For a financial wizard obsessed with risk, Sok Sokuntheara has done a good job of avoiding it over his last decade in Cambodia’s banking sector.

Theara and his team – Davann and Sreyka

The 30-year-old Phnom Penh native has two Masters degrees, one in risk management, and held leadership positions at some of the Kingdom’s biggest banks, including Canadia and Sathapana, before becoming director of business development at Hanuman Capital. For Sok, identifying, calculating and navigating risk is what being in business is all about. 

“It’s really simple: I always aimed at becoming an entrepreneur, and if you’re an entrepreneur you cannot avoid risk management. If you can’t calculate your risk, you won’t know your return,” he said. 

“People always say, ‘high risk, high return.’ But if you can’t deal with that much risk, you must avoid it. That’s what being an entrepreneur is — risk.”

Cambodia, Cash and Covid-19

This understanding of risk management did not come easily. As a young man, Sok wanted to be an engineer but instead got a university scholarship for finance. He started as a volunteer for VisionFund, where he learned about microfinance and insurance, and then went to Union Commercial Bank and embarked on a study of payment systems. 

“Ever since I started in banking, I have always stayed in the payment card industry: credit cards, debit, ATMs and POS [point of sale] terminals. This is something that is important because Cambodia is a cash country, ” he said. “If you’re in the payment industry there is a special responsibility to help shift Cambodia from being a cash country — but you need banking systems in place to help.” 

This is where risk comes in. For card-payment systems to work, Sok explained, the interest rate is based on market risk plus operational risk, among other factors. One investment he considers a safe bet is in Cambodia itself. 

“Opportunity is everything in the business world. At the moment, the COVID-19 pandemic has crushed the economy and it might not have hit the bottom yet, especially in some sectors, like tourism,” he said. “But demand will start to increase soon, and in time Cambodia will have a full recovery. That’s why I believe it’s a very good time to start a business here.” 

Tech and Social Media

Sok is also bullish on Cambodia’s new wave of leaders in management and digital technology. 

“I can summarize the young generation in two points. First, this new generation adapted to new technology much faster than the older generations. We use social media in our daily lives. Before, you would grab the newspaper every morning and discuss the headlines with your friends. Now, we use social media and we’ve adapted to this very fast,” he said. 

“The second point is about the new way of doing business. This generation is completely different and right now entrepreneurs are shifting everything online. Big businesses, small ones, even the government is shifting everything online, like paying tax and registering a business. This is a big move for a nation like ours and it’s being led by the new generation.” 

Sok said his time in finance has left him “fully optimistic” about the future of Cambodia. 

“The average age of our population is below 26 years old! This is crucially important because it secures productivity in the long run. That is the core of the economy,” he said. 

“Cambodia is an emerging country and I love that — and I love what I do.”