Climbimg the ladder

If ever a business could be described as “diversified”, it would be RMA Cambodia, the local branch of the Thai-based RMA Group.

Employing some 1,600 people, RMA Cambodia’s interests run from finance and leasing to heavy agricultural equipment and automotive sales (Ford, Jaguar, Range Rover) to the rapidly expanding market for fast food, including Dairy Queen, the Pizza Company, Costa Coffee and the recently announced Krispy Kreme donuts. Oh, and they own the FCC for good measure.

For many years, this sprawling company has been run by expats, most recently the genial Palestinian Rami Sharaf. But recently, a new breed of locals has risen to the top, and since December the CEO has been Ngorn Saing, a hardworking, confident and highly educated Cambodian.

Born in 1974, Saing is the first Cambodian to graduate from the General Management Program at the ultra-prestigious Harvard Business School in the U.S. Although modest about his achievements, it becomes clear talking to him that his steely determination and character have helped to bring him this far. Starting at RMA as an intern in 1996, it wasn’t long before a young Saing caught the attention of senior management, as he told Management Insider in a recent interview.

Impressing the Right People
In the mid ’90’s, many of the staff at RMA were Filipino, and when they went home for Christmas holidays they left a backlog of reports that management was waiting on. “So I asked if I could do them,” Saing says. The eager intern went ahead and completed the reports, surprising and impressing his boss. “He gave me a note saying that I would be welcome back at any time,” Saing says, laughing. “I’ve still got that small piece of paper.”

After graduating from the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, Saing moved to Bangkok to study at the Asian
Institute of Technology. In his spare time, he continued working for RMA. After completing his Master of International Business degree, he was transferred back to RMA Cambodia, where he was made assistant to the finance manager.

A Rapide Rise
“Then I worked my way up to being chief financial officer, and as I was very involved in operations I was made deputy country manager, and I handled both positions,” he says.

In mid-2013, Saing got possibly his biggest break, winning a place at Harvard. Not surprisingly, it was his dedication to his work that caused one powerful person to help him get in to one of the world’s most prestigious business programmes.

“Kevin Whitcraft, the owner of RMA, is a Harvard alumnus, and at Harvard they give priority to their alumni if they recommend someone,” he says. “There is a long list of people waiting to join the course, so they use that criteria to decide.” 

And so, with a reference from Whitcraft, Saing was in. Soon after arriving in Boston, it became apparent that the standard of teaching, and therefore the expectations on students, were far beyond what he had ever experienced.

A Shock to the System
“It was very hard. I thought at one point I was going blind I had to read so much,” Saing remembers, laughing again. “We had classes from 9 in the morning until 3 o’clock. And then I had to read from 3 until 7, then a quick dinner, then we’d have group discussions until 11, and then sleep. But I’d get up at 3 in the morning to read again…every day.”

Harvard Business School’s General Management Program is built for students who are already highly qualified, at around CFO level, so the classes are full of extremely motivated and experienced businesspeople. Saing says that anyone who goes to study abroad should be prepared for vastly different teaching methods to what they are used to.

“They give you a lot of case studies; you have to read them all by yourself, and then they expand that into a living group of seven to 10 people who study together,” he says. “You learn from your roommates and then you come to the class and there is lots of discussion…and everyone has great ideas.” Saing says the single most important thing he learned at Harvard “ was to think differently. And what I try to instil in our management is to move in that direction.”

Tough Management Is Good Management
He says to be a successful manager, you will need to make tough decisions while trying to keep a balance between pleasing shareholders and employees. In each case, he says, you must clearly identify your priorities before proceeding.

“As a manager you have to take a side,” he says. “Sometimes you might upset your shareholders a bit, and sometimes the employees. You have to look at the core values of your business – and then decide.”

Saing is married with two teenage sons, and in his free time loves to ride his bicycle around the outskirts of Phnom Penh in the early morning, which he says gives him the energy to face the challenges of the day. RMA Cambodia, he says, is “pretty successful. But if I look at the market, we should be doing much better than we’re doing. The reason is that we have to move people out of their comfort zones, and inspire them to do more than they do now. To get them to think outside the box. To do more, think more.”

The secret to success is not a secret, he says. It lies in the basic principles of accountability, communication and confidence. If
you have a problem, talk about it. If you make a mistake, take responsibility. And when facing pressure, “always take the attitude that any problem can be dealt with.”

Tep Virak, a rising star following in the footsteps of Saing, is one of the RMA CEO’s most trusted lieutenants. He currently heads the company’s Express Food Group, which operates all of RMA Cambodia’s food franchises. Like Saing, he is absurdly well qualified, with two degrees from Royal University of Phnom Penh – in economics and business administration – a master’s from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, a certificate in leadership from the East West Center in Hawaii and time at business schools in Paris and Honolulu.

Global Business, Global Thinking
Like his boss, Virak believes that it is crucially important for Cambodians with international aspirations to go and study abroad. “The way of studying is different. It’s not only the facilities themselves; the materials, the instructors, everything is good,” he says. “But at the same time, being exposed to students from other parts of the world helps us to adapt and understand other cultures and to try to learn different ways of working and thinking.”

The knowledge that one person gains while studying abroad can also have indirect benefits for a company, when the lessons are shared with colleagues. Virak says that international management techniques learned by him and others have trickled down through the company, making RMA’s staff some of the best trained in the country – a fact that other businesses have picked up on.

When Aeon Mall opened last year, Virak says, a number of lower-level RMA staff were offered – and accepted – higher positions with businesses operating there. “A store manager for us here, after they’ve had a few years training, they get offered positions as operations managers or as area managers with double the pay,” he says. “We think sometimes we train people for other companies.”

Chea Lyna is yet another emerging manager at RMA with an extensive overseas education: A two-year Master of International Business from the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

A Technical Skills Shortage
While agreeing with Saing and Virak about the benefits of studying abroad, Lyna, who is currently RMA’s group financial analyst, says that the root of the technical skill-shortage should also be addressed in Cambodia.

Many firms come here to make the most of the perceived favourable business conditions – lower costs, lower taxes, surplus of labour – which are generally satisfied, but the skill shortage means they then must look overseas for specialists. But as foreigners command greater salaries, a firm’s budget can then become unbalanced, making it less competitive in some areas.

“So, while the firms recruit and train local workers in technical and management skills, the host government could also play a critical role by enhancing technical and vocational training programmes,” she suggests.

Mike Quin is one of the few foreigners remaining at RMA, running the company’s infrastructure division. He agrees that the biggest problem facing growing firms in Cambodia is finding candidates with the required skill sets to fill specialist positions.

“The challenge is people. If we have to employ an after-sales manager, they should have good technical skills and reasonably good management skills,” he gives as an example. “And it’s extremely difficult to get that person with both of those skills; he’ll either have technical skills or management skills, but not both.”

Locals Over Expats
Quin is blunt about the simplest solution. “The easiest way to solve that problem would be to go and employ more expats,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m an expat, and we don’t come cheaply, so you have to weigh up whether it’s worth employing an expat in a critical position.”

The long-term, sustainable solution, however, is to invest heavily in the brightest local talent on the market. “You have to get the best people that are available and look at their weaknesses and try and train them and improve them, and it’s all about improving the skill levels of the Cambodian people,” Quin says.

Saing, the CEO, says that his education at Harvard and elsewhere had taught him the importance of fostering positive attitudes and having a motivated staff. As CEO, he makes the big decisions at the company, but getting those who work for him to follow his leadership and make extra efforts are what sets RMA apart from the rest.

“The most important things – strategy, structure, process – I try to put into place, but in the end, it’s about the people, and the attitude of the people,” he says. “From working hard, you get 90%. If you have the right attitude and work hard, then you can get 100%.”


Words by Rupert Wincehster | Photograph by Antoine Raab