One of the most important, talented, hardworking-as-a-bee yet humble, self-effacing business leaders in the Philippines and Asean region is Jollibee food conglomerate’s 61-year-old, Ateneo-educated president and CEO Ernesto “Ato” Tanmantiong.
Unknown to many, not a few of the famous achievers and visionaries on earth attained their lofty goals through the valuable and loyal support of their key officials. Ato is to Jollibee founder, and his elder brother Tony Tan Caktiong, what JG Summit Holdings, Inc. chairman James L. Go and other late younger brothers Henry and Johnson were to founder and elder brother John Gokongwei, Jr.; what BDO/SM boss Teresita “Tessie” Sy Coson and SM malls/China Bank boss Hans Sy were to their late dad Henry Sy, Sr.; what the capable UP magna cum laude graduate Mercedes Gotamco Tan-Gotianun was to her late husband Filinvest and East West Bank founder Andrew Gotianun; what the brilliant and loyal General Han Xin was to ancient China’s great Han Dynasty founder Liu Bang (who became known as Emperor Gaozu).
Uniquely, with its unprecedented knack for leveraging our distinct Filipino tastes into the popular Chickenjoy, sweet spaghetti and other foods, Jollibee is a homegrown success story, one that Ato says “has made the Philippines the only country in the whole world where a local company beat the global leader at its own game.” He adds: “We have become one of the largest and fastest-growing Asian restaurant companies in the world, with 15 brands and over 5,800 stores in 35 countries. Our growth is focused on three pillar markets — namely the Philippines, North America and China.”
Not content with this feat, Ato says, “I’ve learned that it is important to always dream big with passion and commitment. Even when we started out, we dreamt big and even though many thought it was crazy, it was that ‘crazy’ dream that brought us to where we are now. We’ve encountered our own fair share of failures in the process, but thanks to our team and the dream, we persevered. People often ask what is the secret of Jollibee Food Corp.’s success, and my answer has always been the same. The competition may have had all the resources in its arsenal, but if there was one thing they didn’t have, it was the JFC team. We believe it will be the same ingredient for success as we strive towards our vision to become of the top five restaurant companies in the world.”
88 love letters kept inside a shoebox
At the recent dinner forum of Anvil Business Club’s 280 young Filipino Chinese entrepreneurs, which I chair, Ato candidly shared his inspiring life story (including his sending 88 handwritten love letters in eight years to his Davao Chinese High School — now called Davao Central High School — classmate and future wife Susan as part of his courtship).
Ato also discussed refreshing, wise career and business ideas such as how to nurture good people who are key reasons for their company’s success, maintain excellence and efficiency, upholding integrity and positive moral values, contributing social development such as Jollibee buying vegetables and products from Filipino farmers and local rural communities, Jollibee’s bold moves like buying up America’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain and Smashburger chains as part of its grand vision to become one of the world’s top five food business groups.
An old-fashioned romantic, Tanmantiong recounted: “I sent to Susan from 1975 to 1983 until we got married — I wanted to make sure that my facts are correct so I spent half a day rereading all the letters — about 88 of them in eight years. It indeed brought back many good memories of the past. Thanks to Susan for keeping all my letters up to this day. Na in-love na siguro siya (I think she fell in love) with me by that time.”
He added: “Upon reading my letters, I found out that there were only four areas or things that I got preoccupied with during my college years: Ateneo, store, movie houses and writing letters. Quite boring, isn’t it? Ateneo and store were my work, going to movie houses was my pastime, while writing letters to Susan was where I got my inspiration. (Cheesy ba?)
Ato Tanmantiong is sixth among the Tan siblings and second to the youngest in their family, which was started by their immigrant self-made restaurateur and former Buddhist temple cook father. He recounted: “My father worked as a cook at the Chinese temple in Tondo, Manila. He actually came from China at the age of 14 and had to work his way up. Knowing that he couldn’t afford to support a family of seven with his meager income, he and his friend decided to open a Chinese restaurant in Davao City. The choice to set up the business in the province was deliberate as we would have less competition. Thus, in 1965, our family moved to Davao City. I was then seven years old.”
Their father was their inspiration, a great teacher on the value of humility and hard work. Ato said: “My father worked seven days a week and 16 hours a day. He would wake up at 4 a.m. to go to the public market to find the best quality meat and seafood items available. As the saying goes, ‘The early bird catches the worm.’ With a siesta after the lunch hour break to reenergize him, he would go home at 12 midnight after closing the restaurant. He was passionate about his business and enjoyed his work. Since then, up to the time of his death, I never heard a single word of complaint from him that he was tired or that he had to work that hard to support the family.”
Added Ato: “As a young boy then, I got to see how my father dealt professionally with his customers and staff. I also had the privilege to help out as a busboy helper or a waiter assistant in presenting the bill to the customer or as cashier assistant for takeout orders. I did all these not because I liked to work but more because of the incentive of getting free delicious food such as fried rice with wonton soup and pancit guisado with toasted bread and a bottle of Pepsi. (Mababaw lang ang kaligayahan ko noon.)”
He recalls: “We were also trained to be pick-up bank tellers. Since there was no deposit pick-up bank service at that time, my mom would put our sales money in a cooking pot or biscuit can, and ask us to walk it home for safekeeping. Believe me, this covert method did not fail us at all.”
These lessons stuck with Ato: “I saw how my dad managed to provide good customer relations and service, superior quality of food and great value for money.”
This article is originally published by the Philippine Star which can be accessed online at https://www.philstar.com/lifestyle/sunday life/2019/10/27/1963548/jollibee-ceo-courted-future-wife-88-letters-8-years-while-dreaming-big#kMTLvGcQBXBmSvG1.99