For the last 30 years, the din of construction has become the ever louder soundtrack to daily life in Phnom Penh, as jackhammers, piledrivers and heavy machinery harmonise in a chaotic symphony that begins each day at sunrise. But job sites across the capital have fallen eerily silent over the last 18 months, as the Covid-19 pandemic halted supply chains, staggered investments and pushed businesses to the edge.
However, for firms with the wherewithal and experience to face the challenge head on, the crisis was by no means a death sentence.
“We took Covid very seriously from the beginning,” explained Stephane Bigorre, LBL’s Managing Director. “Of course we have been affected, but we always have a strategy and an answer for what is happening.”
This proactive response is typical of the agility that has allowed the French-Cambodian firm to survive challenges and uncertainty in the thirty years since its inception. By blending international expertise in the field with indispensable knowledge of the local landscape, LBL continues to stand out in a crowded field by providing dynamic construction solutions to domestic and international investors.
As LBL celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, Cambodia begins to reopen and the worst of the pandemic seems to be in the past. While no one will emerge completely unscathed, Bigorre believes the firm was better prepared than some.
We are just coming out of this complicated time. But there is still a lot of work for us to do in Cambodia”
“LBL went through several crises and chaotic times, but eventually we managed to come out alive,” he said, speaking of political instability in the 1990’s and the 2008 global financial crisis. “All of these challenges have helped LBL develop its capacity for adaptation. If you’ve already been through some kind of difficult or traumatic experience in the past, when there is a new crisis, there is already a precedent.”
This resilience has allowed LBL to survive a global pandemic that saw the value of approved construction projects drop 32 percent in a single year according to government estimates. But with international flights back up and running, trade resuming and government officials and industry experts all expecting a strong recovery in 2022 and beyond, Cambodia’s construction industry is poised to return to its place as an economic powerhouse.
“We are just coming out of this complicated time,” said Bigorre. “But there is still a lot of work for us to do in Cambodia.”
The year 2021 not only marks thirty years of LBL’s contribution to Cambodia’s structural landscape. It is also the 30th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements, which brought an official end to decades of conflict in Cambodia and set the stage for the stability and progress that have, in large part, characterised the years since.
The peace agreements also brought the deployment of the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia (UNTAC) where, for the first time, the UN took the reins and assumed sole responsibility for the administration of an independent state. Along with the disarmament and civil society building that were central to the program, the operation also led to a number of opportunities for the construction firm.
“I worked on several projects for UNTAC,” said Pum Chhay, LBL’s workshop manager who has been with the firm for 30 years. “We built the barracks for the soldiers in Kamboul and Kien Svay districts.”
Along with housing for UN staff, LBL constructed roads and bridges during this period that contributed to rebuilding the nation. It also marked the beginning of a shared trajectory for LBL and Cambodia — what Bigorre referred to as a “symbiosis” — that has provided the firm with opportunities while aiding in the nation’s development.
One project that demonstrates this mutual growth, the evolution of the industry as well as the unique challenges facing the country at the time was the 1998 installation of Cambodia’s first optical line.
“One of the first bigger projects I worked on was the Alcatel optic cable. I was the site manager,” explained Pum. “The project was from Phnom Penh to Poipet; there was no security then and there were still Khmer Rouge along the way.”
Winning the contract from French telecom firm Alcatel thanks to the success of LBL’s previous projects — including work on the French Embassy and damage repairs to the capital’s airport after the 1997 coup d’etat — the 600 kilometres of cable were primarily laid by hand with the aid of trench digging equipment. The process exemplified the manual labour that was the dominant method for construction at the time, however, as foreign investment poured into the country a development boom gained momentum that would change the face of the industry.
From 2000 to 2018, 43,136 construction projects representing more than US$43 billion worth of investments were approved by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. Since 2009, construction has begun on more than 50 high rise buildings taller than 150 metres, located mainly in the capital and the coastal city of Sihanoukville. It was also during this period of expansion that LBL pushed into neighbouring Thailand, where the firm completed a dozen projects, including a luxury resort for the Orient Express Group.
But in order to keep pace with the explosion of development, changing trends in the industry and increased safety regulations, firms had to utilise new tools and strategies.
As Siv Sophal, LBL’s Project Manager for Phnom Penh operations pointed out, today companies must utilise heavy equipment and conform to compliance standards to meet the growing demands of clients and increasingly strict government regulations. Construction of the high rise apartments and luxury hotels that have become a pillar of LBL’s work in the capital can’t rely on the outdated methods and lack of regulation that continue to shape the industry in Cambodia.
“Especially in the last five years, there have been so many high rise projects here that require new technology to build,” she explained. “We have to use these techniques and tools to follow the sector, provide for our client and also to follow government regulations.”
While LBL has undoubtedly evolved over the past three decades, there are some key aspects of the firm’s methods that remain unchanged. Born from a French and Cambodian partnership, the blending of local knowledge with international expertise is a pillar of the company’s strategy that is as important today as it was in 1991.
“This is LBL,” explained Bigorre. “This is how it has always been.”
Taking the reins as Director of Design in 2018, French architect Jean-Pierre Celotto is the latest in a long line of foreign staff that have brought their skills and vision to the company. Building on 40 years of experience in the field — much of it spent working across Asia — Celotto’s trained eye and passion for design are helping LBL remain on the leading edge of the industry.
We could not have chosen a more professional contractor than LBL”
One project that exemplifies the potential of this cooperation is the Angkor Animal Kingdom and Aquarium. Located in Siem Reap and ready to open in 2022, the project is a prime example of the “design & build” strategy that has helped establish LBL’s reputation for quality and client satisfaction. By providing “turn-key” services — from the initial design stages all the way to the smallest finishing details of a completed project — LBL ensures the highest standards from start to finish.
“We could not have chosen a more professional contractor than LBL,” said Roger Reynolds, founder of the Angkor Animal Kingdom and Aquarium in a client testimonial. “I personally would not hesitate to refer anyone to LBL when looking for a professional company that can engineer or build large international projects.”
Spread across 100 acres minutes away from Angkor Wat, the park is the result of Celotto’s ability to interpret the client’s vision, LBL’s finely tuned chain of command and the firm’s motivated workforce. Likely to become a flagship that demonstrates the scale and innovation of which the company is capable, the project is the first of its kind in Cambodia and represents a new chapter for LBL.
“We are proud of all of our projects,” said Celotto. “But the Angkor Animal Kingdom and Aquarium in Siem Reap, this is a once in a lifetime kind of project.”