In 1997, when Paul Thomas made his first fact-finding mission to Cambodia, the country was still emerging from decades of war and privation.
Most roads were unpaved, people stayed in their homes after sunset and even Sothearos Boulevard – now the broad, Lexus-filled home of a shiny Japanese mega-mall – was more or less deserted.
Back then, the wealthy – practically the only people who owned cars – roared up and down the quiet streets in SUVs, tailed by armed bodyguards, a sight that, as Thomas tells it, “caused excitement, especially for the early Singaporeans living in Cambodia, in contrast to their restricted country”.
To many, it would not have seemed an auspicious time to start a family business in Cambodia, but to Thomas – who, at the time, already had 15 years of logistics experience in Southeast Asia under his belt – the country had potential.
In 1998, Thomas started his first logistics business activities in Cambodia, registering his first Cambodian enterprise in 1999 with just four staffers.
Since then, the business – consolidated under the banner of Thomas International Services in 2009 – has grown exponentially, with thousands of shipping containers of goods in transit across the world at any given time and 120 employees, including Thomas’ children and wife, overseeing them.
Building a business in Wild West Phnom Penh wasn’t always easy, like the time in 2000 when Thomas came back to town from Bangkok with his newborn son to find that “bullets were flying low over our house/office” thanks to an ill-fated coup attempt taking place nearby. But for all the challenges it presented, he said, having his family beside him has been a huge benefit.
“Helpful for my own situation in Cambodia was my vast experience in Asia in general, and the 17 years spent in Singapore; this coupled with the assistance of my wife and her family in Cambodia helped a lot, and they learned a lot from me as well, not about Germany/Europe but about Asia,” Thomas said earlier this week. “The family bound together in good and bad times, and this was rewarding for all of us.”
Those early trying circumstances have made Thomas International all the stronger, giving it the experience necessary to, as its website describes it, “bring efficiency to supply chains in some of the world’s most challenging environments”.
And with emerging markets like Cambodia playing a larger role than ever in an increasingly interconnected global economy, logistics services providers with experience in those markets like Thomas International are becoming more important than ever.
Much of Thomas International’s business is built on the bedrock of Cambodia’s export economy: the country’s booming garment sector. However, that sturdy foundation has allowed the company to develop unique side-lines that only serve to highlight its first-class expertise, such as Thomas International’s specialised fine arts and museum logistics capabilities.
The company did its first antiquities shipment in 2006, shipping over $100 million in priceless artefacts under special arrangement for display in museums in Germany and Switzerland.
Since then, the company has strengthened its ties with local cultural institutions like the National Museum, and has shipped similar exhibitions as far afield as Belgium and to the United States’ Smithsonian Institute. Most recently, the company even played a role in the much-publicised repatriation of 1,000-year-old statues looted from the Koh Ker temple complex in the 1970s.
“We continued to build up a relationship and exchange technical know-how with the local stakeholders to enable them to do more exhibitions overseas, and to bring the Khmer culture to the world,” Thomas said. “I have always been very interested in the cultures of Southeast Asia since I was a young man and my presence in Cambodia and the involvement with the museum is especially rewarding for me!”
But even with such an illustrious past, Thomas is still looking towards the future, for both his company and his adopted home. With Cambodia’s young generation stepping up to take the reins and with sectors like agriculture becoming more attractive, Thomas is already pondering his next step.
But whatever it may be, he intends to face it, as always, with his family by his side.
“The young people have it in hand to make Cambodia again the pearl of Southeast-Asia as it was in the mid-’60s,” he said. “I see myself slowly delegating the family business into other family members’ hands, but always standing beside as an advisor and supporter.”