Home / Management Cambodia / Working Cambodia

The Only Way is Up

As the local business landscape expands to horizons not seen before, opportunities are arising at every turn. Two managers from very different walks of life told Management Insider how they have risen from the bottom to the very top of their field thanks to attributes that you can’t learn in a classroom: Persistence and passion.


Long Sopheak
Inside Topaz Restaurant’s dimly lit dining area, service staff are smoothing tablecloths and laying plates, preparing for the lunchtime service. Amongst them sits Long Sopheak, reserved but smiling in her dark suit. Not too long ago she was part of the team behind her, before rising up through the ranks to become restaurant manager at an impressive speed.

As a young teenager, Sopheak’s working environment looked very different. 20 years ago, she was a young high school dropout, serving desserts from a tray along dusty Phnom Penh roadsides. But after getting a waitressing job in a small riverside restaurant aged 18, she was spotted by Arnaud Darc, owner of the Topaz and Malis Restaurants. Although Sopheak had no idea who he was, Darc was so impressed with her professional presence that he took her under his wing at Topaz, employing her to clear tables. Thirteen years after that humble beginning, Sopheak has reached the restaurant’s top position.

-Long Sopheak, Restaurant Manager, Topaz

Sopheak’s career is the dream of many that come from her difficult background. Like many other eldest children from large working class families, she entered the workforce early and unqualified. However, she has broken through to achieve the dream. So what is it that makes Sopheak special?

Lina Hak, Topaz’s general manager, believes that Sopheak’s success is due to how she “works from her heart, not from her head – she’s passionate about her job. When you ask her to do things, she not only does it, but goes beyond what we asked. We saw her potential right away.”

Sopheak says that good mentorship has been crucial to her success. “I’m ambitious, but I wasn’t always confident,” she says. “I’ve always had mentors that have been pushing me.” However, her dedication, curiosity and passion made her stand out far beyond everyone else. To gain skills she could not get at school or elsewhere, she often volunteered to help out in different sections of the restaurant during her free time.

And experience earned while working through the ranks of the job continues to be useful today, giving Sopheak an advantage over people who entered the business in higher positions. “I started here as a runner and then became a waitress, then a bartender, then a sommelier,” she says. “She understands everyone’s job very well,” adds Lina. “She knows the guidelines, the difficult parts of the jobs, and what mistakes others can make. She knows how people can cut corners, so she can catch out people who are not doing their best.”

When it comes to getting the best out of her team of 30, Sopheak prefers to engage in a versatile management style. “I’m hard and soft at the same time,” she says, explaining that she will push to get work done, but softens once the job is done. “I make sure to create a good atmosphere, and have work drinks and dinners with my staff.”

As a woman from a humble background, Sopheak has faced both class and gender-based discrimination. “Other staff members who I got promoted above talked badly about me and my past,” she says. “There are also obstacles with the male staff. Sometimes it’s hard to guide them or instruct them and they don’t like to take orders from me.” Despite the frustrating unfairness of these situations, Sopheak overcomes them by pulling out her “soft management” techniques. “I try to gently guide them, or subtly show them what to do through example,” she says.

Now 35, Sopheak is happy to serve as a role model for ambitious hard workers. She keeps a particular eye out for employees she believes have the potential that she possessed herself. “I now mentor other people. When I see a runner with potential I advise them, give them more work or train them. Some people have potential but don’t know how to use it, so it’s important to push them up,” she says.

Kem Sopheak
In 1999, after finishing her Bachelor’s Degree in marketing at the National University of Management, Kem Sopheak saw a job advertisement for a Total gasoline station manager. To her surprise, at the interview she was recommended by the network manager to work at the Total head office as the commercial secretary. Sopheak had vague hopes of one day becoming a PA for one of the managing directors, but this humble start turned out to be the beginning of a remarkable 16-year career with the gasoline giant that is far surpassing those dreams.

In less than a year, Kem had been promoted to network inspector, liaising between head office and the service station, and working with the marketing team training the service staff. Yet breaking into such a male- dominated field wasn’t always easy.

“I was the first ever woman to be promoted to network inspector,” she says. “I had to climb into the trucks to see the fuel and drive every day to the service stations, although people thought driving long distances and supervising men is not the habit of Cambodian women. 80% of the fuel pump attendants I supervised were men, and there were some who didn’t want to listen and thought I couldn’t do certain things.” But Sopheak calmly stood her ground. “I just pointed out the company’s international procedures and policies [on gender discrimination] and they knew they had to respect them,” she says.

After starting out managing just two stations, by the end of her 3-year term as a network inspector Sopheak ended up being responsible for eight stations – including Total’s biggest station in Phnom Penh. She was then promoted again in 2008 to become the head of the commercial and development department, focusing on commercial fuel sales and managing a team of five sales reps.

-Kem Sopheak, Lubricant Departement Vice President, Totale Gas Station

“It’s a very challenging job!” she says. “Day to day tasks include direct sales to customers, such as hotels and garment factories. There has been a decrease in fuel demand since Cambodia began developing and electricity became more widely used. We need to grow the business when the sector is down-trending. However the demand for fuel for transport and construction is increasing, which is compensating.”

Total has a culture of regularly restructuring and moving staff to different roles. In 2011 there was
a rotation and Sopheak changed to the specialty fuel department. Then in 2014, the departments restructured again to combine commercial and lubricant departments, which resulted in her becoming the department’s vice president.

“I like this restructuring culture,” she says, “you have a chance to develop yourself.” Indeed, it’s the versatility of her past experience to which Sopheak credits her success. “I always give support, share experiences to others, and never hide what my first job with Total was. I came from the very bottom of the company and

I learned many things. I’ve been in touch with many departments the whole time – human resources, training and marketing, bringing creative development ideas. I didn’t have to do lots of overtime, I just fulfilled my jobs and studied new things. I learned an open mind,” she says.

“Even if you are sales, you have to work with operations, finance and other departments. Then when you know everything in the company it’s easier to develop yourself to the next step. I always give encouragement to the team to do the job properly so they have the chance to be promoted. I tell them: Just try, and don’t be afraid.”

Text & Photographs by Eve Watling