If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again.
CHiNOY TV’s Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart once again crosses borders to discover stories from the rich tropical island of Cebu. In this latest episode, the spotlight shines on Justin Uy, the founder and president of the Philippines’ largest dried mango manufacturer, Profood International Corporation. Revealing the story of his inspiring past, Uy recounts his four attempts at starting businesses and ultimately shares the three ingredients to his success: diligence, initiative, and mangoes.
Diligence: Supporting the Family
Born as the fourth child to a family of 11 children, Justin Uy knew from an early age that it was important for him to put in the work so that he could help support the family.
“We are eight boys and three girls. We call ourselves a basketball team,” joked Uy. “I started quite young in business. The main reason is because I wanted to help my dad. We were a big family with eleven siblings, and my father was a cigarette distributor, so financially, we were not that well-off.”
Uy started his first business together with one of his brothers in the 1970s. Since the shell craft industry was popular at the time, the two decided to produce and export seashell jewelry. However, since the industry was highly seasonal, Uy also decided to pursue other business ventures such as egg-laying poultry and mushroom farming. Ultimately, the businesses fell through, but that didn’t discourage Uy from trying again.
“Somehow, all my three businesses before — although they all failed — [they] gave me all the experiences [I needed] to go into my fourth business, which is the dried mango,” shared Uy.
There was one reason why Uy ventured into dried mango manufacturing: the lack of capital. “At that time, mangoes cost less than a peso per kilo. And the farmers, during the summer months, don’t even harvest their mangoes because they don’t have any buyers. They couldn’t sell to the fresh fruit market. So that time was the perfect time for us, [when] we [did not] have the money. I could tell the farmers, ‘You give me your mangoes. I’ll pay you in 90 days or whenever I can sell my product.’ That’s the biggest break I had at the time.”
Initiative: Seeking and Recognizing Opportunities
Together with his eldest brother, Uy founded Profood International Corporation at the young age of 19 in 1980, selling dried mangoes as their primary product. At first, the business did not see any success during the first three years of its operation, especially because Uy and his brother did not yet have any knowledge on food processing.
“For the first three years, we failed. We failed [so] miserably that all the borrowed money was gone. Somehow, [during] that time, my brother gave up. I had no choice but to continue. If not, who will pay for all the borrowed money from all our friends and relatives?” Uy said.
To improve the situation, Uy then forced himself to learn more about food preservation through a two-week course at the University of the Philippines (UP) and self-study. His breakthrough eventually came when he decided to focus on supplying the export market.
“Since my competitors [were] way ahead of us already, I had no choice but to concentrate on the export market. There are two reasons why I chose the export market,” said Uy. “The first reason is that the volume [ordered] is bigger. The second reason is that I could not afford to give supermarkets a six-month credit because I don’t have the money. If you sell to export, although the price is lower, you get your payment once you deliver immediately.”
As an industry newcomer, Profood International Corp. had a difficult time penetrating the domestic market due to the strong presence of existing local competitors. However, the obstacle turned out to be a blessing in disguise because focus on the export market allowed the business to grow.
“You have to be innovative in the export market,” explained Uy. “I remember we were the first to come up with laminated packaging. Another one was that I offered to my buyer a guarantee that [our products] would pass their country’s FDA regulations. [On the other hand], my competitors would say, ‘You get this as is. When [the products] reach your country, we have no more control over [them]. It’s up to you how you’re going to let them come into your country.’ That’s how we were able to penetrate the export market.”
Mangoes: Establishing a worldwide reputation
Uy’s success in the export market now comes under Profood International’s two main brands: Philippine Brand, which is known among Western buyers in Europe and the United States, and Cebu Brand, which is more established in Asia.
However, Uy maintains that his best breakthrough is actually the continued modernization of his business. “I got a big loan from the government to modernize my factory. By modernizing my factory, I can penetrate the big names — the big companies all over the world.”
Of course, the opportunity to produce for global markets did not come overnight. Uy had to put in the work. “I remember in 1993, I wanted to penetrate the Japanese market. To be able to penetrate their market, I had to approach Del Monte and tell them, ‘I have this facility. Can I produce something for you?’”
“I ended up toll-packing for Del Monte, for Nestle, for Coca-Cola, for DOLE. And with all the big names behind me, I was finally able to penetrate the Japanese market,” said Uy proudly.
But the growth did not stop there. “Profood was initially only a single product — only dried mangoes. The only problem is that, after the mango season, I laid off maybe 95% of my workers because there are no more mangoes to process. You cannot continue this way. So Profood had to be innovative. Today, we process 14 types of Philippine fruits, so that the whole factory can continue to operate even when the mangoes are not in season. We now produce all types of tropical fruits in commercial quantities.”
Catch the next episode of Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart on Sunday at 8 PM, airing on CNN Philippines.