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Kith Meng

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Kith Meng is building an empire in Cambodia

Kith Meng operates hotels to telecoms and television, banking, insurance, even education in Cambodia.

Kith quote about Cambodia: "Before, people used to think of this as a place of war and instability. But now we are part of the global economy, and everyone is coming."

When they arrive, many have no choice but to court Kith, who, more than any of the country's other tycoons, stands as the rugged role model for wheelers and dealers in this anything-goes, frontier economy. "He's a real rags to riches story," says Dean Cleland, chief executive of ANZ Royal.

New high-rises are rapidly reshaping a city skyline still dominated by a 15-story Intercontinental Hotel. But 40-story office, commercial and residential towers are on the rise. Just to trump them, Kith vows to build one 45 floors high. Then came the announcement last month that the 52-story International Finance Tower had gotten approval. Kith will surely adjust his sights higher.

"He's not an entrepreneur in the traditional sense of creating new businesses," notes one close friend. "What he does is go out and get the business that Cambodia needs. He brought in mobile phones, television, banking, insurance. He's the right guy at the right time."

Take ATMs. When ANZ opened in late 2005, there were hardly any in Cambodia. "We wanted to bring in 25," Cleland recalls. Kith wanted 100. "We ended the year with 52, which seemed a fair compromise," Cleland says. The number quickly topped 90 and will surpass Kith's goal any day.

ANZ may know banking, but Kith has the Midas touch in Cambodia. And he clearly stands apart from both the old money--made mainly in mining, logging and smuggling in the 1980s and 1990s--and the new entrepreneurs starting restaurants and tourism businesses. The older tycoons tend to be reclusive and tied by blood or marriage to the political leaders. In contrast the brash Kith is only 39, unmarried and linked to nothing but the pursuit of profit. Many call him the new face of Cambodian capitalism.

Nobody would have sized him up as such in the early 1990s, when he returned to Cambodia from Australia. He grew up there, just another skinny, shell-shocked refugee kid who had managed to escape the Khmer Rouge; about a quarter of the country's population perished during its brutal reign of terror in the 1970s.

Kith was the youngest son of Kith Peng Ike, among the many landlords and merchants of Chinese heritage who were an early target of the Khmer Rouge. Kith watched both his parents starve to death and often refers to his family's suffering but rarely gives details. After Vietnam toppled the Khmer Rouge, he made his way to Phnom Penh in 1980, then fled with a sister in 1981 to a Thai refugee camp. They immigrated to Australia, settling in Canberra.

Kith Meng Holds a University Degree.

These were the defining years of young adolescence for Kith. Many say his personal history explains his "go-for-the-throat" business style. "He is ruthless," concedes one close friend, "but Cambodia is a ruthless place. And you have to remember where he comes from. It made him a closer. He doesn't mince around."

The reason he avoids discussing his Australian upbringing, meanwhile, is because of bad memories, says one member of his inner circle. "He suffered from horrible racism," he says. "I remember one time he was telling me about taking a cricket bat to school, and it wasn't for sport. It was for protection."

Kith, for his part, says that what sets him apart from others in Cambodia's new economy is his work ethic. He describes workdays that start at dawn, ending long after dark. Only recently have friends persuaded him to devote time to short workouts; he likes the treadmill, perhaps because he can still field calls. "I remember the first time I told him I was going on annual leave," recalls Cleland. "He said, 'Why?' He never takes a holiday. He told me he couldn't imagine anything worse. He just loves to work."

Kith Meng returned to Cambodia in 1991, following his eldest brother, Sophan Kith, who had resurrected the family business, then called Royal Cambodia Co.

Dropping his towel, Kith sits at a table on the lawn of his Cambodiana Hotel and begins discussing deals with potential investors from Thailand and America. Forget complicated business plans. "I know how to make money," he says. "That's why people do business with me."

 

 

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