Perhaps he was born with the gift of gab. It could also be his professor’s side talking, and maybe even his innate business acumen that becomes apparent when he speaks. Whatever it is, smart, witty, and with a genuine sense of humor, Johnlu Koa is every interviewer’s dream interview. The founder of the hugely successful French Baker is once again brimming with excitement, this time over his latest business, Lartizan Boulangerie, Restaurant & Salon de The’ (tea house).
Koa says the recent opening of Lartizan in Serendra, BGC last March, is the realization of his dream to put up a proper Parisian-type restaurant, which aims to offer the best French cuisine available in the country. In keeping with his success with The French Baker which has now more than 50 branches, Lartizan also offers authentic French pastries and baked products geared toward the more discerning palate. He says he initially “toyed” with this concept when he had Mickey’s Delicatessen in 2007 with a business partner. While the partnership did not last, Koa says it became a learning experience for him. He realized, he says, that “there’s still an unserved market segment of the affluent that have not been actively buying my (French Baker) products because I had not been in the Makati area for a long time.”
Like most Chinese-Filipinos, Koa was reared by his parents to become an entrepreneur. While in school, he remembers selling toys to his classmates at Xavier School. But unlike most of his peers, he did not go straight to becoming a full-fledged entrepreneur after graduating magna cum laude in 1979. Instead, he chose to teach at his alma mater, UP Diliman. “I taught Business Strategy & Marketing and Business Policy for 15 years.” He did, however, open a small bakery on the side named “Honey Bread” in Kapitolyo, Pasig in that same year. Ten years later, upon the invitation of a former classmate whose father happened to be Henry Sy, Koa opened The French Baker at SM City Annex.
French Baker, according to him, was the result of a desire to introduce and serve French-inspired bread and pastries, as well as a mixture of other types of bread with superior quality but at a very affordable price. At that time, there were not many types of international breads and pastries that were available in the market, and he knew introducing something new to what Filipinos had been accustomed to held greater risks. But his gamble paid off. This year, as he celebrates French Baker’s 25th year, he believes he has come full circle.
While Koa is considered a “master baker,” he says most of what he knew in baking was initially self-taught. When asked why he decided to go into the bread business, he says he believes in what he calls “concentric diversification.” He explains this is a concept in business policy that “if you diversify, you diversify from a center where you are good at, and for me it’s the ability to produce a product out of the use of flour.”
But while flour and bread remains to be at the heart of Koa’s businesses, he did venture into other types of business as well. In April 2011, he was able to get the master franchise of international bubble tea brand, Chatime. At the same time, he and his wife Marilou also own and operate the Euromode fashion company, which holds the Philippine franchises of luxury global clothing brands such as Escada and more recently, Van Laack.
Despite cornering a sizable chunk of the Philippine bread industry with a loyal following, Koa says his strategy at this point is to defend his territory. “There are emerging new players from both ends and we address this by creating products specific to different segments of the market.” He also says he welcomes the upcoming Asean integration in 2015, instead of looking at it with trepidation. “We’ve already seen how it works; they look for a local partner to do it. So, we can also join and say, you wanna be my local partner?” He explains further that he’s a firm believer in “internationalization and not being parochial.” In the end, he says, this can only be good for the consumer as they have better choices in terms of quality, and as better ingredients become readily available there is affordability as well.
Looking ahead, Koa also says the next logical step for him might be going public, too. “Tapping the stock market is a decision we have to take in the next three years, especially when you factor in the Asean integration.” Whatever the business scenario, this business professor and entrepreneur seems to be always a few steps ahead. He also seems to have gotten his life in perfect balance too, as he mixes traveling for work and pleasure perfectly. During the interview with The Manila Times, he also spent some time casually talking and joking about men’s taste in fashion, from shirts to trousers to even socks. In the end, it’s all about quality over quantity, he says. And for him, this certainly applies not just to bread but to fashion, too. It is his business, after all, to not only see to it that the Filipinos eat the best in French bread but also don the best apparel, too, to become the best that they can be.