Ann Sothida has come a long way, from a garment factory worker earning $50 a month to the country director of a multinational Fortune 500 real estate firm.
From her plush office on the 9th floor of Phnom Penh Tower, Ann Sothida has a view up Monivong Boulevard to the gleaming steel and glass towers that mark the capital’s most expensive crop of commercial real estate. But it’s the plastic green netting that catches her eye. It’s everywhere.
“The city is covered in green-netted buildings,” she says. “There are 150 high-rise buildings under construction, which is a major change for Phnom Penh compared to when I first joined the property sector in 2010.”
The capital’s transformation is as remarkable as her own.
At 36, Sothida heads Cambodia country operations for CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services and investment firms. The US-based company, with 450 offices and 75,000 employees worldwide, handled over 85,000 real estate transactions last year, executing over $126 billion in sales.
CBRE’s footprint in the Asia-Pacific region continues to grow, and the region now accounts for about 12 percent of its annual $14.2 billion revenue.
Here in Cambodia, Sothida and her staff handle sales and management for some of the capital’s swankiest commercial and residential addresses, including Phnom Penh Tower, Maline, Embassy Residences, Keystone Office Tower, Diamond Twin Tower and Exchange Square Tower.
It is an impressive appointment for a woman coming from humble beginnings, and a journey she attributes to perseverance and a focus on continual skills improvement.
The youngest of three children born to a mid-level government official and his wife, Sothida was raised in Chbar Ampov on the outskirts of the capital, an area she says was flood-prone agricultural land until 10 years ago but is now flush with townhouses.
Despite their modest means, Sothida’s parents prioritised education for their children. But with only a few years separating her and her two brothers, they struggled to afford the costs of university.
“It’s not easy for a family where the breadwinner is a government official and has to support three children pursuing university degrees at the same time,” she says.
After completing her high school diploma in 1998 Sothida enrolled in vocational training courses for administration, computers and English – though it would be years before she would have a chance to apply these skills.
She landed her first job at a garment factory a few months later, working as a finishing clerk on a production line for just $50 a month. It was a gruelling schedule, waking up at 4 am and commuting 10 kilometres on an old Chaly moped each day to start her eight-hour shift at 6am.
“I was never late,” she recalls, “and I never left early either as I had to make the transition to my colleagues who worked in the shift after mine, which meant staying on until 4 pm or 5 pm.”
After working at the factory for about a year Sothida had saved enough money to resume her studies. Then 18, she enrolled in the National University of Management to pursue a degree in accounting, attending courses each night after her factory shift ended – a routine she would maintain for over five years.
After graduating with bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2005, Sothida found work as an accountant for a local logistics firm. Newly married and with her first child, the office job afforded her a chance to apply her accounting skills and to spend more time with her family.
Accounting came natural to Sothida, who always excelled at sciences and mathematics, and describes accounting as “an innate skill”. And the company seemed to notice too, promoting her in quick succession.
But eager to improve her skills, she enrolled in an ACCA program in CamEd in 2008. It was while completing this international accounting degree that she saw CBRE Cambodia advertising a vacancy for an accountant.
“I was very interested because CBRE is an international company and has many branches around the world,” she said.
But CBRE Cambodia’s lone opening also attracted dozens of highly qualified candidates, and Sothida admits she was a bit surprised to learn that the company selected her for the position.
When she first joined the company in 2010, CBRE Cambodia was a small operation with just three staff: one country head, one property manager, and her – the only Cambodian – as an accountant. But with Cambodia’s real estate market heating up and the first Grade A properties coming online, more staff were added to handle property valuation, sales and management.
Within three months, she was promoted to office manager. Two years later she became the associate director. Both positions allowed her to leverage her acumen for accounting, which she says has proven an invaluable skill for both property valuation and business development.
In 2015, Sothida received word from the board of directors that she had been appointed as the director of CBRE Cambodia – the first time ever for a Cambodian to hold the prestigious title.
She now manages a staff of nearly 50, including seven foreigners – with the local market’s growth fuelling the company’s plan to add a dozen more staff by year’s end.
“We are aggressive in property management services since this is the core part to operating property,” she explains. “Developers need a quality firm or team to run their building smoothly.”
It is a position she is proud of, and one that makes her one of the most influential figures in the Kingdom’s property sector. And it also connects her to the forces at work beneath the green-meshed buildings she sees from her office that are transforming Cambodia’s skyline.