BY MARGIE T. LOGARTA AND PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN
THE LADY LEADING A HISTORY-LADEN COMPANY DARES TO DREAM BIG
If Olivia Limpe-Aw, CHAIRMAN and president of the history-laden Destileria Limtuaco, had not decided to enter the family business, we might have found her in the beauty industry.
Limpe-Aw, fifth in a circlet of seven daughters, always felt she suffered in looks in comparison with her other siblings. “I was the ugliest,” she tells Boardroom Watch without any preface. And this comes from someone for whom the adjective “striking” could have been invented, if not fits to a T. Limpe-Aw exudes an energy that goes past mere facial nuances, immediately capturing attention with a warm, firm grasp of the hand and a level gaze. She feels like a friend you lost touch with but fall into easy, lively conversation just like it was yesterday.
Limpe-Aw vanquished any adolescent angst about her appearance by taking charge, and “learned to put on make up and dress up,” presenting two significant principles that seem to inform both her professional and personal style. “It’s so important to look good in life. I like things to be beautiful…I’m very visual, and that has spilled over to the packaging of our products.”
A daughter’s duty
With four older sisters, Limpe-Aw was not the obvious shoe-in for the top post she holds today. But the responsibility definitely had to be assumed by one of her parents’ (Julius and Lily Limpe’s) children. “They talked to each one of us,” she recalls, laughingly calling it “an indoctrination of sorts,” especially when her mother would describe the sacrifices her father had made for the business. “What a waste, she would say, just because he had no sons, and none of you took over. What would people say…”
To be fair, each of the girls did help out – that is, until marriage and their growing brood took priority. When the call finally arrived for Limpe-Aw, a sense of duty and knowing there was a job to do won out. “I was next in line. I had to do it.”
The summers and holidays of working at the plant, which had long churned out such iconic liquors as White Castle Whisky and Napoleon Brandy, paid off for the young executive. Then, she not only fulfilled the task of gofer, dictation taker, typist and all-round assistant, she attended meetings chaired by her father. “I was always watching and observing him, and I guess they saw that the interest was there.”
Julius and Lily Limpe were most unconventional (Chinese) parents. Julius, an accomplished marketer and painter of vivid oil works, is remembered by his daughter as “quite western in outlook…a sharp dresser with a bold fashion sense…a nocturnal person.” Her Shanghai-born mother was studying in New York when a visit brought the 18-year-old to Manila and to the attention of Julius’ mother, Siu Yong “Juana” Limpe, who thought her the perfect spouse for her “aging” bachelor son, then 27 at the time. The matriarch, well known for her work in the local Chinese community as a women’s rights activist, was spot on in her matchmaking, and the two wed not long after.
Limpe-Aw’s mother continued schooling even after the babies came along. “She was studying law when I was in kinder,” Limpe-Aw recalls. “I would have taken up law if I hadn’t entered the drinks business.”
Limpe-Aw pere’s innovative nature – he invented, designed and patented formulas and aging processes that remain among the company’s most fiercely guarded secrets – have without doubt surfaced in his daughter, who represents the fifth generation to keep the family specialty alive and market relevant.
Under her watch, Destileria Limtuaco has gained a new cache with millennial consumers in the Philippines and overseas through the introduction of craft spirits, dubbed as Paradise Mango Rum Liqueur, Amadeo Coffee Liqueur, Manille Liqueur de Calamansi and its offshoot Liqueur de Dalandan, with more displayed in their colorful portal www.limtuaco.com. The expansion came about on trade missions, which Limpe-Aw joined during the term of President Fidel V. Ramos. “It resulted out of all those business matching sessions when people would ask me: what is it that I could offer that was unique to the Philippines?” Realizing that the standard whisky, vodkas and rum produced by the Destileria was not the answer, she headed home determined to come up with that compelling souvenir.
Out of this creative ferment, Paradise Mango Rum Liqueur was born in 2002, concocted from a master base of rum and mango – “both of which are abundant in the country,” according to Limpe-Aw, providing her first concrete step toward “promoting an authentic Philippine product.” She even had renowned UK-based liquor packaging designer Douglas Dorman flown to the country, accompanying him to Boracay and Cebu, so he could soak up a feel of the islands and translate the experience onto the label of Paradise Mango.
The result was a golden sunny tableau containing Philippine images of vintas, ripe mangoes (but naturally) and swaying palm trees. “I wanted him to picture what foreigners had on their minds about our country, they were my intended market in the first place.”
Limpe-Aw’s toughest critic, of all people, was father Julius, who felt she might have been going too far out of the box. But the gentleman gamely backed off when he saw how persistently his daughter pursued the project, and was the happiest when the outcome showed market acceptance.
Sixth generation onboard
These days, Limpe-Aw is apt to find herself in a similar situation, especially now that her three children – all boys – play active roles in the enterprise. “I used to be in their position, now I’m in my Dad’s. But I try not to keep asking, are you sure? I try!”
Two of her sons, Aaron James and Brandon, quietly sitting in on the BoardRoom Watch interview (oldest brother Clifford was in Tokyo with their dad Benny Aw), can only smile as their mother looks to them for reassurance.
She adds: “Now, it’s my turn to play the devil’s advocate and ask the questions – just to be sure they know exactly what they’re doing…they know the risks.”
“Risks are part of the game, and for now, they’re allowed to make mistakes, as long as they’re small ones.”
Limpe-Aw frankly admits she wouldn’t have reached and stayed at the top if not for her very supportive husband, who joined the company some years back, and Lucy, her nanny of 29 years, who recently left the family to take care of her own mother. “Imagine, Brandon was only five months old when she came to live with us. She practically raised him.”
A golfing buddy of Mr. Aw, whose family is engaged in textiles and financial services, remembers him saying that he was as surprised as everyone else at the transformation of a rather reserved individual into a maverick honcho. “She wasn’t like that before,” Mr. Aw told the friend.
The boys have long accepted that their dynamo of a mother was unlike those of their peers. “We could always call her if we needed anything,” says Aaron James, who oversees Destileria’s business development and human resources departments. “And if we told her we had something important at school, she would come.”
Younger brother Brandon, who joined Destileria in April after working elsewhere, adds: “She would and did run the house remotely.”
As a boss, the boys admit the mom is a tough workmaster, to which Limpe-Aw explains: “If it’s important, if it’s needed then you have to deliver. You don’t sleep!”
Despite their hectic schedules, the family members manage to enjoy holidays together, the last one being a Disney Cruise, but only after attending an industry show in Orlando. “We’ll work first, then we go on vacation,” was the deal with Mom.
With the company fast expanding expanding its international horizons, Limpe-Aw is intensely keen to develop a high sense of professionalism among her colleagues and employees.
“Best practices must be brought in to form part of our company culture. If we want to grow and be stronger, we have to learn these from our customers and suppliers and apply them.” To bring operations to the next level, she had the German firm TUV SUD Group certify the company according to their standards.
Does the woman ever pause to relax?
Well, if you call lurking on Facebook to see what trends are exploding, then that response will have to do. Posting, hardly as she values her privacy. On occasion, she does catch up with a group of close girlfriends in San Francisco whenever she visits and shops, stressing “only to augment my wardrobe.”
Filial duty got Limpe-Aw involved in an age-old family concern, but something much more than that keeps her still raring to go to work every day and her mind a-whirl with future concepts. “I really wanted to improve our products and bring them to another level.
“Of course, I got help here. If we didn’t we wouldn’t have been able to introduce all these new products to the market. Life is one continuing education. If you think you know a lot and you stop, then that’s when you start deteriorate.”
One thing for sure, that’s never going to happen to Olivia Limpe-Aw.