Stories, Taoke (Business)

Modern Tao Ke: Q & A with Sterling Paper’s Henry Limbonliong

Last October 8, four business experts shared their insights on the sixth installment of the Create. Modern Tao Ke: The Transformational Journey of Family Businesses Through Innovation‘ webinar organized by Globe myBusiness in cooperation with CHiNOY TV and Junior Chamber International (JCI) – Manila.  

Answering questions on business management during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Henry Limbonliong, CEO of the Sterling Paper Group of Companies, explains the role of a businessman and the importance of innovation in the context of these troubling times. 

Q: How are your companies doing at this time?

HL: We are a group of companies. It’s a group of more than ten different companies, big and small. At this point in time, some of our companies are affected, but some of them are not. In fact, two of my companies are doing very well. It’s a mixture. The companies that are doing very well are the rice business and my seeds business. I think the seed business for this year has increased almost by a hundred percent. Then, of course, the rice business is not affected at all. But, of course, our [other] business is greatly affected. We also have other things that we would be trying to innovate. Real estate is still very good. We have industrial subdivisions. I think we’re still doing great. So these are the things that are keeping us busy and keeping us going. 

 

Q: What specific Chinoy characteristics do you want to impart to the younger generation of tao kes watching now?

HL: If you ask me, “Refuse to be ordinary.” When I was just a kid, studying and being bullied and whatever—just keep in mind that one day, you just refuse to be an ordinary person. You want to be a person who wants to stand with a head above the others. Keep that in mind, and you will achieve it. 

 

Q: What is the importance of being part of a Chinese association?

HL: Actually, I was called into FFCCCII (Federation Of Filipino Chinese Chambers Of Commerce and Industry, Inc.) 26 years ago. I was in my early 40s during that time. At that time, it was very prestigious to be able to be admitted or elected to be an officer in FFCCCII. Ever since then, I’ve been there for the last 26 years… 

Being a part of FFCCCII gives you a sense of satisfaction. Because what we are doing every day is to help our countrymen, our Filipino brothers, in so many things. We have been building school buildings—we’ve built more than 6,000 school buildings. We’ve, of course, organized volunteer fire brigades. We have medical missions every week. We give out relief goods in every disaster. We also help the farmers plant. 

Lately, of course, with 11 of the other different organizations, we’ve come up with the Chinese-Filipino Calamity Fund, with which we were able to raise more than 300 million pesos—and [then there was] the giving of PPEs, rice, [and] everything to so many of our Filipino brothers. It does give you a sense of satisfaction. Being a businessman isn’t just about making money or whatever. It’s just how to give it away and how to give it properly. So far, we’ve earned the respect of the Philippine government. We have been very credible, and I hope that this legacy will continue. After me, Cecilio Pedro [of Lamoiyan Corporation] has been assisting me. He is one of my very good right hands at the moment.

This is what brings me to FFCCCII. Hopefully, we can make it even bigger—grow it even bigger [sic]. As I’ve said, I thank all my colleagues in the federation for what we are today.           

 

Q: With so many businesses suffering because of the COVID-19 pandemic, how are your companies coping and keeping up? You mentioned a while ago some are doing better than the others.

HL: I’m happy that our company is very diversified… We have call centers. We also have some IT companies. We have retail outlets. We have Sterling Paper. We have all of that before. And then, of course, one of our biggest companies—we sell the seeds; we sell the rice. And then we have real estate properties.

So this is what we are today. And you have to line up your priorities. For us [second-generation tao kes], we are in the mid-sixties and the late sixties. We have gone through so many hardships in time—during Marcos’ time, during the Martial Law years, in which Aquino was assassinated, there were also financial problems during that time. In 1998, wherein the peso devalued from 20 pesos to 50 pesos at the time. Again, in 2008, where all these things have happened. We’ve weathered so many—all of these things already. Once you have weathered all of these things already, I think it’s not difficult to weather another financial crisis or whatever. But this time, it’s a bit different. Because this time—we thought it was only going to be around three to four months, but it has lingered on to more than six months, [and may linger on for] 12 months, [or] until a good vaccine is finally in place, so we are looking at the first or second quarter of next year. So hopefully, we will improve during that time. But in the meantime, we have also conserved our resources.

In my own business, we have product leadership, customer intimacy, personal excellence, and innovation. So we are taking care of all of this, especially innovation at this time. We are going to innovate—we are going to retool our company.     

 

Q: We have all accepted that we have to go digital, but do you think that traditional Chinoy values still have a place in this digital age?

HL: We are one of the very few companies that are really being modernized. Do you know that we used computers as early as 1976? Banks weren’t even using computers during that time. For us, digitalization and all of these modern things—we have been very up to date. At the moment, I have three tech companies. We do our own software also. We have a company called ChatBot. We are also servicing some of the big companies on the [sic] chatbox and all of these things. These are things you cannot avoid. 

We have been very modern. We are adapting it. Our third generations are more modern, and we are, of course, encouraging them. This is the only way for us to go. That’s why innovation is very important for values. 

 

Q: You are both a first-generation and a second-generation tao ke. As a second-generation tao ke, what lessons did you learn from Sterling that you applied in your own companies?

HL: My father challenged me at one time. He said, “A lot of people are selling products, and when they sell they try to sell it as low as possible.” So if you sell a product at a cheaper price, then you can sell more. That’s how you make money. But he challenged me that you have to sell as high as possible and yet sell more. So how do you sell high and sell more? 

If you look at the Sterling notebook, our price is higher than the others’. But then, I had to meditate on that motto for around one and a half hours. And suddenly, I said okay. If we produce this notebook, maybe five or six companies can also produce the same notebook. But if I want to sell high, I have to make the notebook look glamorous. The cover design has to be exceptional. So I hired 25 artists and we produced the best notebook design and notebook cover. But when you have the cover already, and you make very good designs already, everyone’s going to look at it. But when they open [the notebook] and they feel it, ah—the paper is is so poor, the opacity is very poor! So I make sure the quality is good. We have a certain benchmark for base opacity or the brightness—for all of these things. We make sure the quality, even the caliber of the cover, and the laminations are different. 

But then again, you don’t just do that. You have to go to advertising and promotions. I’m the first company to really advertise notebooks during the 70s. My father passed away in 1976. At that time, With 2 million pesos, I went to the top advertising company J. Water Thompson. I talked to JJ Calero who was the president at the time and asked him, “Can you do an advertising [sic] for me in tri-media for my notebook, for my photo albums, and for my stationery sets?” And he laughed at me. But he accepted my challenge—my offer.  

That’s what my father taught me. Sell high and sell more.  

 

In the end, Dr. Henry Limbonliong said believes in constant improvement and innovation not only of the businesses he owns but also of the communities that he is a part of. A modern tao ke is an entrepreneur who knows how to give back to society. 

Watch the replay for the webinar on CHiNOY TV’s Facebook page, and stay tuned for more Q&A features with Dr. Cecilio Pedro, Kathleen Dy-Go, and Marvin Tiu Lim!  

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