"Our generation has been working on things to fix and heal
Over 70 percent of the population in Cambodia today is under the age of 35. While this generation did not have to live through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, they have had to live with the aftermath. They have seen their parents, aunts and uncles rebuild their lives from scratch, witnessed the reconstruction of their country from the rubles of war to the rise of infrastructure, from conflict towards relative peace and stability, from a sluggish economy to a booming one.
This cohort serves as an important link between the past and the future--a demographic still directly impacted by the consequences of war but they are also playing an important role in shaping the future of Cambodia, beyond the history of the Khmer Rouge. The next generation of leaders are among us today. They are paving the way for a more hopeful future for Cambodia.
Too often we only hear about the problems plaguing Cambodia. This special series is dedicated to recognizing the intelligence, talent, creativity, innovation, and promise of Cambodia’s future. Each week in February, through a series of interviews, I will profile a young leader, all under the age of 35, who is contributing to Cambodia’s development in various fields—from economists to filmmakers, governance specialists to bloggers and entrepreneurs. This is only a small sample of the many young leaders in Cambodia today, but together they are all making a difference in their own way, all contributing to a brighter future for Cambodia. As Robert F. Kennedy states, together their contributions will write the history of this generation.
BUNLEANG CHANG, 28, CO-FOUNDER, BROWN COFFEE
Bunleang Chang, 28, is a Managing Partner and one of the co-founders of Brown’s Coffee and Bakery, a popular coffee chain in Phnom Penh. He was only 23 years old when he and his cousins opened the first Brown’s on Street 214. Five years later, Brown’s is a successful coffee empire in Cambodia with seven outlets across Phnom Penh and an army of staff of more than 300 employees, all mostly young people under the age of 35. He is passionate about coffee, the company and together with his other partners, has big plans for Brown’s future.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1986, Bunleang went to Baktouk High School and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Education at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (International Institute of Foreign Languages) and received his Masters in International Communications at Macquarie University in Australia in 2009. I interviewed Bunleang to get his thoughts on how he became a co-founder of Brown’s, successes and failures of the company, how Brown’s is investing in their staff, and the future of Brown’s coffee business.
Q. What was it like growing up in Cambodia? What were some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to be where you are today?
As a generation after Pol Pot we grew up hearing the stories from our parents about the Khmer Rouge. Most parents who went through the Khmer Rouge, first thing on their mind was to leave Cambodia. A few people wanted to stay and my parents were one of them. My parents barely finished grade 6 due to the civil war and the coup d’etat in 1970 and then the Khmer Rouge. My mom had 9 siblings all survived the Khmer Rouge Era, both of my parents’ relatives all survived. That was rare. They helped each other. My mom was very lucky to work in the kitchen. She could save some of the rice and food for her brothers and sisters. My daily lunch and dinner stories were hearing a piece of their traumatic experience. I actually liked listening to it
For me growing up in Phnom Penh my childhood revolved around going to school. I was raised in a typical Cambodian Chinese family. I was sent to a Chinese school with most of our cousins. Morning class was Chinese, afternoon was Cambodian school and evening was English. Some of the challenges we faced in Cambodia in the 1990s was security. I was on a motorbike going to school with the other cousins,. There were three of us. After the English class ended at 7pm, we would ride our motorbike back home. I would ride in the middle to see if anyone was following us. There were a lot of robberies. Every day was a scary day for us back then. But we got used to that after a while. There was another political unrest again in 1997 and my parents packed everything. They were afraid and ready to leave Cambodia but then things calmed down. They always wanted to stay in Cambodia even after the Khmer Rouge because all of our family was here. Those are the significant memories I still have with me.
Q. Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
A. My mom is the most influential because I am very close to her. Growing up I learned to be patient and articulated from her. She barely finished her primary school. Sometimes she could be quite pushing but it was good. Even now, I’m living up to her expectations. I discuss everything with her. She’s like my mentor. My parents didn’t finish high school but they value education.
Q. Which business people/entrepreneurs inspire you and why?
A. I think Steve Jobs ranks on top of my list. Lots of people say he’s very strict and strange, but that is a very important part of the character of an entrepreneur. You need to be very innovative and you need to push. It can keep you busy and lonely but you stay focused on what you are doing. Those are the criteria I see in him. I was watching the speech at Stanford before he passed away many times. He’s really inspiring. I read his biography and he was quite lonely, fired from Apple, founded Pixar and that brought him back to Apple. It was an interesting life. To have the kind of sacrifices for the company was inspiring and touching.
Q.How did the concept of Brown’s start? What were some of the obstacles you and your colleagues faced when you first opened and how did you all overcome them?
A. All founding partners we were all cousins. One of our projects before we started Brown’s was to start a non-profit in our junior year in university. We were giving education counseling to Cambodian students. We targeted international financial aid packages for Cambodian students to study at U.S. universities. Back then there was no one really guiding them through this process. We got a few students into Stanford, Yale, a student who is currently going to medical school, and one who got into Harvard Business School. We were keeping in touch with these students and reminded them to get the experience in the U.S. but bring it back to Cambodia.
In 2008 with my cousin and friends, we were raising funds for the nonprofit but failed to do so because of the economic recession. When we came back from overseas we thought this wasn’t enough to just do this counseling service to change Cambodia (we still continue to do it on a personal basis). We thought that by going into business we might provide more job opportunities to Cambodians.
We had a lot of things on our list we wanted to do, but the top two was a construction company and the second was the coffee business. We thought coffee was a good start because most of us love coffee and it complemented our skills. There was also an opportunity back then because there weren’t a lot of good modern coffee houses that catered to young and dynamic professionals in 2009. Those are the things that pushed us to do a coffee shop.
We were really young and thought it was easy. I went back to Australia to train on coffee. I searched around Thailand and Vietnam for good coffee beans. We spent 3-5 months just scouting our first location. Then we thought of adding baking products too so had one of the cousins go to Thailand.
We worked very hard at first and slept only 4-5 hours a day for the first 3 months but we learned so much from these early experiences. We learned recruiting, working with customers (what they liked), managing people, particularly the young people. The most difficult part is really training people, even now because of the level of education and exposure to the coffee culture. A lot of them don’t know what a latte or cappuccino is. They are like a blank slate. And some of them have been trained incorrectly so we have to retrain them up to our standards.
Q. What were some of the early successes and failures and how has the company learned from them?
A.Quite a few times early on we didn’t realize that running a company has to be very structured. We used to have only 1 or 2 outlets, which I would be the store manager. When I wanted to launch a new product I would just launch it the next day. But then from our third outlet onwards, we learned that we needed to be very structured. Research and Development (R&D) team needs a product, you need to do sampling, need to have panels of judges to taste, then sample in store, work with different departments, etc. We failed once when we tried to launch macaroons recently, the supply chain team did not have good preparation, we didn’t do the sales projection, so in 3 days we ran out of the ground almond to do it and basically we had a hard time dealing with that new product. Those are the some things we’ve learned as a company that we need to be structured and coordinated.
Q. Brown’s has 7 locations in Phnom Penh and is a popular hangout. What makes Brown’s different from the many other coffee bars in Phnom Penh?
A.The product has to be up to customers’ expectations. You can see at Browns we have a diverse customer base. We have local students, young professionals, middle aged Cambodians, and expats. We have good options of products for different segments of customers. They really come for those products and we have a lot of loyal customers who come in every morning for the coffee.
The young crowd, they look at Brown’s as a cool place to hangout. A lot of the students see Browns as a new frontier, a small business, they want to learn more and we are open to those young people if they have a project they can propose to us. The younger people they want a cool nicely designed place to hangout. That is one of our key attractions. A lot of them can come to Browns and go to different locations and see different designs unlike some of the international brands, the design themes has to be mostly the same. But for us we are quite flexible. Some of the outlets have totally different designs though we still keep some of the identity. It is a good thing for Browns to have a different feeling.
Starbucks defines cafes as a third home. It’s very true, for students they go to school, back home, then the coffee house to do homework and meet friends. It’s the same for young professionals. The design has to be a cozy warm feeling and have design features to make people to want to come back.
Q. Many young people quit school (either secondary or university) to work fulltime to help their families. In your opinion, why do you think it’s important for young people to not drop out of school? And what (if anything) is Brown’s doing to encourage staff to continue their education?
A.It’s very true, lots of them (young people) want to give up in their second year in school, they want to work fulltime to send money to their parents in the province. What we’ve been doing is to encourage them to stay and finish school. We have this program for store managers to stay in school—it’s more of a bonus for them. They can pick any university to study in (except some of the international universities). They can go to Pannasatra or take a course on ACE if they want to improve their English and we pay for their school. For the other staff we offer a loan for them. They can pay it back from 10% of their salary.
The good thing is that we can retain them and they can still stay in school. I think it’s very important for them to stay in school. If we want to promote them to store manager, assistant store manager, they have to know how to do admin work so they have to know how to use computer, research and development. They have to stay in school so they can stretch their career path further, and not just working at Browns. If they are doing accounting or banking they need those skills to earn more.
Q. It’s been five years since Brown’s first started. How has the business environment for entrepreneurs changed in Cambodia since you first started Browns?
I think the hardest in the beginning was we did not know where to find the resources. Not just in Cambodia but other developing countries too. We didn’t know where to go to apply for licenses. Different Ministry people would come and say we need this and that license. Some of them even quote us very high or even higher than the actual fee you need to pay to the Ministry (some unofficial fees). Unofficial fees are still a big problem. To obtain the license you need to pay for the fee. It happens in different parts of Asia not just Cambodia.
As for now I can see the changes, the restaurant license we basically need to go to Ministry of Tourism to apply for it. It used to be we needed to have certificate of location from the Sangkat, then the Municipality, then sanitary license from Ministry of Health, then fire codes license, etc. As for now, the Ministry of Tourism is more flexible and open, before it was much harder. Most of the licenses you can now get at the Ministry of Tourism.
Q. Where do you hope Brown’s will be 10 years from now?
A. We have a 5-year plan. One of the commitments we have is to invest every dollar we earn. So we agreed with all the partners no dividends sharing for the first 5 years and we are planning to extend to the next 5 years. We’re pushing our concept further. Now we want to go into the roasting business. If lucky enough we want to stretch it further by sourcing the beans from local farmers in the Northern part of Cambodia, in Mondulkiri. We are talking to coffee farmers there. One key thing is there is not much know-how. They need much guidance that they can earn more in the production. The yield can be much higher if they look after the crop. One of our goals is to work with farmers. As for now the beans are from the Northern part of Thailand and roasted in Bangkok. Pretty soon we’ll cut that production to roast it in Phnom Penh.
We definitely want to expand. We currently have 7 Brown outlets, we also have Fox Wine Bar, and Gong Cha Bubble Tea but our main focus is still on coffee. Our plan at the end of this year with the support team is to go to Siem Reap. It will be a good test to run it remotely from Phnom Penh. Then if successful, it won’t be difficult to go to Myanmar, Vietnam or Thailand. For Vietnam and Thailand we have to find a good local partner because it’s quite competitive there. We need to be well connected with people in the same industry. We’ve already established some of the networks. And our team has been doing a good job in delivering quality and service.
I think the development of Browns keep me motivated. Our turnover is very low. Last year it was 3% considering the average in the industry is 25% so it keeps me going to bring more ideas and knowledge (like the roasting). The staff wants to learn more, bring more ideas. The turnover is so low because we work with our staff very closely. I still chair the store manager/store wide meeting every month. We are very open to staff to talk and comment on their store managers. It’s an open working environment and investment in education also helps.
Q. You’ve been able to build a successful career at a young age. What advice would you have for young people who may be struggling but want to follow a similar path?
Doing businesses now, the boundaries are unlimited. You don’t have to have the funds, but you have to have the ideas. You have to have that entrepreneurial spirit within you. For example students in junior or senior year, you can go and work for a company that you think might complement your business ideas later on. Go get that experience and continue to do research more on that business idea and then one day you will be able to do it. It takes hard work to find what you want to do. Even for me, doing Brown’s for the last 5 ½ years (including planning), I’m still finding what I want to do. You have to push, enjoy the journey you are exploring. I’m sure at point of time you will find a little piece of thing you enjoy doing and learn to improve it. Enjoying the journey is important.
Steve Jobs commencement address:
2015 YOUNG LEADERS