An oil executive has faith in people’s potential
There is no mask and no one behind it, eager to present a best face forward during this expansive and usually revealing BoardRoom Watch interview.
Francis Glenn Yu, president and CEO of Seaoil Philippines, the country’s largest independent fuel company and the first to open a gasoline retail station in 1998 after the deregulation of the oil industry, believes integrity must inspire all facets of one’s – his – life.
“The way you live should not be bifurcated. It’s a totality that you can’t just say this is who I am at work, and this is who I am at home. I challenge people as to why they have to put labels on each of their activities.”
Born into the business
Yu, the eldest son of low-key tycoons Francis and Josefina Yu, assumed the reins of a business “I was born into” at the young age of 30 in 2002. The elder Francis was a working student, earning his civil engineering degree from Mapua Institute of Technology and collecting bills owed to his cousin who owned a gas station in Grace Park, Caloocan. He met his wife Josie, a secretary at one of the companies he frequented, who was also doubling to complete accountacy from the University of Santo Tomas.
The couple made a perfect entrepreneurial pair, who saw bright opportunity in the industrial and bunker fuel arena, especially with growing clamor from contacts of Francis Sr. to supply their manufacturing needs. During the years of struggle, it wasn’t beyond the Yu patriarch – he and Josie went on to have four boys and one girl – to personally deliver drums of bunker fuel.
Despite relentless assaults on profitability such as the 1973 petroleum crisis and political instability, the Yus persevered and capitalized on the deregulation of the local oil industry in 1998. Going independent, Glenn Yu stresses, resulted in “growing faster and being able to decide more quickly on certain matters.”
“It forced us to be more innovative, creative and not dependent on any foreign partner to provide the infrastructure.” The first milestone taken by Seaoil (a play on mom Josie’s nickname with logo designed by Francis Sr. with Yu sitting beside him as he worked on the drafting table) was to open a gas retail station in Tutuban. In the style of many family ventures, it was a mom and pop affair with the parents and children, and even Yu’s then fiancée and now wife Jacqueline, pitching in to make it run. That 127 sqm landmark may no longer be there, a victim of redevelopment, but in its place, across the country from Calamaniugan in Aparri, Cagayan to Glan in Saranggani, Davao Occidental, are over 400 Seaoil outlets, made possible by franchise holders and partners.
(We even discovered a Seaoil station at the end of our present address along P. Tuazon Blvd. and EDSA, Cubao on the eve of this conversation with Yu. Talk about serendipity!)
Says Yu: “If you asked us whether we had thought we could achieve what we have achieved these past 20 years, all we can say is – it has been beyond our imagination.”
Yu, a chemical engineering graduate of the University of British Columbia (UBC), recalls that he had always been mindful of the expectations placed on an oldest son, but there was a difference in his nascent mindset. “When I was growing up, I knew I had the talent for business. But I wanted to understand what were those gifts were for. What was I supposed to do with them?
“That got me on the journey of asking the hard questions. I could see opportunities and profit from my talent, but life wasn’t just about profit. I was challenged to think about how to live a meaningful life.”
He embraced becoming a student of history and world philosophies, exploring what was coherent and meaningful in them to help form his outlook.
“For me, the ultimate question has always been about purpose.”
Inextricably linked to Yu’s conviction that the professional and personal are one and the same, is the interchangeable kinship of work and worship or avodah, following the Hebrew concept. Mark Twain’s popular dictum: “Work is a necessary evil to be avoided,” couldn’t be further from his principle.
He explains: “I work because it is a way of honoring God, who is a God of Work, and is always creating. Since I am created in his image, I work. Even in Eternity, we will still be working because that is part of our design.”
Steward, not boss
Stewardship, not ownership, is another philosophy Yu and his family are keenly aware of living out. “I’m in the people business, rather than in a specific industry,” he responds when pinned down to describe his occupation. “Our company’s priority is to develop our people to their maximum potential. All our activities revolve around this.”
At Seaoil, education and training are the key platforms for achieving these goals, values that hark back to Yu’s parents. The couple, who both juggled studies and eking out a living, couldn’t stress enough to their brood the essence of education.
Growing up in a rented house in Pasay, Yu recalls one incident illustrating this obsession. “I woke up one morning to find our place knee-deep in water and everything soaked and soggy, and I thought: ‘Wow, I won’t be going to school today!’”
His mother had different ideas. She took him, wearing slippers to class and asked his teacher what books he needed.
They went straightaway to the bookstore so “I could continue studying that day,” he chuckles, flashing a trademark toothy grin.
Backed by learning, Yu and siblings Mark, Francis, Stephen and sister Catherine have strode confidently onto their respective professional stages. “Our beginnings were humble, and we didn’t have a lot of materialistic privileges,” says Yu. “But we had our education. They could take everything away from me but not my education.”
Sharing their good fortune, the family set up Seaoil Foundation in 2012, committed to “contributing positive change to the country.” First president was Francis Sr., followed by Yu’s brother Mark L. Yu, who heads the current Board of Directors as president.
Besides civic programs that reflect the company’s desire to play active community member and promote a healthier environment, scholarship grants are available to deserving students in the neighborhood where a Seaoil station is located as well as eager gas station employees.
At Seaoil itself, a “Top 20% Program” has rewarded 32 team members with educational subsidies to complete higher degrees or go for specialized training.
Is the company be afraid to lose these employees after their enhancement? Not Yu, who reasons: “It goes back to our role as stewards – and education adds to making a person valuable.”
For Yu and his own family, consisting of wife Jacqueline, an accountant, and their five youngsters Hannah Francine, 15, Rachel Ellen,13, Jacob Paul, 7, David Timothy, 5 and Beatrice Sarah, 2, the time spent together is also one of exchange and learning from one another.
They enjoy “talk nights” when issues relating to their lives are threshed out such as “determination” and how it applies to various challenges like diet and exercise (Hannah), doing assignment (Jacob) or learning how to pray in Chinese (David). During dinnertime, listening skills are honed with a “one-conversation policy” in place. “Someone talks and everyone should listen and ask questions,” says Yu.
Private time with each parent is also assured, and once a month on Saturdays, Yu takes out a youngster for special bonding moments. “We do whatever each wants to do, or like with my eldest Hannah, we just ‘hang out.’”
Running through the Yu’s lengthy list of affiliations, including Christ Commission Fellowship, Philippine-Venezuelan Council, Ocean Tankers Association, Independent Philippine Petroleum Companies Association, UBC Alumni Network, St. Jude Catholic School Alumni Association and Far Eastern Broadcast Association, one notices that he even makes time for the Pamilya Muna Pilipinas. President since last year, he works with others to address the issue of absentee fathers and ways to strengthen families encountering societal ills such as dysfunctionality, drug abuse and lack of strong parental figures. The group’s recent achievement was to train 2,000 facilitors in Cebu to work with the growing number of drug dependents undergoing rehabilitation.
Our immediate reaction – and you still have the time to slip this activity into your work schedule?
“This is part of my total experience of living a meaningful life,” Yu says with smiling finality.
Who can argue with such wisdom?
BY MARGIE T. LOGARTA AND PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN