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FLYING HIGH


French-Cambodian businessman Thierry Tea was just 27 when, based in the Philippines, he became the youngest CEO of Airbus Helicopters Group. That was in 2007. Six years later, in 2013, Tea founded and became managing director of PhilJets Group, a merger of three companies that would come together to provide an elite chartered helicopter and jet service around ASEAN.

Now, through the launch of Agama Investments, a private equity firm, Tea has diversified his holdings, investing in a mango plantation in Kompong Speu and a vanilla plantation in Koh Kong. While still aiming to drive his aviation interests in the commercial and private sector, Tea’s primary focus has turned to Cambodian- made products that can be used domestically and exported, thus spurring investment into the country and reducing the reliance on raw materials from overseas. Also, through Jewelmer Joaillerie, Tea is giving the Cambodian market access to the world’s most luxurious Golden South Sea Pearls.

Tea spoke with Management Insider about his vision for sustainable investment and explained why now is the time to invest in Cambodia.

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What motivated you to open an investment firm in Cambodia?
As a Cambodian who grew up in France, I always wanted to come back to contribute to the country’s development. But it wasn’t until 2012 that I had a chance to survey the potential here. After I developed a network, I officially opened Agama Investments in 2014.

Which sectors and industries have the most potential?
Due to Cambodia’s strategic location, I believe it can become a regional player in agriculture. Real estate will continue to be a solid investment and, as purchasing power increases, retail should take off. I also expect to see developments in light manufacturing, IT and, of course, in tourism.

Where is your client base?
Basically, our main clients come from the network I have developed in Southeast Asia – especially Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. We also have some strong partners from Hong Kong and are in discussions with clients in France. Our company hopes to target not the short-term investors who want to utilise the cheap labour force, but those who are looking for long-term projects that develop the country.

How do you manage investors’ expectations?
This is difficult because most investors don’t understand the Cambodian market. For example, when talking about retail, I was dealing with a brand that wanted to launch 30 shops in Phnom Penh. That was just impossible. We have to do a lot of work researching to see if their projects are feasible.

Why is now the time for investors to enter Cambodia?
As investors, it is really hard to know when is the right time in a developing country. But because the economy is looking good, investors know there are opportunities. Also, the government is very open towards overseas investment. Compared to Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and definitely Myanmar, where the economy is not as free, it is a lot easier to open a business here. The population is better educated than they were five years ago. You have a new generation that will change the future. I tell investors that if they wait too long, they will miss out.

What are some of the challenges when investing in Cambodia?
Understanding the market and the rule of law, especially when it comes to the taxation system. Another thing is conducting due diligence because of the lack of transparency. It is important that investors spend a lot of time with a company to see how it operates and to develop trust.

Another challenge is to understand how business works. Unlike in Singapore or in the Philippines, or even the U.S. for that matter, you do not encounter a homogeneous group of businesses in Cambodia. On top of the locals, and the Chinese-, American- and French-Cambodians, there are Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and westerners all doing business here and they all have different ways of doing things. It is also important to understand the local customs because there are a lot of unwritten cultural rules.

What advice do you have for investors looking at Cambodia?
I advise investors that when you come to Cambodia, you have to invest in people. You have to commit to training and educating them. But one thing that is key is to adjust your mindset and have humility. I tell people that they have to think out of the box. For example, where we see risk that makes us afraid, Cambodians see opportunity.


Words and Photograph by Kali Kotoski