July 26, 2012

Going places

FOR A Filipina who didn’t speak even one whit of Mandarin or any Chinese dialect, to move and work in China in the mid-1980s back when no one really spoke English could only have required massive amounts of spunk.

While Rafaela “Apples” Chen found the language barrier formidable, she was able to smartly conquer it. This can-do attitude mixed with some gumption has served her well. For the past 26 years, she has successfully trained Chinese hotel workers, thus helping raise the country’s standards in hospitality and guest services.

Today, she is the general manager of a major international hotel management consulting firm—the International Hotelier & Associates Shanghai Ltd.—and currently consults for the Jinjiang Hotels Group for its Shanghai property, the luxurious Hua Ting Hotel & Towers.

Due to her significant contributions in her field, in 2009 she was recognized by the Chinese government as the “Top 100 People Influencing the Chinese Hotel Industry.” There were only three foreigners on that list, and Chen was the only Filipina.

And to think that Chen actually graduated from dentistry and not hotel administration.

Her father, Marcial Villacorte, worked in the Diosdado Macapagal administration as a finance man—“he was always being sent by President Macapagal to borrow money.” Her mother Rafaela, and Chen’s namesake, was a homemaker who tried to manage the household with 11 kids (Chen is eighth in the family). “Whenever she gives birth, she leaves the baby in the hospital for one year. She had help from nannies [to raise my siblings and I].”

After graduating from Centro Escolar University in 1976, Chen went to work in the local hotel industry instead, her first stint as an attendant at the Lobby Bar of what was then the Silahis Hotel. “I was one of the pioneers there...they even offered me to become a Playboy Bunny [when Playboy Club opened], “ Chen narrates, all giggly at the memory. “Ang sexy-sexy ko pa nun!” But she decided to to leave for Dubai instead in 1980, to join the Sheraton Hotel as supervisor of its coffee shop.

Chen’s unfortunate experience with fellow Filipinos who were in higher management posts was probably what cemented her resolve to be the best hotel trainor that she could be.

She had observed that most Filipino managers seemed to shout a lot at their staff who were also fellow Filipinos. “My first boss when I was with the Silahis Hotel, he was always shouting at me. When I was in Dubai in 1980, this boss was also shouting at me. I asked myself, ‘How can they be managers? How can they shout at their subordinates? How can the subordinates learn if there is no proper training?’ Every time, they just shout at people. So I said when I train people, I will never, ever do this. Why should I shout at them? Put them inside the training room, guide them, tell them what’s the correct way to do.... I don’t know, maybe because he [the manager] doesn’t want the job. Maybe he doesn’t know the job. Of course it can be said that I was very young at the time; I was only 22.”

When the opportunity arose to move to China, Chen grabbed it, seeing it as another chance to spread her wings. “I arrived in China in 1985, and I opened up the first international hotel [Nan Hai Hotel, owned by the Miramar Group of Hong Kong] in Shekou in Shenzhen, near the border with Hong Kong.... It was really a challenge for me because I didn’t know how to speak Chinese. I didn’t even know how to say hello or whatever.” She managed to learn Mandarin by watching Chinese films and by closely watching the actors’ gestures and facial expressions.

Chen adds that while working at various hotels, she also enrolled in short-term hotel management courses at the Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in New York, one of the premier establishments in the world for hospitality management. “When I was working in a hotel, if I have time, I go and get these courses done…. It’s the reason why I was also successful in training the locals here [in China] because whatever I learned, I never kept it for myself but shared it with them. I think that is one of the reasons why I was more successful in handling the locals because I really teach them and not just tell them what to do, which would only make them resentful. I have seen a lot of managers; they don’t treat the locals well. For me, I take their hands and I show them; I tell them what to do and I always do constant checks.”

Chen has opened several well-known Chinese and international hotel chains such as Novotel (of the Accor Group), Radisson SAS and Howard Johnson, to name a few. “I was one of the ‘founding members,’ so to speak, of Howard Johnson when it first opened its hotel in Beijing. I stayed there until SARS struck in 2003; I had to stay away, relocating back to the Philippines for two months.” With the worst of SARS over, she was then called back by the hotel management firm and transferred to Shanghai, and became general manager of its Chongqing property.

Her thorough training of hotel staff all over China has earned her a place at the well-known Les Roches International School of Hotel Management of Switzerland, which opened a branch in Jin Jiang in 2005. Not only has she trained students, but she has also trained the trainors themselves—the directors of sales, the room reservations managers, etc.

(Succesful China-based Filipina hotelier and trainor Apples Villacorte-Chen, and her husband, Peter.)

One might say, hotel owners in China call on Chen as their first line of defense in terms of maintaining quality standards. “Whenever there is a problem, they [hotel owners] always tell me, and then I call them to analyze the problem and how to avoid it. It’s always like this. Every day you have different kinds of problems—even when you build hotels it’s an entirely different problem. In building hotels, it’s the construction problem, you have to make it a point that the construction is good, that the hardware is good for 20, 30 years.”

Chen was so dedicated to developing the hotel industry in China that it was only in 1997, when she was 40, that she tied the knot with Peter Chen, who is 10 years her junior. He also worked in the hotel industry, and met Chen in 1993 while both worked at Novotel. “Now he works in a trading company…. They [the Chinese] have their own culture. It’s really very different. When we got married, we had to stay in their home. I was with them for 10 years. Now it’s been only three years since we moved out that I can cook. But I miss their cooking. What I didn’t like was that they had a lot of restrictions.”

While the couple doesn’t have children, Chen says that in a way she considers the staff she trains like her own kids. “Somebody asked me, ‘How many children do you have?’ Wait, how many bellboys do I have? How many front desk? They’re like my children because they’re very young—18, 19, 20 [years old].”

She feels a genuine sense of accomplishment whenever she sees her “kids” managing or handling their respective properties. “I have seen the people I have trained, they were promoted to directors, deputy general managers, or managers—that’s my accomplishment. So when I visit one city, they see me in the hotel, they treat me to lunch, have a car bring me to wherever I need to go...they are now all grown-up! And hanggang ngayon tumatawag pa sila.”

Only 56, Chen is still far from retiring. But she does see herself eventually spending some of her senior years back in the Philippines—she and her husband already bought a beachfront property in Olongapo, Zambales. She thinks of investing in the local tourism industry as well, but for now that will have to wait. Her “kids” still need her.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on July 20, 2012. Photos courtesy Apples Chen.)

July 18, 2012

Number of Chinese tourists jumps 59% in Jan-May 2012

MANILA, Philippines - Despite ongoing tensions between the Philippines and China over a group of islets in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the number of Chinese visitors to the Philippines jumped a staggering 59.07 percent in the first five months of 2012.

Data from the Department of Tourism showed Chinese tourist arrivals increased to 138,466 from January to May 2012, making them the fourth largest tourism market for the Philippines. That growth also exceeded the 21.5-percent increase recorded in January-May 2011, indicating continued strong interest by mainland Chinese in the Philippines.

DOT officials hope the current “ban” by tour operators in China to the Philippines would be lifted soon. The unofficial ban was put in place by the tour operators last May 10, as tensions escalated between the two countries over the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).

A number of hotels and resorts in Clark, Pampanga; Boracay Island, Aklan; and Cebu City recorded booking cancellations, with fears that the ban would extend until January 2013. (See “China tourist booking cancellations extend until Jan. 2013,” InterAksyon.com, May 16, 2012.)

Chinese tourists accounted for a 7.61-percent market share of the 1.82-million total tourist arrivals in the five-month period. The number of total visitors rose 13.05 percent from the same period last year. Of the total arrivals, 93,814 were visiting overseas Filipino workers, the same DOT data showed. (The rest at InterAksyon.com, July 15, 2012.)

Raising happy, healthy, well-balanced kids

(Conclusion of my two-part series on 'When parents are away')

(Rowie Mattie, Fides Reyes and Maribel Dionisio at the recent book launch of Maribel’s Teen Crush. Photo courtesy Family Congress)

THE family is the most basic social unit in any society. Having a healthy, happy family should therefore be the goal of every human being. To build strong ties within your family, you need to spend quality time with each other, and really listen to what your partner or your kids are saying.

Continuing from last week, I asked Maribel Dionisio, founder of the Love Institute, and Rowie Matti, CEO of the Galileo Enrichment Learning Program Inc., how it was possible to raise happy, healthy and well-balanced kids, especially since often both parents these days are working and the kids are left in the care of nannies or, worse, alone at home to fend for themselves.

Aside from going out on “dates” with their kids, or having weekly chats at home, parents should build their child’s self-worth by being their “cheerleader,” says Maribel. Parents should acknowledge their child’s positive action “no matter how small the contribution,” and laud their efforts as much as the results.

She adds that listening to the child without judgment is very important. “No blaming, shouting, put-downs and criticisms—these will just cut communication lines.”

She underscores the necessity of “disciplining with love,” having age-appropriate house rules which should be “implement[ed] with kindness and firmness. If rules are not followed, then let them experience the consequence of their actions. No spanking or no punishments; just use natural and logical consequences. For example, if the child messes up his toys and does not put them away, then the parent must explain the consequence—his toys can get lost or can get broken, and the parent will not buy new ones.”

Maribel stresses that the key to having happy children is happy parents. Couples need to enhance their relationship by going on a date once a week. For single parents, they can go out with their friends.

In the wake of the rising number of teen mothers, as reported by the National Statistics Office (one in 10 mothers were teens as of 2009), I also brought up the subject of premarital sex and how parents should handle this subject. Should parents talk to their children about reproductive health and how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy?

Rowie says parents need to be ready to answer their children’s questions about sex. “When they are younger, parents can give them technical answers. But as they get older, the answers of parents should be smarter.” She adds, if the kid doesn’t ask parents about sex, the latter should be ready to talk to their kids about the reproductive system (menstruation, circumcision, masturbation, sexual intercourse) when the kids are in Grade 4 (about 10-11 years old). This is the grade when local schools start tackling the subject.

“It is also important to talk to them about values at this time. Parents should tell their kids that there should be no sex before marriage and the reason why they should wait until after marriage,” she points out.

Maribel is also adamantly against premarital sex “since it can make you believe that your partner is a beautiful person, when in fact it is sex that is a beautiful experience. Besides we do not marry for sex but for companionship and love. Great sex before marriage does not guarantee a great friendship. But a great friendship developed before marriage without premarital sex significantly increases the chances of marital happiness.”

Parents must explain to their kids the value of postponing sex until marriage, so “automatically no sex before marriage prevents pregnancy and STD.”

This and other parenting topics will be tackled in the forthcoming Family Congress to be held on August 25, at the Valle Verde Country Club, organized by Maribel, Rowie and their friend Fides Reyes, an events planner for families. The three got together early last year because of an advocacy—they all believed in the importance of the family. To have a happy family, parents and their kids should constantly work at their relationships with each other.

The Family Congress aims to help, support and teach parents, singles and every member of the family on how to communicate, interact and understand one another. It aims to reaffirm the value and relevance of the Filipino family in the face of changing times. For inquiries about the Family Congress, e-mail familycongress@gmail.com. You may also call the Love Institute at 436-4143 or 0922-8944143, or Galileo Enrichment Center at 810-8506.

Through this event, Maribel, Rowie, and Fides hope to increase the awareness of families about the various skills they need to learn to have an awesome family life. They plan to bring this Family Congress to different parts of the country and reach 1,000 parents at a time.

MY deepest condolences to the Quizon family on the passing of their patriarch, Rodolfo V. Quizon. Thank you Mang Dolphy for giving the best years of your life to us, your fans. We will forever be grateful.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday, in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on July 13, 2012.)

July 17, 2012

DOT lists 78 tourism sites protected from mining

THE Department of Tourism has listed 78 "existing and emerging tourism development areas" that the Aquino administration will be protecting from mining activities.

According to the list obtained by InterAksyon.com, among the protected areas are islands with known fragile ecosystems like Batanes Island; Palawan (San Vicente-El Nido-Taytay, Puerto Princesa, Southern Palawan, Busuanga-Coron-Culion Islands); Boracay Island in Western Visayas; Bantayan Island and Malapascua in Central Visayas; Dinagat and Siargao Islands in Surigao del Norte; Camiguin Island in Cagayan de Oro; Samal Island in Davao; as well as Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and Jolo in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

According to sources in the Department of Tourism, this was the same "list of TDAs (tourism development areas) which the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) was furnished to work on. As you can see, some are as big as regions, provinces, or as detailed as coastal areas, lakes or islands." (The rest in InterAksyon.com, July 9, 2012.)

Off-limits to mining (NTDP - List of Cluster Destinations and TDAs)

Manila Hotel: A grand old dame turns 100

(The night’s celebratory toast with the Yap family and executives of Manila Hotel. From left: lawyer Francis Gaw, Michael Yap, Emilio C. Yap III, Basilio Yap, Manila Hotel Executive Vice President Enrique Y. Yap Jr., Manila Hotel Chairman Dr. Emilio T. Yap, Manila Hotel President lawyer Joey Lina, Manila Hotel Senior Vice President Ginny Banaag and Johnny Yap.)
“If it’s a good story, it’s like Manila Hotel.”—Ernest Hemingway
MANILA HOTEL, fondly called the “grand old dame,” was bedecked in her finest Wednesday night (July 4) as she celebrated her 100th birthday, looking even more brilliant and feeling optimistic about her future.

About 800 guests in formal Filipiniana attire, including President Benigno S. Aquino III, came and helped the venerable and much-loved hotel celebrate its birthday in a grand in a grand celebration dubbed the ”Centennial Ball” at a huge tent on the premises.

The celebration began with cocktails at 6 p.m. before a short audio-visual history of the institution was presented and projected on the wall of the hotel. Declared a national historical landmark in February 1997, the hotel has attracted VIPs such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur (where a suite is named after him), Hollywood celebrities such as Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr., and boxing legends like Muhammad Ali, to name a few.

Guests were then served during the sit-down dinner starting with wild mushroom consommé with truffle custard, accompanied with Casa Lapostolle, Chardonnay; Southern Spiny Lobster and Apple Salad with Celery and Crisp bacon, tarragon, and sherry vinaigrette (with Cuvee Alexandre Lapostolle, Chardonnay); a passion fruit sorbet as palate cleanser; with the main course of Oven-roasted sea bass with brown butter and tomato fondue, potato and a bell pepper frittata with spicy sausage (Casa Lapostolle, Merlot); and for dessert, a Lemongrass mousse on coconut-chocolate joconde cake, pineapple compote, and ginger crème Anglaise as well as chocolate pralines with either coffee or tea. (The rest at InterAksyon.com, July 5, 2012. Photos courtesy Manila Hotel.)

When parents are away

LIKE many in my age group, during our time, my father was the breadwinner of the family, and my mother (like my grandmother, her mom) was at home taking care of us, the kids.

Despite having someone directly rearing us, patiently teaching us values and how to cope in the real world, my siblings and I still didn’t turn out a hundred percent “good kids,” as they say. My eldest brother M, for instance, had his frequent brushes with drugs and rehab, which Mama had to attend to, leaving the rest of us fending for ourselves, or like in my case, clinging to my lola’s skirts.

If it was difficult then to raise kids amid the excesses of the ’60s and the ’70s, I wonder how parents cope these days. Most families have both parents out of the house working, and the kids are usually left alone with the househelp or some glorified yaya.

With this in mind, I recently interviewed family and relationship expert Maribel Dionisio and educator Rowie Matti about issues plaguing families these days.

Rowie believes “it is not impossible to raise well-balanced and very good children even if both parents are working. The parents should make time to plan and agree on how to raise their children well. They have to set their priorities. They have to set rules and stick to it. They should make sure that there is a parent available to attend all-important milestones in the child’s life, like school events that require the parent’s presence. Any free time you have from work should be spent with them.”

Echoing this, Maribel says parents can schedule “one-on-one” dates with each of their kids on weekends, “at least once a week or twice a month to create connections and to get to know each child. On a P20- or P50-budget, Dad and Child No.1 will go out and have a date, that is talk and eat even for just 30 to 60 minutes. Mom will go have a date with Child No. 2. Then they exchange children. It is easier to get to know each child this way even if you are working parents.”

Of course, it helps to have some “good” househelp or nannies around (a challenge to find one these days, to be sure), but Rowie stresses, “Make sure that you get people who have the same values and beliefs as you. Their job description should be very clear. They should know their limits. They cannot take the place of the parents.”

Maribel also encourages the use of technology to help parents maintain their connection and bond with their kids. They can Skype, text or call their kids on the cell phone, or use Internet messenger tools to chat during the weekday. “But parents need to prioritize their children, especially if they are below 12 years old, since this is the formative stage when a child is most open to be shaped according to the values you want to instill. So parents should simplify their lifestyle to make time for bonding.”

Unfortunately, even with good parenting, there are cases when kids just end up, well, problematic. They fall in with the wrong crowd, and get into all sorts of trouble or vices. Worse, they become drug-dependent or alcoholic, and may need some intervention.

Maribel sees a problem child as someone longing for attention. To solve that, parents have to spend more one-on-one time with the child, especially if he is below 12 years old. If he is a teenager, “the parent may need the help of a psychologist or family counselor to find out the root of the problem. If the child is on drugs, then the child needs to be seen by a mental health professional, or a toxicologist or a psychiatrist for treatment.” She also advises the entire family “to go to a family counselor or psychologist to prevent the recurrence of the drug problem once it is treated.”

The earlier the parent intervenes once he or she notices the “negative behavior” in the child, the better for the family, says Rowie.

Aside from spending time to talk to the “problem child,” parents should “set some house rules. Expectations should be set. They should know the punishment if they are not able to follow.” But she says that parents should refrain from physical punishment.

“Parents should be fair and consistent. They should recognize the positive action [of the child]. Parents should give feedback constantly so that the child will know if what he is doing is right or wrong,” Rowie adds.

And, yes, if parents are unsuccessful in changing the “negative behavior” of their child, by all means, seek help from a child psychologist. These days, there is nothing wrong with seeking external help or counseling from a professional.

Maribel further explains that a child is brought to a psychiatrist “when medications are necessary for the child’s emotional or mental condition like depression or bipolar [disorder].” On the other hand, a child psychologist or family counselor is someone who can talk to the child about his behavioral problems. “So for drug addiction, a psychiatrist needs to see the child,” so he is able to prescribe the proper medication.

Rowie believes that while the kids are young, the greatest gift parents can give them is a “positive attitude toward life.” She quotes Dr. Jane Nelsen, a well-known marriage, family and child counselor as well as an exponent on the power of “Positive Discipline”, on “seven ways busy parents can help their children feel special:

Parents should make time to hug your child.

Hold a weekly family meeting. Make time to listen to everyone.

 Ask help from your children. They like to feel important.

Spend regularly scheduled, special time.

• Share sad and happy times as part of the bedtime routine.

Take a few seconds to write a note for your child’s lunch bag, pillow or mirror.

When you run a short errand in the car, ask one of your children to ride along.”

Rowie explains, it is inevitable that both parents have to work these days. “The good news is that more and more companies are giving emphasis on work-life balance; they are more flexible on work schedules that make it easier for both parents to work. Parents should also consider other options like working from home, having a flexible time schedule, or just getting a part-time job. Parents should not feel that both of them have to work without exploring other options available in today’s work place.”

More advice on raising kids from Maribel and Rowie, in my column, next Friday.

(My column Something Like Life, is published every Friday, in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on July 6, 2012.)

My Kitchen by Chef Chris Guarantees Happy Tummies

(Slow-roasted lamb ribs with garlic and rosemary rub are succulent and tender to the bite. The dish is served with braised lentils, olive fried potatoes, and Italian style broccoli.)

THE first time I met the Swiss-born chef Chris Locher and was introduced to his famous panizza—his own version of the pizza—was back in February 2007. He was still chef patron of C’ Italian Dining in Clark, Angeles, Pampanga and back then, it was known among expat bankers as the “best Italian restaurant in the country.”

I remember urging Chef Chris to open a branch in Manila so my foodie friends and I could gorge on his sumptuous dishes more frequently, but he dismissed this by saying that he wasn’t too keen on the city’s traffic jam, noise, and pollution.

Flash forward five years later, Chef Chris has left his old employ, and has continued his culinary career in Manila, setting up My Kitchen by Chef Chris in Paco. (He is also executive chef at The Continental at the exclusive Tower Club in Makati, creating gastronomic delights for its well-heeled members.)

With the chef’s old regulars like myself, and a growing new crop of fans, My Kitchen has become the newest dining hotspot in the metropolis. Many historians-foodies have noted, the restaurant’s presence has given life to Paco itself, whose historical significance became obscured by the district having become a haven of parked trailers and trucks.

What I love about My Kitchen and Chef’s Chris’ creations is that they are always consistently superb, and the portions are always large enough to share with family and friends. So it’s not unusual to see loads of families heading to the restaurant after Sunday Mass at the Paco Park Church. (The rest in InterAksyon.com, June 11, 2012. Copyright to these photos are owned by this blogger.)

(The Kristina panizza is a meat-lover’s favorite made with bacon and ham, plus caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes, and mushrooms.)

(Lemon lime cheesecake - A baked cheese cake with almond crust, finely crusted with sugar crust sweet lemon lime sauce, almond and cream. A perfect balance of zest and sweetness.)

July 02, 2012

A grand plan

(Grand Benedicto, right, and his spouse the former Genevieve Sy.)

BE RESORTS Mactan is one of the most loved hotels in Cebu. Since it opened in 2008, the 161-room beachfront property has been wowing foreign and local guests with its refreshing approach to design and comfortable surroundings. It offers a taste of the boutique hotel lifestyle at very affordable room rates.

The resort (www.beresorts.com) is also fast becoming known as a wedding destination and a venue for all things leisure. Its “Summer Hangover 2012” in May, featuring wakeboarding and other fun activities plus a beach party capping the day’s events, was the talk of town for weeks.

The hotel was built by property developer Enrison Land Inc., a company owned by the Benedictos, a prominent Filipino-Chinese family of entrepreneurs and diplomats.

Its president is Grand Benedicto, 40, the eldest son of businessman and Belgian Consul Enrique Benedicto and his wife Helen Tan. “It was pretty much a given for us to eventually help out in the family business. But this was never really forced on us. My parents are pretty liberal and have been supportive of us in what we really wanted to do. So, no, we were never really forced to work during vacations, unlike our cousins,” he says.

A congenial relationship with siblings

BUT it wasn’t like the Benedicto kids were kept away from the family business—the elder Enrique and his siblings were into hardware at B. Benedicto and Sons Inc.—helping out their father and family patriarch Bernardo.

Grand laughs heartily as he reminisces about playing in the family’s factory with his siblings. “We were not made to work, but as kids we were there [in the factory]. We played there, we ate there. We’d ride the forklift.” It was the mid-1970s and while Manila was simmering under martial law, the Benedicto family was enjoying the quiet joys of Cebu which by then had already grown by leaps and bounds from the earlier seeds of entrepreneurship planted by many Chinese families who had transplanted themselves from their motherland beginning in the late 19th century.

Seeing their father Enrique work so hard and alongside his siblings inspired the younger generation to work as much and harmoniously with one another. Grand recalls that he and his siblings—Bendy, Joy, Mylene and Enrison—would observe their father working very late, then their mom would bring them to the factory to pick him up. Their mother was not a stay-at-home wife either, as she too worked and helped in her own father’s pharmaceutical and hospital equipment business under Blue Sky Trading Inc. She was also “very supportive of my dad. She epitomizes the saying, ‘Behind every successful man is a woman,’” Grand continues.

So even at a young age, there were no dreams of becoming a doctor, an astronaut, or a scientist for Grand. All he ever wanted to be was “successful at a young age. I wanted my parents to be proud of me.”

Being the eldest among the third-generation Benedicto brood, Grand strives to foster the same kind of congenial working relationship his father had with his siblings, with his own brothers and sisters who have also joined the family’s Enrison Holdings, which is mainly into furniture, cement, real estate, and, now, the hospitality industry. It helps that their age gaps are very small. “So we’re pretty much close,” says Grand of his younger siblings. “So that’s one thing going for us. We’re like friends. We can say whatever we want and nobody feels hurt naman. We discuss, we argue a lot, but at the end of the day, everything pans out okay. I think that’s what our parents inculcated in us—how to work harmoniously among siblings.”

(Summer hangover party 2012 at BE Resorts Mactan. From resort's Facebook account.)

Trailblazing into exciting frontiers

OFTEN described as someone “analytical and methodical, with an eye for detail,” Grand is often organized and quick to seize the moment, spotting and grabbing opportunities that present themselves.

As such, Grand has become a “trailblazer” of sorts as he pushes the family business into exciting frontiers. When he joined Berben Woods Industries, for example, he transformed the former plywood and lumber company, into a thriving furniture export business. “When I joined the company, we were mainly doing doors, molding and outdoor furniture. Now, we’re an OEM [original equipment manufacturer]. We do a lot of furniture for Martha Stewart, for example, but our own brand [Berben] doesn’t come out. Our boxes are branded ‘Martha Stewart’ when we ship it out. Design is a collaboration between them and us. About 95 percent of what we make goes to the US.”

He says the Cebu furniture industry has recovered somewhat since the U.S. economy’s collapse in 2009. “I think furniture will always be a part of Cebu. We have been holding up pretty well and the market has generally improved.” For its part, Berben has adopted lots of improvements and changes. “We have made our team leaner but stronger. The company is more buoyant and can adapt to changes faster by doing so.”

Expansion plans

GRAND says his father was “very open and supportive [of the hotel project]. Before I presented this to him, I had already done all the research, and so I was prepared to answer all his possible questions. He gives us a freehand naman to decide what’s best for our businesses. But we respect all his opinions about everything. Of course, he reminds us that in whatever business we pursue, we need to mind the numbers, the profitability.”

Working on the hotel project pushes the artistic and enterprising buttons of Grand. “I think it’s a dynamic business. I would always compare it to the fashion industry. You have to keep catching up on the next trend. It’s never stagnant. You have to be one step ahead of the pack.”

The experience of putting up a hotel was so exhilarating that the family has already decided on opening a second hotel, also on a beachfront property they own, but this time along Alona Beach in Bohol. Construction on the resort has started and is targeted for opening in early 2013.

“This is something to watch out for as we have combined the latest hotel design trends, our vast experience in furniture manufacturing coupled with our hotel management experience, all this set against the rugged beauty of Bohol. We are also in the planning stage for a third resort. Each resort is independently envisioned and provides different experiences with emphasis on the beauty of its location,” he explains.

While competition in Cebu hotels is fierce but friendly, BE Resorts has managed to hold up quite well. “We have our own niche market and will continue to intensify efforts to expand existing markets, as well as start marketing campaigns to enter new ones. We remain committed to providing the best value among the resorts. While we cater mainly to the leisure market, we have also seen an expansion in our corporate market. Overall, we are doing well amid rising competition.”

(Summer hangover party 2012 - from BE Resorts Mactan FB)

What he values most

WHEN he isn’t attending to his responsibilities in the family business, Grand is helping improve the bilateral relations between Romania and Cebu. As honorary consul for Romania, he presents the country’s interests in Cebu, and tries to get a lot of cultural exchanges going.

“Just last year, Mandaue City and Bacau signed a sisterhood agreement. We have officials from both cities visit one another and work on getting more cultural and economic ties going. Although getting from Philippines to Romania and vice versa is not so easy, lately, there are more Romanians visiting the Philippines for tourism or business,” he says.

His alone time, if he has any left, is devoted to his growing collection of exotic automobiles, many of them vehicles he dreamt of owning when he was still a kid. He currently has five cars which include a 1955 Porsche and a 1965 Jaguar, and a 1993 Jaguar.

He is also a member of the PACE Club, an organization of car enthusiasts who drive around Cebu and nearby provinces and sometimes put their cars on exhibit for special occasions. “I’ve always been into cars, first the Matchbox variety when I was younger, then RC [remote control] cars. I think this is where the interest really comes from, it is like living a dream. Finding the parts to complete the cars is really very fulfilling as well. So I take the cars out as much as I can, mostly on weekends. The cars are driven but also polished so they look nice parked in the garage, or clean and shiny when driven out.”

But he underscores that most of his spare time is really devoted to his family which includes his wife, the former Genevieve Sy, and their four children: Enrique III, 15, Giles Nathan, 12, Gianna Adrielle, 8, and Enzo Grand, 6. Genevieve provides the anchor to the couple’s marriage providing ample support to her husband and holding the fort while he works.

“What I value most is family time,” says Grand. “As much as I can, I would spend time with the kids, be it playing basketball, the PlayStation or Xbox, going jet-skiing or island-hopping, driving the cars around town, eating out, traveling or simply staying at home watching a movie together. For me this is the best time of all. This is how I want to relax.”

Now that’s a grand plan.

(This is the unabridged version of my column, dated June 29, 2012. Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Photo courtesy Benedicto family.)