Popular former Bangkok resident explains why he is happy to have moved to Phnom Penh
Name: Peter Brongers.
Born: in Groningen, The Netherlands.
First family and today: Since many years with my lovely wife Palida Janthewee and our two Dobermann dogs.
Education: MBA, ME.
Languages: Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish, Thai, Khmer.
Employment background, including Thailand:
I started my career at Fokker Aircraft in The Netherlands. The company went bankrupt and I moved to Heidelberg Printing Presses as corporate Planner. I came to Thailand in 1995 initially as Managing Director of Euromill Engineering, then moved to Thai Scandic Steel. Before I moved to Cambodia, I was the CFO of Topaz Inc, the last Thai company listed on the AMEX.
I came to Cambodia to build my own beer brewery, Kingdom Breweries. It came out of some brainstorming about opportunities in the region with my friends Patrick Davenport and Jeremy King. We found an American private equity fund prepared to put most of the money in. We were a couple of years too early with bringing a high-end boutique beer to the market. We were also limited in our investment.
In the end we were too big and expensive for a boutique brewery and too small to compete with the big boys – even though in the first year we passed Tiger and Heineken in number of cases sold in Phnom Penh. Ultimately it was not sustainable. I then moved to the Royal Group as Senior VP and became the Managing Director of its subsidiary BMW Cambodia and Executive Director of KFC Cambodia.
In addition I am the president of the Dutch Cambodia Chamber of Commerce and the Vice President of the Cambodian Tourism Federation. I am also heading the Cambodian Chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. Until recently I was the President of the Cambodian Automotive Federation.
Where do you live, and what is it like?
For the past eight years we have lived in a beautiful villa close to the so-called Russian market. When we moved there the whole street was quiet, only houses, not one car parked outside at night. Now only two houses are left in the street, the rest have been turned into apartments, a university and a couple of hotels. Not quiet anymore!
How long have you lived in Cambodia?
We moved to Cambodia in 2008. I have been coming here since 1994, initially to sponsor the construction of the Don Bosco school. It was the first vocational school in Cambodia, probably the first real school after the Khmer Rouge.
As Euromill we donated the steel structures. When the doors opened for the first semester there were some 3,000 kids queuing up to get one of the 300 available places. Now there are 14 Don Bosco schools over the country. Over the years my Rotary Club Bangkok South did many projects in Cambodia and we came over quite a few times to assist.
What’s keeping you in Cambodia?
There are a lot of opportunities in Cambodia. The infrastructure, industry as well as social structure were all destroyed during the Khmer Rouge and it has taken decades to rebuild. Before the KR there was quite a lot of industry, now even milk is imported either from Vietnam or from Thailand. With a population of around 16 million there is still a lot to be done.
The community in Phnom Penh is, of course, much smaller than in Bangkok. After so many years you get to know a lot of
people. Real friends - I would say about the same. But then, my friends in Thailand and I go much longer back, of course.
How do you spend your spare time in PP?
Spending quality time with family, friends, playing golf, etc.
Are Cambodians as welcoming and friendly as the Thais?
I would say Cambodians are as friendly as the Thais used to be (and still are if you go up country). It also seems that more Cambodians speak better English, which gives them more confidence in dealing with foreigners and welcoming them.
How is the bureaucracy in Cambodia?
The red tape is Cambodia is far less complicated than in Thailand. It is very easy to get a one-year visa although officially you need a work permit for that. Work permits are also much easier to get in Cambodia. Actually, there is no comparison as Thailand seems to be getting more and more difficult.
Are there many business opportunities for SMEs?
Many, there is a market for everything. But with more and more people starting up SMEs the market is competitive, so know what you do, prepare a good business plan and prepare for some disappointments in the beginning.
What kinds of businesses do you suggest?
Food and beverage is doing very well.
Chinese investment seems to have a major impact on Cambodia in several ways. Has it been beneficial?
Most of the Chinese investment is in gaming and related infrastructure. Chinese money is used to buy Chinese materials for Chinese hotels and facilities that are built by Chinese for Chinese customers. That said, of course some of the money flows into the Cambodian economy. Recently the government started to push back on zero-dollar tourism.
Do you see many Thai companies investing in Cambodia?
Yes, more and more. It took me four years to convince Major Cineplex to come to Cambodia. But since arriving here five years ago, they never regretted it and made their investment back in less than a year. In their wake came a large influx of Thai companies. Currently many Thai companies are eying Cambodia as they appreciate the opportunities here, just over the border.
Absolutely, especially as reduction of import taxes improves trade over the border.
Do you visit other provinces in Cambodia?
Most of them. My favorites are the coastal provinces. The islands and the beaches are beautiful. You can still find pristine beaches and waterways that are harder to find in Thailand.
Is the government doing a good job?
Overall, how does Cambodia compare to Thailand?
For us as foreigners looking at both countries the people are very similar in religion, family values, culture. Most Thais are not even aware of this (or don’t want to be), but much of the Thai culture is Khmer in origin, even the Thai classical dance has its origin with the apsara dancers in Angkor wat. From a cost point of view, I think that living in Thailand is cheaper. Cambodia has a dollar economy and that creates higher prices. The only thing cheaper in Cambodia is wine.
Did you ever think as a young man that you’d end up in SE Asia?
Who or what do you miss about Thailand?
Good roads, amazing restaurants (some of the best Italian restaurants I found in Bangkok, my favorite is still Gianni), culture in the form of music, opera, and ballet, things we almost don’t have here in Cambodia. And of course, medical facilities - Thailand has some of the best in the world, incomparable to Cambodia.
What do people who live in Thailand not fully appreciate about Cambodia?
The openness and friendliness of the people. They probably are like Thais were 20 years ago. Also, in Thailand it is very unusual to be invited by Thais to their home, even those you know well. This is a bit different in Cambodia.
What’s the best part of your job?
The risks that go with freedom.
What are your favorite restaurants in Phnom Penh and Bangkok?
Phnom Penh: Topaz, The Déli, La Residence, Khema, Open Wine Bangkok: Gianni, Khin Lom Chom Saphan, Bourbon Street, Normandie Grill, Eat Me, Rossano’s and many more.
Most interesting person you’ve ever met in SE Asia?
Prof. Dr Tasman Smith.
Most boring or irritating?
None that I can think of, maybe DC (he knows who he is).
Beer or wine? Wine.
Thai or Cambodian cuisine?
Big overlap with these two, but Thai for me.
French or Italian?
Favorite getaway destination?
At some stage we will go back to Thailand. All said the quality of life is better and everything is here. But before that happens we will remain in Cambodia and enjoy the country. I would also be happy to assist any company that wants to enter the Cambodian market.