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Entrepreneurs Find Chances in New Economy

A Cambodian maxim holds that, "If you want to be rich, trade in rice; if you want to be poor, trade in old cars." But in Cambodia's current economic climate, that isn't exactly true. Entrepreneurs have found openings in the expanding economy, founding sound businesses with little start-up or experience.

Soeng Bunna is among them. An orphan from Kampong Speu province whose parents were executed by the Khmer Rouge, the 33-year-old businessman started his Bunna Realty Group in 1999 with $250, but has seen it grow to a staff of 100 people working across most of the provinces.

He lived in pagodas and with friends in Phnom Penh following the war, and after a job as a cook at Lucky Burger, he began driving around on an "old, cheap motorcycle," he said in a recent interview, passing out contact details, trying to convince people he could find them places to rent or buy.

"I made copies of my phone number, covered them in plastic, and stuck them to public walls or on someone's door, or the trunk of coconut and mango trees on side streets," he said.

Now his business, a yellow-painted building on Street 51, sustains him and his wife and three children. The yellow represents power, success and luck, he said.

"I believed in God and angels to judge my fate," he said. "My wife and I had only $80 after marriage." He chuckled. "Sometimes we had only 10,000 riel."

Kang Chandararoth, an economist and head of the Cambodia Institute for Study and Development, said that successful entrepreneurs have several qualities in common: good thought, an awareness of areas where the economy is growing, and the growth of the economy itself.

"Trade in rice" no longer applies, he said, as small-business owners can quickly make money, especially in buying land or trading in real estate.

Those aren't the only ways to build a successful business, however.

Another entrepreneur, Leng Soklay, 51, supports her five children and husband with a clothing manufacturing company that has, like Soeung Bunna's business, thrived in the current economic environment.

She built her business with a $1,600 loan from Acleda Bank in 1993 and two sewing machines, growing until she had repaid the loan and eventually employed 20 workers. Her small factory puts out 200 items of clothing per day, and she recently estimated her assets at around $400,000.

"I think it is partly because of merit and my luck from the past," she said. "It is unbelievable that I can be like this now. A lot of people made businesses too but they didn't have luck."