After starting out with nothing in the early ’90s and later selling advertising for the marketing department of a Khmer-language newspaper, by 1997 Cheng Kheng was managing director of Cambodia Property Ltd (CPL). Unfortunately, business was bad, with factional fighting on the streets of Phnom Penh scaring investors away.
Operating out of one of Phnom Penh’s first restored colonial buildings (now Open Wine on Street 19) in partnership with an American, who was also facing difficulties with his overseas real estate business due to the Asian Financial Crisis, by 1998 Kheng was himself in trouble.
“In that year, I only managed to sell one property,” Kheng says. “I had to borrow $15,000 from my family, and I promised myself that if I failed in business this time, I would give up and become a monk.”
With just $10 left to his name, he says, one day someone walked into his office and specifically asked the reception staff for him.
“I thought he was a potential client, but he wasn’t. He was a fortune-teller,” Kheng recalls.
“He said he had good news for me, but only if I paid him $50 to tell my fortune. I told him I didn’t have the money, but I figured I had nothing to lose, so I said I’d give him the last of my money, which was the $10 in my top pocket.”
The fortune-teller agreed, Kheng recounts, “and he told me my fortunes were about to change, that I would become rich, and would soon be able to trade in my old car for a new one, because my company was about to start growing in size”.
“Sure enough, just a few days later, in early 1999, I suddenly did a big deal on a land sale, and the company earned $50,000 in commission.
“From then on, business got better and better, we increasingly came into contact with rich and famous people, earning me the title of okna.”
Now, at the age of 42 and years after his sudden shift in fortunes, Kheng has gone from a man with nothing to a man with a vision.
His aim is to establish common standards of ethics throughout the entire Cambodian real estate market, and also – in a first for the Kingdom – to establish three- to six-month training courses for young people in the evaluation of properties and ethical real estate practices.
In 2008, CPL joined the Cambodia Valuers and Estate Agents Association (CVA), which was founded by Sung Bonna, director of the Bonna Realty Group, in partnership with the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Then, in 2011, CVA partnered with VPC Asia Pacific, which is a broad association of real estate companies from seven Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, India and Cambodia. Headquartered in Singapore, VPC Asia Pacific has some 40 offices and more than 400 staff.
Already managing director of the Cambodian arm of VPC Pacific, in 2013 Kheng was elected president of CVA, putting him in the perfect position to realise his vision of establishing common codes of ethical practice and training for young property agents and evaluators.
“We think, in the early stages, we can handle up to 200 to 300 students,” he says. “But ultimately we see room for as many as 6,000 trained property experts in the market.”
According to Kheng, the first classes should be under way within two or three months.
“We’ve been in discussions with universities and other educational institutes about classrooms, and we’ve also entered into discussions with professors in the field of marketing,” Kheng says.
Ideally, he adds, the courses will include expert input from senior members of VPC Asia. But he adds that the chief obstacle to such a move at present is a shortage of funding to bring in consultants from more advanced markets such as Singapore and
Thailand – particularly when it comes to overseeing courses that could last as long as six months. Nevertheless, Kheng says he is confident that, as the momentum of the training courses grows in tandem with Cambodia’s booming property market, financing will ultimately not be a problem.
A major part of his business – which covers everything in the real estate business, from buying and selling of premium properties to small-scale rentals – is evaluations, setting new standards that have won the trust of local banks.
“We average around 250 property evaluations per month,” he says, adding that some months it can be more than 300.
Today, Kheng’s core business, CPL, has grown to 80 staff from the two or three people he worked with back in the dark days of Phnom Penh’s property market. But his work involves far more than buying and selling properties, and evaluating them.
“I want to establish industry standards that emphasise fairness, so we can win trust and make business for everybody easier,” Kheng says.