Where It All Began
Bienvenido Tantoco, Sr. shares how one of the country’s leading fashion-retail brands started and how it manages to stay on top even after decades
Great things start from small beginnings, and in the case of Rustan’s, it was a humble sales area in their living room in 1950s Makati that enabled and began sustaining almost seven decades of the upscale retail empire – which is now a conglomerate of different businesses – known all over the Philippines until today.
The nonagenarian patriarch Bienvenido “Benny” Tantoco, Sr. relates to Taste, Travel and Trends how, with his late wife Gliceria, the business named after the first syllables of their last names came to be – from working for his mother’s relative in the Rufino movie houses and getting an opportunity to travel the world, to the social causes they support nowadays.
Taste, Travel and Trends (TTT): How did you get started in the fashion-retail business and what motivated you through the years?
Bienvenido Tantoco Sr. (BTS): It all started when my boss, who perhaps was very pleased with the work I was doing for him at the Rufino movie houses: as a reward for my good performance, he offered to fulfill one of my life long wishes to travel around the world with my wife. During our trip, we found ourselves drawn to stores instead of tourist sites. We ended up becoming more interested in the fashion merchandise and other products we saw that were not available in the Philippines. My wife had a very keen eye for beauty, so we bought about 20 suitcases of products with the intention to sell it from the living room of our home. We were very pleased that everything we bought sold out in a couple of weeks. We used the profit we made to fund subsequent buying trips.
As the business got bigger, the living room became a proper store. A short time later, and encouraged by the steady stream of business we were getting, we converted our entire two-story house into a multi-brand fashion and home store.
TTT: Can you give us some highlights and your inspiration in continuing to build this retail business?
BTS: Through the early days of Rustan and even years after she passed, my wife, Glecy, has been the major driving force of Rustan. She had the most discerning palette and eye for fashion. Her ability to spot things that are not only beautiful but that which appreciate in value in time or bring out the innate beauty of the wearer, is legendary and is something that our buyers and merchandise managers continue to emulate to this day.
What we realized is that the market, although already crowded, was still underserved by a retailer that stood for quality, great service, and a pleasurable shopping experience. Hence, the tagline we developed was, “where shopping is a pleasure.” We discovered an unfulfilled gap in the market and positioned ourselves uniquely in a retail era when shopping was just a mere transaction.
TTT: When you opened your first Rustan’s department store, what was your vision for it then, and has it changed throughout the years?
BTS: We wanted Rustan to offer one-stop shopping convenience: this was important before and it continues to be important now, especially in light of increasing congestion in urban areas. We envisioned Rustan to be the most-trusted purveyor of the finest products around the world locally. This continues to be our vision to this day, but on an expanded level.
Aside from the finest products, we are now also trying to be a hub for activities and experience that fit the lifestyle of our customers. Beyond just servicing the Super A and elite class, we have broadened our target market to include the upwardly mobile and aspirational upper middle class, who also deserve to experience and indulge in the best things in life.
Now, as it was then, we want to make a big stand on quality, luxury and great service. We want to be the store and the team that values relationships with our customers, our people, our partners, and our communities.
TTT: You have traveled far and wide, and have continued to do so. From all of these experiences, what are the defining or favorite places and finds for you?
BTS: My favorite places are France, Spain, Italy, and Morocco. I like them because these places offer a great fusion of history, art, fashion, food and culture. They are also close to my heart because these are places I frequently visited with my family. In terms of business, I admire department stores like Selfridges, Rinascente, Printemps, Bloomingdales, Le Bon Marche, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf, just to name a few. These stores have successfully made department stores relevant even in today’s very challenging market.
TTT: You are a well-respected pioneer and noted leader in the fashion retail industry in the Philippines, what do you think makes you stand out?
BTS: I think at the end of the day, it’s the competencies that we have built up over time. You can’t be excellent in your craft overnight. We have remained focused on our craft for nearly seven decades. Aside from our expertise, it’s also the passion that we have for what we do. We also have the right team and the kind of culture that makes us on the whole a great fashion and upscale department store team.
TTT: Aside from all your business achievements, you are also known to be generous amongst your employees and in helping worthy social causes: why is giving back important to you?
BTS: We greatly value our relationship with our employees. Their loyalty and their collective capability and teamwork are the greatest strengths of Rustan. We want them to grow while helping the company grow profitably. We are one of the few companies in the country that does not have a union. We also offer permanent and full time employment in a country and service industry that works with a casual hiring system.
It takes years to build the trust we have with our employees. This is an advantage for us that can’t be replicated quickly even in this day and age.
Rustan is a big supporter of the arts. Through the efforts of my daughter Nedy, we have enabled the Philippine Philharmonic to perform in the great music halls of Europe and New York. We are a very religious family, and hence we support activities that help fill the spiritual needs of the Filipino.We organize various religious retreats and conferences to our employees and the public. We also support the most important causes of women including for example breast cancer.
Education is my personal advocacy. I am currently providing scholarships to 18 public school teachers in Malolos for their master’s degrees in education. Aside from scholarships, we also continually sponsor continuing education lectures and workshops for teachers not enrolled in the master’s degree track. We also offer MBA scholarships to deserving individuals through the Dr. Bienvenido R. Tantoco Sr. Graduate School of Business at the Jose Rizal University.
TTT: As you have turned 95 years this 2017, what key lessons in life would you like to share with us, especially regarding businesses and relating to your legacy in the retail industry?
BTS: I really believe that beyond just making money, businesses must be a force of good. As businessmen, our greatest mission is to unleash the passion, and ignite the human spirit in every person. In business, if your people are motivated and well trained, you can’t possibly lose. Lastly, you should never sell out your values just to succeed or advance in life.