The house in Alabel was not grand, nestled in a quiet corner of the capital of Sarangani province. The couple was unassuming, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, but their welcome warm and their words unadorned. The transportation business was right across the house, the vehicles parked cheek by jowl in the small garage. Nobody could’ve guessed that the combined assets of the couple are now close to ten million pesos. And only from savings from working abroad for a short period of 18 months invested in a business started just thirteen years ago…
In 1999, Rod McLachlan, a former executive director of Dole Philippines in Polomolok, South Cotabato, recruited five men and women from General Santos City, to work in a tuna-freezing facility in the Marshall Islands, an elongated horseshoe-shaped string of islands in the north Pacific, nearly 3,400 miles due east of General Santos. Their product, yellow-fin tuna white meat packed in plastic (with the head, fins, entrails, and red meat thrown away), is then brought to American Samoa where they were canned and then exported. The fish were brought in by Taiwanese fishing boats manned mostly by Filipinos. What the Marshall Islands facility did was intermediate processing of the fish so their freshness is not lost when being transported to American Samoa for canning. I haven’t really heard much about this new republic except that it has been a nuclear testing area for the United States since the 1950s. The question that pops into mind is: “Am I safe here? Has the radioactivity levels gone down to tolerable levels? Has this subject OFW’s decision to return permanently been precipitated by his fears of being irradiated by the nuclear fallout?
Our first question to Bong was, “Why did you come back for good?” and the answer was as quick as it was straightforward: “Gimingaw ko sa akong pamilya.” (I missed my family.) We breathed a sigh of relief because at least he had ruled out nuclear radiation exposure as the reason.
Didn’t you communicate by phone? “Yes, we did, quite often, but we both realized it was not enough, and I knew that if I didn’t go home sooner, my family would break up, and it’s the last thing I wanted,” his voice was firm and when we glanced sideways at the wife, Juliet, there was a glint of agreement in her eyes. Despite the loneliness, Bong pushed on. Later in the interview, Bong disclosed that some of his co-recruits had actually taken Marshallese wives, and one even had a wife who was already heavy with child when Bong left the islands in 2001. “I didn’t want that to happen to our marriage,” Bong stressed, and Juliet nodded quite perceptively.
Bong and Juliet had a modest life and an infant son when he left in 1999. He was working for RFM in General Santos and she, a Social Welfare Office for DSWD. But they both came to the conclusion that if they were to secure their son’s future and in order to achieve financial independence through successful business ventures, he had to go and accumulate savings by working abroad. Juliet was hesitant at first to let him go, but relented when she herself realized they were not getting closer to achieving their goals in life if they depended solely on their present earnings. They also had gotten into a riceland-leasing business, or prenda in the dialect, where farmers short on cash to buy farming inputs loaned money from the couple, with their farmland as security, and paid the loan in the form of palay, or unmilled rice. The couple got 20 sacks of palay every harvest, which at that time, earned them P10,000 per harvest. But the money was still not enough.
When Bong heard the news about a recruitment going on for the Marshall Islands, he grabbed the opportunity, not even knowing where the Marshall Islands were.
They found the Marshallese a tough nut to crack. They spoke Ebon, a Malayo-Polynesian language which Bong and his mates found hard to utter, let alone understand. He was told by his employer to be very patient in dealing with the native population because most of them didn’t have a formal education and therefore weren’t easy to deal with. When they got drunk, Bong narrated, they just went into a drunken rage and smashed up the nearest store or property. Maximum tolerance was what Bong and his Filipino mates were advised to exercise.
Even in the short time that Bong worked in the Marshall Islands, the consciousness to save and invest was there. By the couple’s agreement, Bong only sent money home when Juliet asked for extra money, but otherwise, his salary was saved intact in the Bank of Hawaii, where his employer told him to open an account. Home leave was allowed after each year of work, but after he returned to the Marshall Islands, he had decided that this was going to be his last year abroad. On October 2011, against his wife’s misgivings, he withdrew all his savings amounting to P80,000 and packed his bags. This wasn’t much, but it would have to do, he thought. Though he was paid $1,500 a month, Bong had to pay for food and house rental, which in the Marshall Islands were not cheap, leaving him with $1,000 a month in savings.
Soon after his return, Bong and Juliet decided to invest their joint savings of approximately P120,000 into an agri-veterinary supplies store. P70,000 of the amount went into the purchase of rights over the premises they would occupy in the public market.
Though they struggled in the first six months, business soon grew. What profit they gained from the agri-vet business they re-invested in other businesses. Soon, they had a fleet of 6 passenger mini-cabs, a couple of cargo trucks and four fishing boats, with each boat costing P400,000. The couple has also accumulated a total of 6 residential lots now valued at more than a million pesos. Bong is now President of the Alsamco Transport Services Multi-Purpose Cooperative, and one of their advocacies is to get the highways of General Santos free of tricycles, trisikads and motorbikes. This latter campaign was one I could really identify with, I thought.
Bong encourages OFWs who are into small businesses to legitimize their operations by obtaining the necessary permits and to pay the right taxes. “Planning for your return is important,” Bong advises, “not only in terms of the number of years, but also in what type of business you will invest your hard-earned money in. If you feel you have saved enough, by all means come back. There is no substitute to managing your own business directly.”
“Avoid unnecessary expenses. Though recreation is important, there must be limits. Social drinking in moderation is fine, but to engage in extra-marital relationships is just asking for trouble,” he intones.
How did he do it? How did he become so successful in business?
“Honesty and integrity in business are important. The product to be sold must be of such quality expected by the customer. You must not cheat your own employees by underpaying their wages to ensure good customer service. Good customer service plus quality products equal customer loyalty,” Bong described his simple business model. Not so simple in practice, it seems, but one which he has abided by through the years. He tells also of helping out his employees even with their personal problems, and provides them with free lunch every working day. His business philosophy comes not from the Wharton Business School but from common sense: “I have a responsibility to look after the welfare of my employees because they are the ones who can make or unmake my business. If it becomes successful, it’s because of them. If it fails, it’s because I didn’t take good care of them.”
May Cachuela, who manages the agri-vet store for Bong, couldn’t agree more and sums up the store’s formula of success: “Bong is caring to me and to his other employees, and in return we are caring to our customers.”
After only 3 years of determined effort, Bong has parlayed his small savings from his employment in the Marshall Islands into a multi-million peso business and asset base. He reiterated his prescriptions during a follow-up interview at the shores of Sarangani Bay, with his four fishing boats lolling about in the waves: “Be honest with your customers. What you earn from your business, reinvest. If possible, avoid loans. Hard work and honesty—these are the secrets of my business success.” Nearby, a two-storey house also owned by the couple stood with a sari-sari store on the ground floor owned and operated by the mother of the couple’s former domestic helper, whom they also sent through college and now working at DSWD. At the same time, the storekeeper watches over the fishing boats. After the interview, Bong sped off in his brand-new motorcycle, riding out his dream of reuniting with his family and achieving business success. We were left in awe at one of the most rapid business expansion stories we have ever heard.