A community leader took on the “biggies” and triumphed
There is something captivatingly disarming about Dr. Cecilio Kwok Pedro, founder, president and CEO of Lamoiyan Corporation.
Maybe it is his wit and candor that make him talk lengthily about things close to his heart like his advocacy for the deaf-mute community, his support of Philippine sports or his involvement in his alma mater. It could be his faith that inspires him to speak up unabashedly about how his life and career have been guided by a devotion to the Almighty. Or probably, it is his humility – how he does not burden himself with the weight of self-importance; how he affably greeted security guards, warehouse personnel and the production team in the Lamoiyan compound during the photo shoot for this article; how he personally and repeatedly served tea to this writer during our interview. Perhaps, it is all these traits combined that have been shaped by a grounded recognition of where he came from.
“I grew up in an average family of five girls and one boy in the looban [interior]of Benavidez, Manila. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with neighborhood kids, some of whom came from the squatter area. I was with them sa bakbakan [in fights], basketball, cara y cruz [a game of heads or tails]and sa larong kalye [in street games]. It was a tough environment where you had to be strong and you had to fight in order to survive.”
Those rough edges gained from the skirmishes in the neighborhood were polished and smoothened in school at Hope Christian High School and the Ateneo de Manila University where he was taught to be a good Christian and to love other people. In college at the Ateneo, Pedro stayed at the Cervini Residence Hall where he was the only Manila native among dormers who all came from the provinces. He initially wanted to study at De La Salle because of its proximity to their house, but Pompeyo Diaz, the dean of the Ateneo Law School back then and his father’s lawyer, talked him into studying with the Jesuits and boarding on campus where he was able to build friendships with people who came from different parts of the country.
Armed with lessons gained at the school of hard knocks in his neighborhood and the academic institutions he attended, Pedro embarked on what would to be a life-long journey to becoming one of the country’s most revered and accomplished entrepreneurs. The story of how he bounced back from losing his business supplying collapsible aluminum toothpaste tubes to multinational companies to rebuilding his company by introducing its own brand, Hapee Toothpaste, and going up against the same multinationals he used to supply the tubes to is extensively documented and well-known in business circles here and abroad.
The Harvard Business Review has, in fact, published a case study about Pedro’s company, entitled “Lamoiyan Corporation of the Philippines: Challenging Multinational Giants.” As head of one of only two Filipino entities used as model studies by the esteemed university, Pedro was invited to speak before its Business Entrepreneurship students. He asked them: “How many among you want to be entrepreneurs?” Seeing every single one raising a hand, he threw down the unexpected challenge, saying: “Then, why are you here? You should be out there starting your own businesses and learning on the job.”
Thirty years since Lamoiyan’s inception in March of 1988, the company has carved its own place in the market with established and trusted brands like Hapee, Gumtect, Dazz and Licealiz. Pedro admits challenges abound, especially given how multinationals spend huge amounts that command more prominent shelf displays and facings, more above and below the line advertisements and unceasing promotions.
Pedro muses: “In the Bible, there is a story about David and Goliath. In the business world, Goliath is a million times bigger than the Goliath in the Bible. Multinational companies have seemingly limitless resources, so many talents and so much creativity and innovation that it is very difficult for small companies to survive competing against them. What smaller companies must do is find small niches in the market, stay in those small niches and win those small niches. Hapee Toothpaste is number 1 in the kiddie category. Gumtect is also number 1 in its category. We are also very strong in the low-priced categories. These are the niches we aim to consistently win in. But to tell the world we can beat the Goliaths in the market continues to be a dream for me. So, we have to strategically choose our battles.”
Pedro’s long history in business has given him a front row seat into understanding the Filipino consumer. “There still is some form of colonial mentality among Filipinos who think any local brand is inferior to brands from Japan or the US. The onus is on local brands to prove themselves to be of good quality. But that is just one part of the equation. You build brand loyalty if you have good quality and affordable products. The problem in the local market is there are a lot of cheap and low quality products. You will not be able to survive long-term if your products are cheap and of inferior quality.”
‘Man for Others’
But margin and profits were never the sole and primary motivation for Pedro. He has never been one who aimed at gaining the whole world and neglecting people in the peripherals. “This is why Lamoiyan has not gone public. I knew once we jumped onto that bandwagon, we would become trapped by the idea of going for more and more bottomline. You obviously need profit for your business. But being in business means you have a responsibility not just to earn but to also give back. I guess this is the Ateneo influence and the word of God which taught me to be a ‘Man for Others’.”
Pedro’s brand of leadership is firmly anchored on Christian principles of sharing with and caring for others. One senses Pedro’s level of passion increases manifold when he starts talking about his advocacies. He is the chairman of the Ateneo Scholarship Foundation. But it is in the deaf-mute community that he has made the most impact. Lamoiyan Corporation is one of the largest employers of this sector in the country. At least 30 percent of the workforce, both corporate and in the factory, are deaf-mute. Sign language classes are mandatory for all Lamoiyan employees.
“Everyone had to adjust when we started hiring deaf-mutes. It has created a culture of tolerance, patience, respect and acceptance in the company,” recalls Pedro. Lamoiyan Corporation has awarded academic scholarships to deaf-mutes through the schools of the Deaf Evangelical Alliance Foundation (DEAF Inc) where Pedro sits also as chairman. “The graduates of our schools go out to the communities and abroad where they teach sign language and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our main thrust is to train the deaf so they could educate the deaf.”
“This for me is more meaningful than beating Colgate. Even if I beat them here in the Philippines, they will still be number 1 in other parts of the world. So, what’s the point? So, it is better if I spend my energy helping people with disabilities.”
Pedro has partnered with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which gives out free hearing aids to those with impaired hearing. He is involved in the Serviam CCC Foundation, which promotes Servant Leadership in Business.
Pedro is also one of the biggest godfathers of Philippine sports. Lamoiyan was the primary sponsor of the Philippine contingent to the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2002 Busan Asian Games. They have also been one of the most decorated teams in the Philippine Basketball League (PBL) and the PBA D-League.
His love for sports emerged from his stint as a varsity swimmer for the Ateneo. He adds: “Sports is always a good thing. There are three dimensions to the human being. One is mental. Then, there’s spiritual. The other is physical. The mind, the body and the soul. You neglect one, then something is missing. There is imbalance. It has to be a wholistic approach. When I was the principal of Hope Christian High School, I developed the basketball team and I pushed very hard for women’s volleyball.” He has pledged his support to the new Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Ricky Vargas by offering to finance Philippine swimming.
After five decades as a trailblazing visionary, Pedro has decided to devote more of his time to his social work, turning over the company’s reins to his only son Joel Conrad Pedro, who now has the responsibility of transporting Lamoiyan to new frontiers.
Pedro, however, has already left an indelible mark in the landscape of business and entrepreneurship in the Philippines. He created a blueprint for Filipinos who have dreams of competing against multinationals. He showed that with perseverance, ingenuity and a steadfast faith in the Almighty, challenging Goliaths in the markets, although daunting, is not impossible. More important, he proved there is no conflict between establishing a vast business empire and contributing to the community. Rather, these are two mutually exclusive concepts that bring meaning to one another.
BY ARIEL IAN CLARITO PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN