Even in the world of beauty and cosmetics, the laws of doing good business are written in black and white. “Protect your credibility. Keep your integrity intact. You can lose money and earn it back, but never the credibility,” says Dioceldo Sy, the founder of the country’s No. 1 cosmetics brand, Ever Bilena. There is no gray area, he says.
The 59-year-old entrepreneur lives every day following this clear principle, and it has guided him well throughout his career, as well as life.
Finding his way
Sy, father of six, built Ever Bilena in 1983, and though he was a man in a woman’s world, he found himself comfortable and naturally drawn to selling cosmetics as he, like his grandfather, Pedro Sy, was an enterprising man.
Before establishing Ever Bilena, Sy worked for his grandfather who sold pomade. “He was a pioneer, and he enjoyed immense success as he almost monopolized the market,” Sy chuckles. However, a serious fire at the factory derailed progress when his grandfather died from severe burns and the business folded up under an inexperienced successor, Sy’s uncle.
Sy then explored other businesses including selling T-shirts, promotional materials and such. “However, it was tough. So I said to myself, ‘Why not go back to the business that I know?’” He plunged back into selling beauty products, this time entering the colorful world of cosmetics.
In the age before the Internet and social media, Sy wrote hundreds of letters to suppliers and sent them through Taiwan’s commercial attaché. Eventually, he was able to meet with one, who, to this day, remains a partner, producing many of the Ever Bilena products. “And the rest is history,” he beams.
Color my world
Today, Ever Bilena has risen to become the most top-of-mind local cosmetics brand in the Philippines, offering prices at oftentimes 50 percent less than international brands. In addition to make-up, it has expanded to fragrances and other personal-care products.
“Despite the years and growing competition in the market, I’ve always strived to keep the prices fair and affordable for our customers,” said Sy in an earlier interview.
Recalling the business philosophy of his mentor and friend John Gokongwei, Sy says: “Mr. John told me, ‘If you sell to the rich, you will become poor. If you sell to the poor, you can become rich. It is easier to get one peso from a million poor people than to get one million from one rich person. And with that advice, I started Ever Bilena.”
Ever Bilena was launched in 1983, but getting it off the ground was no walk in the park. At the time, the country was in turmoil with the Marcos regime unravelling at the seams and Filipinos eager to rid themselves of strongman rule.
The risks were stacked high against Sy, who was 25 then. The shaky political and economic climate led to peso devaluation and skyrocketing inflation. Taking a loan from the bank was not an option.
Nevertheless, Sy saw an opportunity in the less-than-ideal scenario. “With people and businesses migrating, that left a vacuum which I saw I could fill. It was because of these tumultuous times that we were able to achieve the best sales.”
Their nail polish, the first product to be rolled out under the brand, sold like hotcakes. “There was even a time that orders were paid in advance, and our partner distributors and clients were willing to wait days and weeks.” Initially, Sy sold Ever Bilena to Divisoria wholesalers and Hortaleza, the largest retailer of parlor supplies at the time.
Who would have thought nail polish and the People Power Movement could be linked?
Apparently they were when someone thought of the novel ideal of expressing her true loyalty through lacquer. Says Sy: “That’s how I knew that Cory (Corazon) Aquino would win, because it was the yellow nail polish that was the fastest-selling color. Probably 70 percent or 80 percent of the sales were the yellow nail polish, while only half of that was red (the color associated with Ferdinand Marcos).”
Eventually with the fall of the regime, nail colors went back to their original function as a fun accessory. “What can we learn from my story?” Sy asks. “Sometimes the most dismal situations lead to the biggest of opportunities.”
Ever Bilena may have secured the slot as provider of affordable cosmetics, but urgent challenges still lie ahead – one of which is finding the right people to continue the enterprise Sy has for decades worked so hard for. Fortunately, daughter Denice is beside him, bringing a fresh take and youthful spirit into the company.
“Earlier this year, I realized that I was getting out of touch,” says Sy. “I’m already in my retirement age, and I don’t know what today’s woman needs. Unlike 30 years ago, you date the girls and ask them what they need, what colors they like and such.
“Now, I don’t have the chance to play the 30-year-old bachelor anymore!” he says. And this is how he sees Denice filling an important role in the company. “She’s the one who is giving me the intel, the one who’s guiding me.”
Denice, a lively, strong and empowered woman at 25 years old, is the full embodiment of the brand. Her father observes: “You can see the hunger in her. When we’re losing to a competitor, she becomes determined. Malakas ang fighting spirit.”
Denice says the reason she was willing to take on a more active role in the family business was because “my father never pressured us to join.”
She continues: “I was inspired to join him because I saw how hard he’s worked, and how he’s always thought of others. I remember him saying how tired he felt at times, but he persisted because he knew there was a responsibility to his family, staff and employees whose livelihood is based on Ever Bilena.
“That’s why I got into it. It’s not about making more money, but continuing what my father started so that others can make a living and enjoy good lives.”
Denice’s strength lies in sales and marketing, but her father sees her coming into a higher position soon, not because she’s his daughter, but because she has proven to be an indispensable asset.
“Two years ago, when Denice said she wanted to start working in the family business, I told my executives that I wanted her to start from the bottom, the lowest position,” Sy reveals. “I told my managers: ‘Don’t treat her like my daughter. Treat her like a normal employee.” Denice’s tenacity and intuition impressed her peers, and soon won praise and approval from higher management.
Denice, of course, has learned from the best. She says: “My dad is really an entrepreneur who works on gut instinct. There are some things that he pursues that don’t have the data to back up his decisions. Yet, they come out as the most successful ventures or the most successful product launches and campaigns, which is amazing.
“What I also appreciate about my dad is he will allow us to make mistakes. He’ll say: ‘You know what? You do what you really want to, but I’m telling you, this is what will happen.’ And when it does, he doesn’t rub salt on the wounds. He’ll just say: ‘I told you, so next time, know better. I’m always here.”
These days, Denice is focused on strengthening the company infrastructure and streamlining operations. A graduate of BS Business Administration and BA South and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, she sees the importance of a well-planned set-up that encourages transparency and efficiency and boosts productivity.
“I think our office treats people very well, but I also hope we can further learn from other companies how we can maximize our current structure and our resources to be able to retain the best people,” she says. “My other goal is to help double the company in five years in terms of size and sales, and make ourselves the No. 1 company, not just in sales but as the top-of-mind choice of working professionals. We want to improve our packages and invite the best, most qualified people into our fold.”
With Denice taking over the reins, the elder Sy finds himself more able to relax. But make no mistake – he won’t be retiring just yet. In fact, he’s grown more motivated to pursue his other passions and business interests, such as mergers and acquisitions of smaller cosmetics brands, and exploring real estate and property.
An avid sportsman, Sy is also channelling this second wind into managing Ever Bilena’s resident basketball teams, Blackwater Sports, the men’s team for the PBA D-League, and Ever Bilena Gandang Pinay, the women’s team in the Women’s Philippine Basketball League (WPBL). “With my extra time, I also hope to be able to spend it on vacations with my kids, because it’s only then that I really get to sit down and bond with them. They’re busier than me!” he laughs.
With his keen business acumen and infallible gut instinct, and her fresh, forward vision, the father-daughter tandem of Dioceldo and Denice Sy is laying down the way for Ever Bilena’s greater success. And the future has never looked rosier.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Together, Dioceldo and Denice share what makes the other an incredible leader.
Denice on her dad Dioceldo
VISION My dad is really the soul of the company. He always gives thanks to God for blessing him with a keen eye to anticipate what the market wants.
HUMBLE He is not afraid to acknowledge his own shortcomings, and works to overcome them. He is also not above laughing at his own expense! He is always learning.
GENEROUS Because my dad knows he’s been blessed, he makes it a point to bless others and shares freely. He’s always ready to invest in others and show them the same kind of grace he’s been shown over the years.
Dioceldo on Denice
LOVE FOR THE JOB I allow my kids to pursue their own passions and have never pressured them to join the family business. I see that Denice is a natural in sales, and likes the job. She was willing to be trained and start from the very bottom.
PASSIONATE You can see the hunger in Denice, and she gets determined when we’re losing to a competitor. Malakas ang fighting spirit niya, which I like.
CURIOUS Denice is always trying to find out what the market wants and needs. She is the best intel I could ever have. In fact, she is the one who gives me all of the intelligence reports already.