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Sung Bonna: The right agent

By: Adam Fogarty Posted: June-18-2008 in
Adam Fogarty

Sung Bonna is one of Cambodia's most successful real estate entrepreneurs. It also immediately becomes apparent that he is not your average Cambodian real estate agent.

Genteel and humble, Bonna displays neither the arrogance nor the intensity that frequently comes with spending one's life pushing land deals. Instead, flanked by a large statue of the Buddha behind his large mahogany desk in a leafy street in Sangkat Beong Kok II he comes across as patient and unassuming ± more a listener than a talker.

We've all met our share of dodgy real estate agents and opinion polls frequently list them as one of the most-distrusted groups in business. However, there is something both impressive and endearing about Bonna, who was brought up in an orphanage and has managed to build a real estate empire that has since become the official land valuator for the Cambodian government. He is also highly sought after as an appraiser and valuator for leading companies and NGOs in Cambodia.

"Many people start with zero capital, I started with minus-ten," he says of his early experiences starting his real estate business. "It was very difficult. I had no office, just two staff and a motorbike. I used a small shop in Phnom Penh with an old sofa. My bedroom was upstairs."

Describing the secrets of his success, Bonna admits that he was in the right place at the right time. "The fact is, real estate in Cambodia picked up significantly in 2004, following the political crisis. It's grown a lot since then. Today, it's one of the fastest growing in Asia," he says. "During 2000-2003, the land market price increased from 15 to 20 percent per year, 20 to 50 percent during 2005-2006, 50 to 80 percent during 2007, and 80 to 100 percent during 2008. It's slowing a little, but not significantly, with local and foreign investment still pouring into Cambodia."

Sensing Bonna's modesty, the question is repeated. "Okay," he says, "people have compassion for me, my background. I've worked very hard to get where I am. I started with nothing -born during the Khmer Rouge and shifted to camps on the Thai border. I had no parents, no family ... no money. I focused on a goal, and with honesty and hard work, I'm achieving it." Commitment, trust and loyalty are central to his approach, and separate him from other real estate agents. Applying the same care with his customers' money as with his own, he encourages property buyers to study the real estate market analytically and to make decisions independently of what other investors are doing.

Promising that Phnom Penh is still booming, even after five years, Bonna is confident that Siem Reap and Sihanoukville also still have a lot of potential. "Kep is developing well ... there was no action there before. It's a good place to invest as it's close to Phnom Penh city. When Highway No.3 (near Kep) is finished, the cost of land will rise again. Then there's the riverside. Everywhere in the world, the riverfront is always a good investment."

Moving away from the more obvious choices for property investors, Bonna talks about property investment on the other side of the Japanese Bridge. Using Malaysian owned Sunway Corp's residential development project on the east and north east of the river and the construction of Cambodian-backed Happiness City on the east of the river as two examples, Bonna emphasises that "development is definitely moving to the other side of the river". Fewer building restrictions, such as the limits on building heights that exist along Sisowath Quay, are attracting a lot of Korean investment, especially along Road No.6, Bonna says. This surely will only expand in coming years.

Talking of the concerns surrounding sand dredging, Bonna says that a myriad of regulations ensure that the government is prepared. "More important for developing on the other side of the river is the need for more bridges," he says. To cope with new development, a new bridge is being planned just north of the Japanese Bridge. "After this, I predict that the other side of the river will become the new centre of Phnom Penh."

When questioned about the dangers of property speculation, which can be dangerous for a developing economy such as Cambodia's, Bonna agrees caution is required. The absence of a national stock market, investment uncertainty due to looming national elections and the credit crunch currently afflicting the US means those with cash to invest have few options other than land.

Yet the Bonna Realty Group's brochure makes it clear that property is still the best investment. Many wealthy Cambodians (and foreigners living in Cambodia) seem to agree, tending to place most of their capital in property rather than investing it in different sectors.

While some observers believe a property bubble is growing and will burst, others believe property prices will continue to grow. "Laws need to be made to prevent speculation," Bonna says. "Also, local investors should be very careful to only buy what they can afford. More importantly, don't use a broker ... choose a specialized, licensed agent."


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