Vivre la bonne vie.
FOR businessman Johnlu Koa, the French call to “live a good life” should be heeded by everyone. This is why for the last 24 years, he has dedicated himself to offering Filipinos delectable French flavors in beautiful places where they can talk and reconnect with friends and family—but without “burning a hole in their pocket.”
Koa is the founder and chief executive officer of The French Baker, the boulangerie (bakery), which opened its 51st branch in Davao City in September and his very first in Mindanao.
Situated at the Fountain Area of SM Lanang, the milestone took place with a themed event titled, “A French Night to Remember,” which the locals described as something “[they]had never seen before.”
“This may be a lounge, a waiting area in an airport, a hotel lobby, or even a French garden,” Koa said of the 380-square meter store. “It’s the many places I want to share with my patrons from my regular trips to France and the rest of Europe.”
It was in 1989 that Koa began the French Baker chain upon the invitation of mall tycoon, Henry Sy. His concept for the first dine-in store in SM North Edsa—and the rest of the branches that would follow—was to “convey an image of culinary excellence and a unique dining experience” for the local market, thereby bringing a piece of France’s good life to the Philippines.
Today, Koa remains hands-on in running his 100-percent owned business—the only way, he believes, to assure the quality and service he has pledged to his patrons from the very beginning.
Koa joined the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman faculty in 1980, a year after earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in the same university as a Magna Cum Laude. He then pursued his Master’s degree, finishing among the Top 10 in his batch, and was duly appointed College Secretary at the very young age of 25 years old. He would also continue to work as a professor in the next 15 years.
All this happened at the same time Koa was building up his French Baker chain.
“I’m always passionate about investing my time in everything I do—so when I am successful in teaching, talking to you, or simply showing you the way to go about a business venture, it all makes me happy in small ways,” Koa shared with The Sunday Times Magazine.
It was his first visit to Lourdes, France in 1985 that inspired him to bring the beauty of the European lifestyle back to the Philippines. He believes he has an innate connection with the French culture from his name “Johnlu” that translates to “Jean Luc” in French, to meeting his would be wife, by the name of Maria Lourdes.
“I went to Lourdes in 1985. I was a professor then,” he recalled. “My prayer was to get the chance to return there. The following year, I won a scholarship and in just 10 months I was back in France.”
By 1989, he became a regular traveler to his second favorite country after the Philippines, buying supplies for French Baker—an eventuality which he calls “a dream come true.”
Today, Koa remains passionate as ever in making good food and creating beautiful spaces. In running his little piece of France in the Philippines, he admits he can never do away with micro-managing like most Filipino entrepreneurs.
“In the case of the Philippine management system I’ve realized along the way that in doing things, executives cannot get out of this practice—and that’s what really occupies a lot of my time so that my to-do list is always very long,” he chuckled.
A professor in business
It was from Koa’s specialization in Strategic Marketing and Corporate policy in UP Diliman that his own brand of business style was born.
For the professor and entrepreneur, the first key to success is openness to learning.
“I’m a very passionate learner. You can just imagine how I felt when I first learned how to temper chocolate? It was like graduating Magna Cum Laude all over again,” Koa laughed.
“I continue to go on training seminars. In fact next month, I’m going to Singapore for another chocolate training,” he enthused. “So far I’ve already done bread and pastry, so my next goal is to be an expert in chocolate because I want to be good in all three before I get too old.”
Ever the educator, Koa told The Sunday Times Magazine that his knowledge for the business has grown “10 times more” over the years because of his never ending search for knowledge.
“Knowledge empowers you to do more. If I got stuck with just making bread; or I got stuck with being content to make money and hiring people to do everything for me; if I didn’t strive to find more delicious ways of making food, I think I wouldn’t have lasted this long.”
Despite micro-managing, Koa related that he never makes business decisions on his own. He has a management team that he consults in every investment he considers, which has proven to be an effective approach over the last two decades.
“As I grow old I become risk-averse. In this Davao store, I had to ask my team 10 times if they were sure could handle it,” Koa revealed.
‘French Feng Shui’
Although he is a lover of everything French, the Tsinoy businessman still employs a few traditional Chinese business practices. He never opens a new venture without consulting a Feng Shui expert.
“I’m a great believer of Feng Sui and I’ll be the first to admit to that.
Because, as I’ve told many of my friends, we have governmental laws that define how you deal with people. Then religion defines how you deal with your Creator, and then Feng Sui defines how you deal with your environment,” Koa explained.
“If you will notice, the stores are Feng Sui compliant. No obnoxious pointing objects; all the ovens and stoves are properly situated; the main door is right smack in the center; and the toilets are properly located, in relation to the kitchen,” he added.
In franchising, Koa believes that his “empire is more valuable” if he owns all the assets. He averages opening two outlets annually, and does not want to disrupt this steady growth, especially when his future plans include making his company public via the Philippine Stock Market.
What Koa believes sets his brand apart from others is “the level of passion we put in everything, which far exceeds all of them combined.
You know when the CEO is also the baker, the rest of the workers can expect the support they need without needing to ask.
“And I always think forward—I always move forward, I take two steps ahead, so that even before you come across challenges, you’re already at your goal,” Koa shared.
All around guy
Besides from baking French goods and managing his business, Koa is also into high-end fashion, bringing in European brands to the Filipino market. His wife in particular handles the distribution of luxury women’s brand Escada.
“I’ve been telling my wife that I have enough fashion sense to help her in the men’s line. And since we go to Europe once a year to do the fashion buy, I told her we can invest in another brand that I like, she likes and everybody likes.
“Encouraged by her clients, we brought in a men’s line so that their husbands can also enjoy a little bit of high fashion,” the fashionable baker happily related.
Besides from fashion, the “all around guy” is also into sports, and is taking a keen interest in the tourism business.
“I love active sports. I love mountain biking and surfing. I learned surfing in Waikiki, Hawaii and its fun. Recently I took up surfing because I realized that the Philippines is getting famous for that sport, and I want to pick up some consumer insights,” Koa said.
“See, if I don’t surf, how can I pick up those insights? I went to
Hawaii, primarily to see how their tourism industry works—what makes it click what makes it tick. Usually what you look at are these: you start from the food shop, the souvenir shop, the hotels, the restaurants. Then you look at surfing schools, and you ask, what’s the big deal? Why do people go?
“I’ve got most of the answers I need now and when I have everything, I think that’s the next thing I’ll go into,” he imparted.
In all that he does, Koa promises that Filipinos can expect nothing less than “beauty.” He believes that life is beautiful and people must live it in that way.
“To live is to enjoy—to stop and smell the flowers. Don’t go too fast living life. Stop for a cup of tea because it won’t burn your pocket. Stay for a cup of coffee and spend quality time with your loved even for just a few moments,” Koa encouraged.
Besides French Baker and his wife’s fashion ventures, he is looking forward to opening another slice of the beautiful life with an authentic French restaurant called L’Artizan at the Bonifacio Global City’s Serendra very soon.
“It’s going to be pretty! Linen table cloths, French gold leaf chairs that are very Louis XV, silver cutlery, plates from Bernardaud, France, and Riedel glassware,” he enumerated.
As with all his businesses, he vows to be very hands on with this one, just as he was on the night of French Baker Davao’s opening. For despite entertaining his countless guests, Koa would stop to put a glass back in place and wipe tiny spills on dining tables along his way.
His advice for anyone who would like to go into business: To have the nerve to take risks but knowing how to avoid pitfalls before they come.
“The young should see business as an opportunity of turning their passion into an opportunity that could even solve problems in a particular industry. I learned from one of my favorite professors that one needs to go by asking the ‘MIDA’ question. In your chosen market, what is Missing, Irritating, Disappointing and Annoying. If you can answer all that, and avoid them in building your business, you’re sure to succeed—beautifully.” Koa ended