AS A youngster growing up in a remote part of Prey Veng province, Sorn Seap and his family lived off the land, eking out an existence by growing rice.
Big things were expected of him as the eldest child, and he sometimes dreamed of becoming a teacher, or even a doctor. While he loved nature and the outdoors, he also dreamed of an easier life – although he knew he’d have to work hard to achieve it.
Thirty years later, Seap is still inextricably linked to the land – not as a farmer, but as the founding director of Key Real Estate, one of the biggest property companies in the Kingdom.
“It may sound a bit funny because I didn’t even know what real estate was for the first two decades of my life,” Seap says. “When I was young and inexperienced, I only wanted a good, comfortable life.”
It was a high school sweetheart that got Seap more focused on his future. While romance in school is commonly viewed as a huge distraction to education by Cambodian parents, Seap’s relationship encouraged him to dream big.
“Whoever I am and what I have today is the fruit of my hard work and active learning, but everything began when I started dating a girl who would become my wife in high school,” he said.
“I wanted to have a family and I wanted to give them a great life so I started to write my plans in a notebook and strictly followed them. “I committed to work hard in my studies, become multilingual, work to earn lots of money, take my family to visit other countries and, most importantly, have a place to call home.”
After finishing high school Seap signed up for an undergraduate program at the National University of Management (NUM), where his interest in real estate first blossomed.
“I did an assignment about a real estate company in the US, which evolved from a startup with a few hundred dollars of capital to a corporation with assets worth millions,” he said. “It was how I discovered businesses around the world revolve around real estate, that about two-thirds of a country’s total wealth lies with its land and property.
“Beginning with this one simple assignment, I committed to become fully involved in the sector and one day to have my own real estate company.”
Seap realised that, in order to make his dream come true, he needed to build his skills and abilities outside the classroom.
He volunteered as a teacher for a local humanitarian NGO for two years just to practise his public speaking, and after his graduation in 2005 took a job paying just $120 a month at a real estate startup founded by a French-Cambodian.
“I told myself not to care about money at that time,” Seap said. “If I had, no dream would have been possible.”
Although the business folded after six months, Seap learnt much from the experience. He spent the next decade in a variety of real estate jobs – as a manager of an apartment building, a salesman and, finally, helping Knight Frank establish its business in Cambodia.
In 2010, he fulfilled his dream by starting his own company – Key Real Estate. Things got off to a rocky start, however.
When it first started, Key Real Estate had three staff – including the founder – working from a a one-room office and struggling to find clients.
In the first six months Seap lost his savings and money he had borrowed from his parents, but was able to find partners who believed in a business plan that had been seven years in the making.
After a year, the company turned a profit, and eight years later the company has 45 employees and three buildings in the capital – as well as offices in Sihanoukville and Battambang.
Key Real Estate provides the usual property management, project sales and marketing services, but the area it specialises in is valuation.
“Property valuation is a requirement when the banks or other financial institutions have to decide whether they should accept a property as collateral, and it is also needed for many other purposes such as investment,” Seap said.
“It has to be done very carefully through comparison, investment, cost and profit procedures, each of which is important in its own way.”
Seap said the key of his company’s success is the prioritising human capital to ensure the accuracy of the information and data collected.
“I and others in the management team train our young employees very hard and encourage our employees to learn and share their ideas,” Seap said.
“It sounds very simple but we want them to be better than us. Only well-trained employees can collect reliable and credible data and information and use them to analyse the value of properties.
“I want investors in the country to call us whenever they want to know how much land or property is worth.”