The fast and the curious

By: Philippe Beco - Posted on: September 8, 2011 | Business


A thirst for knowledge and interaction has driven Online’s CEO to the top job

“Know what you don’t know” is a motto that has shaped Bill Merchent’s long career. From Colorado to Mississippi, Alabama to California, the 62-year-old American criss-crossed his home country for 25 years, adding plenty of experience to his entrepreneurial profile.

The IT specialist has taken a long and winding road to becoming the CEO of AZ Communications, otherwise known as Online, Cambodia’s largest internet service provider. Starting as an air traffic controller in the US Air Force, Merchent then became a technical sales trainer. That is probably where he acquired his sense of reciprocity in business and his views on how to conduct that business.  “Help people to get what they want and you will get what you want from them,” is a personal mantra of his.

At 31, he became regional vice president of Primerica, an insurance and financial services company; his career as an electronics and IT specialist only began to form three years later. Ellington Electronics was the first of what would become a long list of IT businesses he has worked for.

Over time he learned almost all aspects of what has since been termed Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP): detection systems, bar code identification, inventories, distribution, manufacturing and accounting systems.

Those were the pioneering eighties, he says. “A time when Bill Gates and Silicon Valley’s gurus were still in the making and approachable.”

ERP software and other business applications quickly became profitable, a wave Merchent was happy to ride. He reached a milestone in his career at the dawn of the 21st Century when he became CEO and president of several software development companies, and even a television production studio, in quick succession.

He thought, at the time, his hard work would pay off in early retirement. Once it had, he and his wife set off on an adventure that would take them around the world and end in Thailand.

“We were seriously considering buying and running a resort. We arrived early for a meeting with the owners and sat on the beach for an hour or two. Just standing there, we realised that was not for us. We like to make things happen – not to let them come to us,” Merchent explains.

Like many travellers before them, they continued from Thailand to Cambodia, quickly fell in love with the people and decided to stay. Quick to settle in, they set up Tevy, a foundation providing employment opportunities to disadvantaged women, and Coupon Book, a marketing business.

Two years ago, Merchent’s IT past caught up with him and his retirement was brought to an abrupt end. After a few months as the head of Online’s Siem Reap office, he was promoted to CEO.

“Education is my passion,” he says, explaining what motivates him. He believes the internet is a powerful educational tool and would like to see every school in the country connected. This passion also moulds his management style. “I am a supporter of job rotation, so everyone has an idea of what colleagues do and what it takes to be a company. I believe that by creating a learning environment, people become more concerned about each other.”

Despite relatively high connection fees compared to neighbouring countries, Merchent remains positive about sector development within the IT community. “The cost of a megabyte has come down from $850 a few years ago to $120 now. And as more wholesalers enter the market, it will continue to decrease,” he says.

Recent moves by telecommunications companies to offer the internet does not appear to phase him. “3G is never going to be as fast as an ISP,” says the CEO whose company has taken a bite into the communication market with its Voice Over IP. As the telco and the internet worlds become more interwined, Merchent’s “know what you don’t know” mantra should perk his interest for a few more years.