Beating the odds in Cambodia

Successful businessman in Cambodia: to most people that sentence would be a contradiction of terms as Cambodia has just been voted one of the worst countries to do business in, but 34 year old Kim Gjemmestad is managing just fine. 11 years of hard work in Cambodia has made the Norwegian very successful publishing Yellow Pages and developing IT solutions for the Yellow Pages Industry world wide.
         Today he employs 60 people. The headquarters of his blooming business is the Interquess building located on 125 Street, a bumpy dirt road just 50 meters off the main streets in central Phnom Penh. 
         “When I was younger I wanted to be busy all the time. Wear a neck tie and have three cell phones as I thought those were signs of doing well in business,“ the Norwegian says.
         Kim Gjemmestad is doing well in business, but you do not see three cell phones or a neck tie anywhere in his office. He is wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt as he went to work by bicycle this morning.
         “I do indeed work intense with a lot of overtime a couple of months a year, but I have changed. I have been in a spiritual pursuit for years and I really do appreciate the calm and happy life I have here. I do half my work from home in a room that is more like a sanctuary than anything else, there is no stress and a lot of freedom,” Kim Gjemmestad says sitting across an armchair in his office.
         Kim Gjemmestad, having a Norwegian mother and a Danish father, was born in Denmark and lived there till he was five, before moving to Tønsberg in Norway, where he stayed till he was 18. He graduated as a chef and won a scholarship to continue studying abroad, but worked a year in London at different London hotels, before enrolling at the International Hospitality Management School in Brig, Switzerland for almost two years, spending three months at King David Hotel in Jerusalem as part of his training. 
         In Switzerland a teacher at the school was teaching masters degree in business administration and had a student writing a thesis, using a Thai tour operator offering tours to Cambodia as a case study. 
         As a freshman Kim Gjemmestad was allowed to observe the classes and that made him interested in Cambodia. In 1992 and 1993 he studied hotel management in USA at the University of Massachusetts. He went to Thailand early 1994, joining the travel agency used as case study owned by the father of his Taiwanese girlfriend from the Swiss school. The travel agency arranged trips to Cambodia and Kim Gjemmestad visited the country frequently. He decided to move to Cambodia in 1994, as he was offered partnership with a local tour operator. He worked there for a year before meeting a British guy, Greg, in 1995 and that was important to the Norwegian’s career.
         Greg and Kim Gjemmestad wanted to do hotel brochures and a 3D Phnom Penh map. They soon got a lot of advertisers, but then trouble started.
         “Greg was riding a motorcycle outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, when he got shot through the arm. Greg had to go to England for an operation and never returned. That left me stuck with all the computer work and I had to start learning about computers which meant that the map and $90,000 worth of ads were delayed for a year. I insisted doing the computer work in Windows 95, but failed three times to produce the film necessary to print due to lack of technology to output the huge map,” he says smilingly.
         Kim Gjemmestad got help from a marketing manager from the Cambodia Daily newspaper, Mario and another French guy, Michel. They were invited to join Interquess and the company did quite well producing maps and directories. Then one day in early 1997 they found their house surrounded by 50 soldiers. 
         “It turned out that our “landlord” did not exactly own the house. It was owned by CPP, the government party. We had three hours to move out and we had to bring all our belongings on three or four truckloads to Mario’s garden. Thank God it did not rain,” Kim Gjemmestad laughs.
         The company moved into a new location the next day and went back to work, but shortly after in July 1997 civil war broke out.
         “We had been working 24 hours a day to get our first directory out and we had no idea of what was going on in the world. The landlord came and said that we had to leave the house as there was a war going on. So we walked the silent roads. Everything was shut down. We needed something to eat so we knocked on the closed doors of a pizzeria we knew well begging them to make us a pizza. On every street were army soldiers hiding behind the corners. Their jaws just dropped when we walked by with a take-away pizza. We stayed in Mario’s house for three days unable to go outside, watching the war from his rooftop,” Kim Gjemmestad laughs.
         Having survived the war things started to look brighter for Interquess. The owner of Sitco, licensed publisher of the Yellow Pages with a 40 years contract died and Kim Gjemmestad bought Sitco and the monopoly license to publish the Yellow Pages.
         In 2004 he started Asia Yellow Pages venturing into five other Asian market by partnering up with a larger group that produces directories in 26 countries in Africa.
         “It is not so much the directory operation business that interests me, but rather the technology used to manage such operation. This has led us to yet another venture by offering IT solutions to directory operations world wide. Almost 30 countries are now licensing our solutions, and that is really exciting as the future clearly is in digital directories and the solutions that provide them. The objective is to sell the rest of the Asia Yellow Pages operations as technology research and development is what I really want to do,” Kim Gjemmestad explains.
         The new technology brings new possibilities to the world of directories.
         “Our solution offers the directory industry more than just publishing an address and a telephone number by expanding the listings with content such as picture galleries, blogs and catalogues which is not limited by paper cost. Moreover, everything is designed around being indexed by major search engines. Directories such as the Yellow Pages have a great outreach to SMEs and not even a fraction of the market is online yet. With our model it is easier to get crisp, clear information about the SMEs and more web visitors and proof of concepts, the advertisers get happy,” Kim Gjemmestad says.
         Doing all this requires a lot of employees.
         “We are investing a lot of resources in getting things right, but also face a lot of limitations. I really wish the government would have more interest in the future of the new generation. Offering much better education and infrastructure, including better and cheaper internet access. The younger generation are very eager to learn, but they lack leadership and opportunities,” says Kim Gjemmestad.
         Cambodia can be a rough place to be, but still it has got its charm.
“I have seen the country close to anarchy … for interestingly better and for worse. I have been shot at, robbed and threatened. But at the same time I have had a great deal of intense life experiences and met very interesting people doing exceptional things. There are not many countries like Cambodia left and I am grateful for having a front row seat. The country is very pretty with natural resources and the potential is huge. When I go abroad I feel like I am going back into civilization, when I go back to Cambodia I feel as if I am returning my civilized membership,“ the successful Norwegian says.  
         Besides its charm, Cambodia offers opportunities to Kim Gjemmestad and his family.
“You can start what you want here with practically nothing, and I really do like to live here. For me it is much more spiritual and calm than elsewhere I have lived. My wife and I got four kids, but with help from good private schools and a big hearty family that helps to look after the kids, cook, clean, etc we do not get stressed. There weather is always great, and I have time to go bicycling, exercising, do yoga, meditate, and to spend a lot of quality time with the kids. It is just different here, which I am now accustomed to. It makes me happy,” Kim Gjemmestad says.

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