A unique pair of professionals share their journey
“Siya ang tOtoong boardroom. Ako pang cooking room lang.”
In this self-deprecating manner, Johnlu G. Koa, founder and CEO, The French Baker introduces us to the seeming dynamics between two singular individuals – and entrepreneurs – who just happen to be siblings.
By “siya,” he is referring to his elder-by-two-years kuya, Johnip G. Cua (the nurse in Binondo’s Arellano Hospital where he was born assumed Koa was spelled Cua), from 1995 to 2006, president and general manager of the fast moving consumer goods behemoth Proctor & Gamble Philippines.
Old friend Johnlu, is, of course, pulling our leg. As far as his family – consisting of his mom Cristina, Johnip and three other brothers Johnsen, Johnwayne and Johnyan – are concerned, the third son of the all-boy brood is the acknowledged “leader” of the Koas’ business concerns. Says Johnip: “It’s always better in a corporation to have a single leader, and not multiple ones.”
By default, Johnip could not participate in the birthing pains of The French Baker as he was then moving up the P&G corporate ladder in hubs such as Cincinnati (1982) and Taipei (1985). “He was not there when I was starting out my business. Parang OFW nga siya na I would request padala mo na lang ako ng pera,” chuckles Johnlu. But whenever the corporate executive would return for home visits, he made sure to receive an update on the burgeoning bread empire, saying he was amazed at the exponential growth he saw on Johnlu’s progress charts. “Imagine, from nothing, in a few years’ time, he was building a commissary!”
Johnip’s upward trajectory was no less spectacular. In 1992, he arrived back in the Philippines from his overseas postings with wife Anne, whom he met in Taipei, in tow, to assume the P&G marketing director post and in 1995, was promoted to become the first Filipino president and general manager of P&G Philippines, a position that included regional operations responsibilities for Asean, New Zealand and India. That professional gig ran for 11 years, occasionally causing some pangs of guilt “for overstaying (P&G country managers typically only stay for five years).” Johnip recalls: “I really wanted to retire at 40. But when that came and I looked at my bank account, I found out hindi pa puwede. Then, when I was about to turn 50, I looked again at my bank account and found puwede na.”
Even the lure of new challenges in another foreign assignment like Canada or Mexico, dangled by his boss, was not enough to entice the by now corporate weary Johnip to budge from the Philippines. “I got too attached to the life here. I did not want to uproot my children Chris and Joanne from their friends, and I had social responsibilities. I was chairman of the board of trustees of Xavier School (all the Koa boys are alumni of this Jesuit institution in San Juan), which was embarking on building a new school in Nuvali, SantaRosa, Laguna. The project was completed in 2012 with the complex consisting of a primary school building named after Henry Sy, Sr., the admin building after David Consunji, the gymnasium after Ramon Ang and the Oracle of St. Francis Xavier, a stunning chapel by architect Bong Recio, where no wall is repeated and features a different slab of stone inspired by the Rock of St. Peter. A high school building, again named after Ramon Ang, is set to be completed in two years.
Says Johnip: “I could not have done this had I stayed in P&G. It’s not that I’m a disloyal P&G-er. I just felt it was an achievement as not everyone can retire at 50.”
Busy board director
These days, the former Xavier boy may not be clocking in on a 9-to-5 scenario, but this is not to mean that his iPhone 6 doesn’t keep pinging him to his duties as board director of 13 (count ‘em, Virginia) top corporations, including Philippine Airlines, PAL Holdings, MacroAsia and Eton Properties of the Lucio Tan Group of Companies, plus BDO Private Bank, STI Education Systems and Century Pacific Food among others. “I have Wash Sycip to thank for exposing me to the job of being a director. He asked me to join the board of directors of Metrobank in 1995 when I was still at P&G.”
Before attending each meeting, Johnip has to study a thick status report folder. “Our primary job is to make sure of the sustainability of the corporation, ensuring the revenue and profits grow and that corporate governance and compliance are observed.
“We’re really there to help. They do pick our brains, but I see that as more of a public service.”
As a relatively free agent, Johnip is now able to participate in the family’s business projects, holding The French Baker’s sole franchise in SM Mega Mall. The 59 other French Bakers, criss-crossing the archipelago up to as far as Davao – the latest to launch – are held by the Koas and several financial partners.
Inspired by Gokongwei
We meet the Koa brothers at Lartizan Boulangerie Francaise in Ayala Malls, The 30th, a new leafy commercial enclave along Meralco Avenue in Pasig City because Johnlu wants to show off his latest “baby.” With this confection of a typical French bakery and third in the blooming chain, he continues his enduring l’affaire with all things francaise. But in reality, Lartizan is his way of reinventing himself and staying ahead of the competition, represented by global boulangerie-patisserie giants Paul and Kaiser, who have seen the tasty potential of the Philippine market.
“Twenty years ago, I already saw it coming – artisanal breads. I didn’t want to become irrelevant, so I went and studied artisanal baking,” he says.
Certain that the Parisienne presence on his home turf was just a matter of time, Johnlu pre-empted the arrival by producing delectable macarons, delighting trend-addicted and well-traveled Pinoys. So when the iconic Laduree and the like sashayed into the local consciousness, the novelty was not as attention-grabbing as its promoters had hoped it would be. Besides the Ayala Malls, The 30th location, Lartizans are also found in Serendra in BGC and Century Mall on Kalayaan Avenue.
Inspired by his avowed idol John Gokongwei, Johnlu bought the Philippine franchise to the popular global teahouse chain Chatime. He recalls the older John recounting during a public forum that on one of his many trips to China, he noticed local travelers toting bottles of preserved tea. Picking up a sample, he requested son Lance to explore the possibility of manufacturing a similar product. The result: C2 Green Tea now sold around the world, including Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
“So that’s the secret of successful people,” says Johnlu. “They never stop thinking about what to come up with next.
“Mr. Gokongwei was in his 80’s then, and yet he still made the effort to bring back an idea and have it executed.”
Johnlu has promised the owners of Chatime that he would make the beverage the best known in Metro Manila, simply by establishing a welter of distribution centers along the length and breadth of Edsa up to the Mall of Asia. He has made good on that promise, he says.
Between the Koa brothers, there is a palpable sense of deep respect and affection. Definitely a legacy from their parents Raymundo and Cristina, who admonished their precocious quintet “to always take care of each other.” Their father, who was born in Dagupan City and built up the Armor brand of undershirts, managed to restore his ancestral home in Jinjiang, Fujian province to museum-like quality, complete with intricate gold-lacquered carvings and beautifully sculpted stone walls.
Unlike typical siblings, there was never any discord or fierce rivalry, perhaps because each boy was comfortable in his own skin. “We were both honor students in Xavier” says Johnip. “And it was because of Johnlu that I transferred to UP (University of the Philippines) after two years at the Ateneo. I learned that he was paying only 300 pesos for tuition every sem, and here I was asking 3,000 pesos from our parents. I got embarrassed.
“Transferring had its good and bad points. It was UP that taught me how to survive and adapt.”
Admiration can only be heard in Johnip’s words, describing his younger brother’s journey to his position as one of the country’s most astute businessmen, who captured the Filipinos’ fancy for fine breads and pastries. “He has always been creatively entrepreneurial. But he had it really tough when he was starting out. If the truck driver didn’t show up for the early morning delivery, he had to drive that truck himself!”
“I never had a tough life. I had a nice office and a nice company car.”
As for his kuya, Johnlu says: “He may not have been around physically most of the time, but I knew he was always there if I needed him.”
Yes, brothers are, indeed, forever.
BY MARGIE T. LOGARTA AND PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN