ONE of the remarkable American-owned companies operating in Cambodia is Crown Worldwide Group, which has 250 offices in 55 countries with businesses in the global transportation of household goods and fine arts, information storage, high value warehousing, freight forwarding and third-party logistics.
Owner and founder Jim Thompson, an American based in Hong Kong who started the company in Japan in 1965, fell in love with Cambodia on a visit in 2007 and since then has donated to three major education projects in Cambodia: a US$34,000 school in Kampong Cham’s Phdao Chum village; the $20,000 Wat San Sam Kosal School, in Phnom Penh; and a new $52,000 library at Phnom Kravanh, in Pursat province.
Thompson, who is very proud of creating an atmosphere for his employees to achieve extraordinary results, took time to answer a few questions for The Phnom Penh Post in celebration of the fourth of July.
In Yokohama back in 1965, what was your situation? I understand you arrived with little money and a ticket home.
In 1958, I travelled to Japan to visit my parents for the summer. They were stationed at the Yokosuka naval base, and I'd just finished my first year of college (San Jose State).
In 1961, I visited them again for a few months, but my dad had retired from the navy and held a job with a transportat-ion company in Yokohama.
I was in college at the time, but those two trips made me feel I wanted to return to Japan and learn more about it.
When I graduated from coll-ege in 1962, I went into the US Air Force for a little while, then went to Japan in 1963. I took a job in Yokohama in the company my father worked for – by this time, he had returned to the US – but a year and a half later I was made redundant.
It was then that I decided to start a small company.
I had only $500 in savings and a ticket back to the US worth about $500. That was my start-up capital. I started very small, but somehow managed to keep business coming in. It was quite a struggle in the early years, but I was determined not to fail.
Where were you born, and how many brothers and sisters did you have? What was your father’s job?
I was born in New Jersey, and I have one sister. We grew up in a town called Bayonne, very close to New York City, which had 65,000 people when we were born and still has 65,000 people now. My father came from a very poor family, and his work was always around ships.
During the ’60s and ’70s, how did you grow the business? Was it mostly the moving business during those years? How did the records-management and global-mobility services come about? Are you proud of them?
Yes, we were almost exclusively a moving company in the ’60s and ’70s. In later years, I decided we should try to get into the records-management business and, after a few years of trying, we succeeded in getting that business going in Hong Kong and Singapore.
As our customer base grew, we developed this business in more of our locations and we’re now the third-largest in the world in records management. The No 1 and No 2 companies are publicly listed.
Global mobility services evolved in the ’90s, when big corporations began to outsource the settling-in facets of the relocation of their staff.
It was a natural extension of our moving service, and we simply learned what was required and developed the expertise to provide it. Now we have some accounts that use us for global mobility services, but not for moving services. We’re a solid player in this business on a global basis.
We have also diversified into fine-arts logistics and fashion logistics, and we store wine in Hong Kong.
You seem to be the company of choice for diplomats who take postings around the world. How did you get into that business, and why do embassies choose Crown to make those moves?
How were you able to create a relationship of trust with the British foreign office and the Commonwealth?
Our main advantage is that we operate our own offices in so many locations around the world. Embassies and consulates like the fact that they have a Crown office at both ends of the move. In fact, all multinational companies like this.
Maintaining a high level of service at all our branches around the world is vital, and we work hard at that. I might add that government work is often price-driven, so we have to be competitive to win it.
In the case of the British and Commonwealth office, we had to bid for this business and they based their choice on the lowest price. We won the contract about six years ago and it’s been extended a few times, which they have the option to do.
They granted us extensions because they told us our service was the best they’d ever experienced. As a result of this contract, we now handle all British diplomatic moves all over the world.
When did you first come to Cambodia, and what are your thoughts about Cambodia?
My first visit to Cambodia was in March, 2005. I went went with my wife as a tourist, and of course went to Angkor Wat. It was one of the few countries in Asia I hadn’t visited, and I was taken by what we experienced.
We then went to Phnom Penh, and I saw it as a tourist would, but we were able to soak up the Asian charm.
What are you most proud of about the company you’ve built?
I’ve been asked on a number of occasions when I speak to groups what I consider the highlight of my life.
I can tell you that, while I’m proud of the growth of the company, it’s not the size of the business or the sales volume that has been the highlight, but rather the fact that I’ve created an environment in which people from all over the world have joined my company and see just how good they are and how much they can achieve.
I’ve marvelled at their accomplishments. Some have university degrees and some have very little formal education, but many want success so badly that they really try harder to achieve – and they do amazing things.
Having created the environment through a company that has allowed them to show what they’re capable of is what I’m most proud of.
You’re the largest privately held moving and records storage management company in the world. Why have you kept it private?
I’ve kept my company private because I’m a firm believer in building my business for the long term.
Public companies are under pressure to report quarterly profits to keep pushing their share price higher. In doing that, they often make decis-ions that enhance the short-term picture but disregard the long-term well-being of the company. One example of this would be our steady investment in our own warehouses around the world.
Public-company investment analysts would probably view this as an undesirable use of the company’s funds, because the return is too slow. My view is that it builds the business on a solid asset base and protects us from fluctuating rents.
There are many other examples of the shortcomings of being public – and, of course, there are some advantages – but, on balance, I much prefer to keep the company private.
We operate our business with good governance and do all we can to meet the high standards that public companies must set in this area.
However, we are not subjected to the high costs involved in reporting our results each quarter and adhering to the strict regulations put on companies that decide to list on a stock exchange.
Also, public companies distribute a good part of their earnings to their shareholders each year, but I re-invest our earnings in the business.
How did you come up with the idea of a document-storage business? What kind of companies are interested in that, and why is it appealing to them?
The storage of business documents wasn’t a new idea from me. It was already big business in the US and other Western countries, but I can proudly say that we introduced it to Asia in the ’80s and it’s now a big business in this part of the world.
The reason there’s a need for it is that businesses accumulate a great deal of documents that the law requires them to keep for about seven years.
They don’t have the room to keep them in their offices, so they outsource the storage to companies like mine.