ENTERPRISING CEO REAPS SUCCESS WITH BANANA LEAVES
Growing up in a world of bolts, bumpers and ball bearings, entrepreneur Rommel Juan admits his foray into the food industry jump-started an unusual but eventful career path.
Famously known as the man behind the Filipino fast food chain Binalot, Juan actually began his professional life in the jeepney industry. “My Tita Chit’s [aunt’s] companies, my brothers,’ my sister’s companies, dito nanggaling lahat [all our business originated from jeeps],” a fact he proudly reveals about MD Juan, the family’s 50-year-old concern, which he now leads as CEO.
His grandfather, Dr. Maximino D. Juan, started MD Juan in the 1960s, fashioning parts for the American-made jeeps left behind after World War II. Rommel’s father, Sonny, grew the business further by exporting parts and body kits. The company today caters to collectors and restorers, providing replacement parts for jeeps designed from the 1940s to 1980s.
In the same way his father inherited the business from his grandfather, it was only to be expected that Juan continue the family business, and he willingly did so. But once onboard, Juan found himself uninspired and, surprisingly, with a lot of time on his hands.
This was when he pitched the idea of exploring the food industry to his brother Raffy. After much thought, they conceived their unique concept – Binalot, reliving their memories from childhood when their mother would serve meals wrapped in banana leaves.
Food for thoughtIn spite of diving into an entirely different field, Juan completely felt in his element. “I guess, I felt comfortable and confident with the idea because I had a very ‘entrepreneurial-centered’ upbringing,” explains Juan. Aside from his father operating MD Juan, his mother Charito managed her own school in Malabon City.
“We would all gather during dinner and [my parents]would discuss work and their day. They would always tell us about the challenges and problems of the business, but they would never make it seem unsurmountable. They would tell us the solutions and how they overcame it. So, business to us seemed like fun.”
Juan recalls an incident, involving his father, that burns bright in his mind. “On one of his trips from Taiwan, my dad came home and gave me a ton of toys. My 7-year-old self was, of course, overjoyed. But he said to me, ‘Hindi yan lahat para sa iyo. Choose one and the rest, you sell.” Juan did just that, and that experience ignited a fierce passion in him to become a better businessman.
In the years that followed, Juan honed his merchant skills, selling everything from Voltes 5 stickers to elementary school classmates to sports shirts to college chums.
“Unlike other individuals, there was no fear or hesitancy to jump into business as I had been trained very young,” he says. Being fearless in the promotions game didn’t mean he didn’t calculate the risks, however. “What I learned early on was that when you start a business, you should start small, and it should be an amount you are willing to lose. Because even if you lose, at least you can chalk it up to experience.”
With P50,000 capital, Juan and his brother Raffy, together with their chef-friend Aileen Anastacio, started Binalot. “It was a guerilla operation at first, because we’d just hand out flyers around the condominiums. Then, when customers ordered, we’d just deliver.” Just as the activity gained traction, the building authorities sniffed out their operations – “the whole floor started to smell kasi,” Juan grins – and the siblings were made to search for a legitimate site for their food enterprise.
Taking rootBinalot established its first store in a 20-sqm space along Jupiter Street, Makati City, eventually establishing a presence in mall food courts across Metro Manila. “We were able to grow because of COD – Care of Daddy,” he laughs. They borrowed funds from Juan senior, paying him back through post-dated checks for several months. “We learned everything on the fly. But what’s great about business is that everything has a solution.
“If you don’t have enough time, you clone yourself or get help. If you don’t have enough money, you get a financier or you take out a loan. If you don’t have the know-how, you get a consultant or a partner. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help,” Juan says.
Today, Binalot has grown to encompass 40 outlets, with 37 local branches and three located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “By franchising our first stores there, it has opened up an exciting opportunity for us as a company. The UAE is, as you know, a Muslim country, so we’ve had to work around the issue of pork. Here in the Philippines, our menu is 70 percent pork!” That said, the company flexed their skills in the kitchen and explored different ways to create delicious dishes. “If all goes well in the UAE, I’m excited to bring those recipes here and offer the menu in Mindanao, General Santos, Cagayan de Oro and Davao, where we have a lot of Muslim brothers,” Juan says. In addition, the young executive is considering attaining halal certification for his brainchild.
“My vision for the next five to 10 years, is to expand the company. We’re planning to open up 14 more stores and maybe another foreign franchise in Singapore or Qatar. I also want to get into healthier food, but through Binalot. I really believe in the brand, and I believe it can go a long way further.”
Shades of successFrom the humble, tummy filling binalot, Juan has reaped results and garnered numerous awards.
Besides being recognized as a finalist for the Ernst Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Juan entered Asia Society’s 21 Philippines Young Leaders circle in 2009. “Juan is not only a successful entrepreneur, his ideas are innovative, rooted in his love for country and the Filipino people,” says Suyin Liu Lee of Asia Society, the renowned organization behind Asia Society Philippines, founded by Washington SyCip. “His success is not personal success, but success of those he works with and how this impacts the larger community, society and country.”
“The Asia 21 Young Leaders from the Philippines are chosen not only by being the best in their field or sector, they give back to their communities and are change-makers who disrupt – creating an impact… Juan’s entrepreneurial ventures are a model for the economic contribution of SMEs as well as the sustainability of our environment,” she adds.
As a company, Binalot received the Centennial prize for the UPS out-of-the-box small business competition, an Anvil award, the best retailer award from the Philippine Retailers Association and the Intel-AIM Corporate Responsibility Award (IACRA). In 2013, Binalot was also recognized for its community service DAHON program, winning the Green Apple Environment Award from the London-based Green Organisation.
In 2013, Binalot was also recognized for its community service DAHON program, winning the Green Apple Environment Award from the London-based Green Organisation.
“From the many honors and recognitions, I think the most significant and sentimental one for me was the first – the Intel-AIM Corporate Responsibility Award,” Juan says. For that milestone win, he and his father flew to Atlanta, Georgia, to receive the award. “We were very proud of that because Binalot represents Filipino culture, Filipino values. Through our company, we protect the environment and promote sustainable Filipino food.
“It stands for a lot. It’s not just a business; it’s an advocacy.”
Remembering othersAlong with Binalot’s rising popularity, Juan has made sure the business is not all about ringing cash registers. Through DAHON – Dangal at Hanapbuhay para sa Nayon program – Juan has helped to stimulate livelihood to the people of Nagcarlan, Laguna. The community, comprised of around 30 families, now supplies the hundreds and thousands of leaves that back up the Binalot proposition.
“The people are happy because they say that they’re able to buy medicine and provide for themselves and their families. Previously, they would harvest bananas, which proved difficult because usually, by the time the fruits were ripe, they were already stolen,” Juan reports. But now, since there’s an abundance of banana leaves and these grow quickly, they’re able to derive a very stable and secure income.
Today, this father of three continues to relish the high that comes with running several businesses. In addition to MD Juan, Binalot and Centro (another business he set up with his brother), Juan also serves as CEO of PhUV, which manufactures electric jeepneys and bikes. He is also the current president of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines (EVAP), which furthers the advocacy of “green” transportation. PhUV furnishes electric vehicles to resorts and cities around the country.
“For me, there’s nothing more that I wish. I have all that I want,” Juan declares. Having worked hard and reaped the fruits of his industry, he would now rather focus on the things that matter. “What turns me on and motivates me in business is the building aspect, the relationships. I like building a good team, engaging with partners and customers. I love growing the company in order to provide more jobs.
“For me, money is just a by-product. It’s the result of your passion, your hard work and doing what you enjoy doing. “
Juan insists making a profit no longer stirs his juices. Rather, his personal and family life have taken on more importance. “Business Is like a rubber ball. If you drop it, it can bounce back. But family is like a crystal ball. If you drop it, it shatters, and you can never put it back together.
“I always gauge the success of a person by looking at his family. If they’re happy and their family is happy, then they are, indeed, successful.”
WORDS FROM THE WISE
Multi-awarded CEO Rommel Juan shares nuggets of business wisdom.
• “I always say that a good decision done quickly is better than a great decision done slowly. Meaning to say, if the idea is good enough, try it out already. Don’t wait.”
• “When you start a business, you should start small and (the investment) should be something you are willing to lose. Also, work with the resources you have. Huwag kang sumugal ng di mo kaya.”
• “Business is like a rubber ball. If it falls, it bounces back. But family is really more important. It’s like a crystal ball, if it falls, it breaks apart. Business should be a tool to improve family life and the community.”