Rami Sharaf explains what links RMA Cambodia’s car assembly, agriculture development and fast food businesses
By Philippe Beco
Prime Minister Hun Sen gladly kept his promise. When Ford announced in March that it would begin manufacturing in Cambodia, it was also confirmed that the Prime Minister had inked a deal for the first Ford Everest to roll off the production line.
Rami Sharaf, CEO of RMA Cambodia, the company representing Ford in the Kingdom, was delighted to secure such a high-profile customer. It is hoped that more Cambodians will follow the example of the trend-setting premier.
Only about 12% of cars currently on the Kingdom’s roads have been sold through authorised dealers. While an official “three-s” (sales, spare parts, service) outlet costs at least $500,000 to set up, Sharaf is wary of competition from grey market and used-car sellers who can easily set up cheap and opaque dealerships.
As chairman of the Cambodian Automotive Industry Federation, Sharaf believes the role of official retailers is to alert the public to the importance of quality, services and safety. “If you go to a grey market dealer and buy a luxury car, for an investment of sometimes $150,000 you are lucky if you get one month’s warranty,” he says. “When someone is paying almost the full price but not getting what any customer of that brand would get in another country – this is where the gap is and where awareness should be.”
Sharaf recollects recent examples where cars were recalled by manufacturers in other countries due to defects, but remained on sale in Cambodia’s grey market. “Many used cars in Cambodia were written off in other countries or are ‘cut and paste’ cars. They are like killing tools,” Sharaf says. “Why should Cambodia be the trash can of other countries?”
The 45-year-old is confident Cambodian consumers will gradually begin to make savvier choices, with the real potential found in the growing middle class: those who currently zip around on two wheels will eventually upgrade to four. However, he does admit that the launch of the Ford Fiesta did not meet all expectations. Even the switched-on younger generation seem more attracted to flashy second-hand SUVs than a small, reliable runner. “It takes time to change the mindset,” he says.
RMA also deals in far heavier machinery than the compact Fiesta, and Sharaf sees his company playing a key role in
Cambodia’s ambitious rice export plans. “When you are using the right technology, that is not only reflected in productivity but also on what percentage of your harvest is broken. And pricing is based on this quality issue,” he says.
Last year RMA even convinced John Deere to choose Cambodia for the pilot project of its latest rice harvester. Battambang farmers were asked for their feedback before the US firm finalised the machine. RMA is also involved in irrigation pilot projects, such as computerised water dripping techniques. “Why should a piece of land in Cambodia struggle for one yearly harvest when neighbouring countries with the same climate get two or three?” he asks.
Among its impressive portfolio of businesses, RMA also runs several food franchises including the Pizza Company, BBQ Chicken and Dairy Queen. The vivid colours and calorific treats of such brands seem exciting for a company primarily concerned with cars, heavy machinery and power generation. But there is a common factor, according to Sharaf. “Relations with others end when they get paid. Relations with us start once the deal is done,” he says. It is a motto and operational standard underpinning all of RMA’s businesses – Sharaf is keen to stress the focus placed on after-sale services.
He believes the success of RMA’s food franchises also lies in quality and consistency. “It is always great to start where others ended. Those guys [the franchisers] have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of outlets. We follow the franchisers’ guidelines religiously from production to decoration,” Sharaf says, adding that RMA regularly discusses new formulas with franchisers in order to please the Khmer palate. “We should connect that with the new generation of Cambodian youth who are very accessible, very informed and who are able to differentiate between brands. [They don’t see it as] just another food franchise – it is becoming a major lifestyle indicator.”