Remortel wanted the brand and, according to Roe, “we managed to get it for him.”
“We work a lot with all the smaller restaurants and all the big hotels. Retail is a different sort of business and a different sort of game. We work quite closely with restaurants, and keeping up the service. With supermarkets once you get the products in, it’s a matter of supply and quality. With restaurants you see the chefs, work with them, and do wine dinners, so it’s a lot more hands on with hotels and restaurants.”
Roe is glad Australians have realised how important Asia is to their economy and says they need to do more.
“Australia has got to work more closely with Asia especially on the food side because there’s an endless opportunity for it. Australia has to market their products better and introduce new products into the market.”
Since he started in 2001, Roe says the market has been constantly growing.
“People are looking for better quality high-end products, and tending to go away from the cheaper stuff from years ago. We stay focused on building brands and not focusing on the price differences. The brand becomes more recognisable, so the competition doesn’t affect us much when we work like that.
Auskhmer imports 2,000 to 3,000 kilos of Greenham Beef per month, which also handles the Cape Grim brand.
“They understand the market in Cambodia is growing, and they are consistent. You buy their product and it’s always the same. We’ve got customers so dedicated that if we run out of stock, they won’t use beef for a week or so.”
Other brands include John Dee, which supplies Black Angus from Queensland, Stockyard Beef, also from Queensland and the Australian Lamb Company in Victoria.
Roe started his business flying in chilled meats, dairy products and vegetables. During the last ten years, Auskhmer’s portfolio has grown into a large portfolio of Australian wines.
Some the brands include the famous Penfold’s, Howard Park from Margaret River and Katnook Estate from Coonawara and Leconfield, all from South Australia as well as Trentham Estate of Victoria.
“We do a lot of reds and whites, sparkling wines and we work with all the main hotels and supermarkets including Lucky, Bayon and Pencil,” Roe said. “We do a lot with Lucky such as Australian burgers and meats.”
Auskhmer is also a supplier of wines for the Australian embassy.
“What I’ve learned over time is the need to have a lot of patience and understanding with the people, what they want, and the culture of how to deal in this environment. You can’t deal the same way as you do with western countries. You have to go out of your way a bit more than people in the west would think is normal to build a relationship, and I find once you build the relationship they become very loyal.”
One of Roe’s keys to success is being able to be contacted 24/7 by customers with special needs, like Chef Steven Van Remortel of Raffles Hotel who is an exclusive purchaser of Stockyard beef.
“My door is always open for customers, staff or anyone.”
Auskhmer employs about 50 people, and in addition to the new facilities in the Northbridge area for Phnom Penh, there are offices in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
“You are always learning every day, there’s always something new coming up, keeping on top of everything with the people.”
Auskhmer’s biggest market is imported chilled beef from Tasmania, Roe says.
“We have the whole range from mid-priced through to Wagu beef, and a whole range from Black Angus through to the Wagu. The beef is already vacuum-packed and aged. We also bring young lamb and veal from Victoria.
A lot of the beef comes in by sea, which is a much lower shipping price than by air. Roe says the meat has more time to age at sea and tastes better as a result.
“By having it three or four weeks shipping its much better aged so it eats a lot better,” he said.
As for seafood, Roe says it is very price-sensitive and the big market is salmon.
“Norwegian salmon is cheaper because it is mass-produced.”
Occasionally Auskhmer brings in yabbies on special requests or Morten Bay bugs, “depending on what the chefs are looking for.”
Kangaroo from New South Wales is also imported to Cambodia.
Roe serves on the Australian Business Association Cambodia board and has been active in the association for 11 years.
“The ABAC is becoming more and more active as more businesses are coming in.”
In addition to the fresh foods and wines, Auskhmer imports retail dry goods from Australia including olives, oils, vinegars and muesli.
The biggest problem in Cambodia, Roe says, is inconsistent electricity, especially for an importer of chilled products.
“Electricity is probably the biggest deterrent. It is so expensive and erratic. That’s one of the biggest problems.”
Another regular challenge is fluctuating exchange rates.
“It has been hard to keep Australian products competitive with the exchange rates over the last few years,” Roe said.
Especially in the fresh foods business, customer unpredictability can be a cause for increased stress.
“When you’re dealing with fresh products in a market like this it is the unpredictability of the customers and you don’t know what they’ll want from one week to the next, and if you have too much and don’t use it, you’ll end up with a lot of spoilage. It’s a difficult business juggling fresh produce. The stuff is very perishable. We do bring by air for chefs special veggies and fruits that you can’t get easily.”
He’s happy Sofitel got a new Australian executive chef (see page 6).
“Since he started at Sofitel, Craig Napper has been looking at products. He wants to make his mark and I think he will. In the market here we don’t get many Australian chefs and it’s nice to see an Aussie come into that hotel.”
Roe says about 60 percent of Auskhmer’s imports to Cambodia are from Australia.
“In general Australia is doing a pretty good job in Cambodia. I’d like to see more support in Cambodia for Australian businesses that are importing. You don’t get as much support as bigger markets like Singapore and
Hong Kong. We are sort of left to do it ourselves. Cambodia is a growing market and it’s about time they got out and started to support it more. It’s going to be a growing market for the next ten years.”
Roe regards staff training as crucial, not only for his business, but for Cambodia in general.
“On the wine side, we’ve got a team of young Khmer people and we’re teaching them about wines, regions, and wine is quite specific. I spend time training our young Khmers so when they go and talk to customers such as foreigners, they can feel comfortable. The foreigners appreciate that these young guys are confident to discuss about wines or meats or dairy or seafood.”
He’s got a hands-on approach when it comes to visiting customers.
“I think it’s good to visit the regular customers and give the sales staff confidence so the owners know I’m there to help them if they need any products. Customer service is key to our business. The key is training up the young kids to run the business. They can work their way up through the business.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]