Kith Meng is building an empire in
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
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."