While the local liquor industry is dominated by suits, Olivia Limpe-Aw stands out with her soft curls and flawless waves as she sits at the head of the table.
She is the first woman in five generations to lead the over 160-year-old Destileria Limtuaco. She also co-founded the association of the country’s top distilleries including Lucio Tan’s Tanduay and Andrew Tan’s Emperador brands.
And in September 2020, she received recognition to be among Forbes Asia magazine’s list of 25 inspiring female business leaders in the Asia-Pacific region.
Bending the gender of traditional family business succession
“It’s tough. You need to prove yourself and face many challenges along the way”, Olivia admits.
It has been a big responsibility to run the country’s oldest distillery because, Olivia said, “you don’t just think of today and the near future; you have to think of the next generation.”
Throughout her childhood, she has been exposed and has familiarized herself with the male-dominated industry. She roamed her dad’s office as if she was in a playground. Olivia shared that her father, Julius Limpe, would train the seven of them one by one, and is the fifth daughter, she patiently waited for her turn.
She witnessed her father go through several plights and, she recalls, she was very eager to help. It later turned out that she was the only one who was interested in taking over the family business.
She then furthered her tao ke skills and graduated from the University of the Philippines majoring in business economics. Immediately after finishing her study, she entered their distillery as her father’s assistant.
Fast-forward to the present day, Olivia remains committed to maintaining the wisdom and tradition that run in the family. Even in her day-to-day activities, it shows that a part of her still prefers the old-school ways of living. Olivia shared she likes her breakfast served with the dailies despite the presence and convenience of online news portals.
When asked what makes her leadership different from the former heads, she simply said it is being a woman, striking a balance of a strong aura and maternal femininity.
“Leadership by example, walk the talk, be fair and consistent with policies. Do what is right, even if it is not popular. I put value in succession planning because it is very important to prepare our sixth generation to continue the legacy of our family and Destileria Limtuaco,” she said.
Being a Modern Tao Ke
After taking over the family business in 2004, Olivia reinvented her family’s brand. Along with her business managing skills, she also honed her creativity, passion, and pride for local products and incorporated them into their craft spirits. This product innovation gave the company an edge despite the fast-growing alcohol industry here and abroad.
From Paradise Mango Rum, to the Amadeo Coffee Liqueur, the Manille Liqueur de Calamansi, she sees to it that Destileria Limtuaco continues to tickle taste buds all over the world.
“For our Philippine craft spirits line, first, we use the best ingredients, and then make it in accordance with internationally accepted production processes that pass the regulations and standard of various developed countries like the U.S.A., EU, and Japan,” Olivia proudly said.
Ironically, she doesn’t do social or casual drinking, only for work. She admits she has tried all the products that they manufacture but her favorite is the Amadeo Coffee Liqueur, simply because she loves coffee.
Aside from product innovation, the distillery also entered e-commerce as they recently launched their online platform. They also started distributing several of their brands such as the Manille Beach Bar in El Nido, Palawan. These, and the Destileria Limtuaco Museum, have been a great help in boosting their sales and market reach. However, they have been closed due to the imposition of the community quarantine since March this year.
Olivia shared that the most recent struggle of the industry before the pandemic was the raised liquor taxes last year. This was in the line with the second tranche of the government’s tax reform program. About 20% jump in taxes has been charged on alcoholic drinks.
As the head of the Distilled Spirits Association of the Philippines, Olivia is remembered to have made comments on the issue, saying that designing tax structures is very crucial “as it might kill one over the other.”
She added no one will complain if it’s maintained equitably.
Meeting the pandemic challenge
Drinking has been a part of Filipino culture as it became the favorite social activity be it in merry-making or grieving. Olivia observed that before the pandemic happened, people drink more beer when the economy is good; and people tend to drink more distilled spirits or liqueurs if they are in more difficult times.
“They don’t really drink alone unlike in developed countries, but there are E-numan sessions now. However people drink less than they normally would do in a live drinking session,” she said.
But no bumps can slow her down. Immediately after the lockdown, Destileria Limtuaco applied for a license to operate as a cosmetic manufacturer to produce sanitizer alcohol. Olivia shared they decided to repurpose their distillery to help meet the supply gap in the market.
She claimed the manufacturing process is simpler than making distilled spirits and alcoholic beverages.
Olivia meanwhile did not express optimism nor having any worries about what’s next to come after the pandemic.
“How things will change post-COVID-19 pandemic, we will have to wait and see.”
Her concoction of success
Contrary to the usual image of a CEO being stiff and authoritative, Olivia maintains her approachable and relaxed personality.
She shared that it’s one of her success secrets, cultivating good relationships with the people around, be it your stakeholders or your employees.
“You have to be prepared organization-wide to be able to reinvent yourself or find new opportunities to keep the business going. It’s always a team effort and so it pays to continuously learn and improve your team’s capabilities.”
Olivia also pointed out the significance of saving up for the rainy season. Whether it’s for the company you’re building or for your personal life, she said you should always have a long-range vision.
She added, to be an effective leader, you have to be realistic and decisive. “Being the head of a company is a huge role that requires you to make tough decisions in order to thrive.”
She further explained that it pays to be passionate and hard-working to keep the business afloat and viable because many families are depending on it for their livelihood.
When asked how does she define power: “The ability to influence, organize, and execute things that can change the status quo, introduce innovations that change the way things normally are, that’s power.”