Unlike other CEOs and entrepreneurs who’ve built their successful businesses by pursuing their passions and interests, Ben Monteiro, chairman of LB Levinson Brothers Inc., established his company out of sheer need and survival.
As a civil engineer and father with two young mouths to feed, he couldn’t make ends meet with his job in a construction firm where he worked as a manager overseeing the engineering, construction and maintenance of civil projects.
Survival of the fittest
While grateful for the job, he harbored bigger, loftier dreams. “I built a house in our hometown, Pila, Laguna. But with the loan that I took out, it would have taken me more than 15 years to pay it off.” His salary was then a meager P20,000, and minus the payment for the loan of around P6,000, it left him with very little to provide for his wife Leila and two sons, Levin Jetrho and Elvin Allyson.
“I wanted the best for my children and wanted them to go to the best schools. And foreseeing that I wouldn’t be able to do that with my current job, I knew I had to do something,” he says in the vernacular. And in a scary leap of faith, he ventured out on his own.
Putting up a business and building it from the ground up entailed hard work and sacrifice, which didn’t frighten the young father, as these were the very things demanded from him in his youth. “Sanay na ako sa mga challenges na ganyan, sa mga hirap na ganyan [I’m not afraid of challenges and putting in the work]. I have even experienced eating only lugaw [porridge]for my meals and eating soy sauce with rice just to get me through the day. Kaya siguro noong nagkakaedad na ako, nagkakatoyo na din ako paminsan-minsan [That’s why, I guess, as I grew older, I’ve grown to become a little kooky],” he chuckles.
His mother was a humble housewife, while his sickly father worked as a farm hand in Laguna, providing for their children the best way they knew how.
Despite being poor, Monteiro mustered enough chutzpah to dream bigger and aspire to become a civil engineer—the first professional in the family. It took him longer than most to finish his studies as he had to work right after high school, doing odd jobs as a construction worker and even a farm laborer to save up for his tuition and complete his studies at the University of the East. And that he did.
“Mahirap maging mahirap [It’s hard to be poor.]’ That’s what I often told myself to push myself forward,” he recalls. “Fortunately, being stubborn and never giving up are two of my most winning qualities.”
With these never-say-die qualities, he launched a start-up in 1998 with P500,000 capital, calling it Levinson Construction Corp. (coined from Monteiro’s nickname “Ben” and his wife’s name “Leila” with “son” denoting his two boys Levin and Elvin), which engaged in civil work projects for power and telecommunications companies.
“We didn’t have much, but we worked with what we had,” he says, adding that he even spliced their old Thunderbird, turning it into a pick-up truck for their operations. Soon, Monteiro was able to get the ball rolling for his enterprise, earning the trust of his clients and delivering according to standards required of their projects.
“As a businessman, I usually work on establishing trust first. My primary concern isn’t profit but in building relationships with clients. Because once you have trust, profit will come later,” he says.
Overcoming hard times
Business boomed in the early years, leading Monteiro to look forward to a continuous upward trajectory. Except that the Asian Financial Crisis hit, destabilizing his entire work flow.
Despite just having a handful of employees then—around 10—he still felt a great sense of responsibility for them and their families. “As a family man, myself, who had once been in their position, I knew how it felt to be worried about the security of your job.” It didn’t help that the number of projects shrank steadily as firms tightened their belts and budgets.
“Thankfully, one of my strongest suits is that I never give up!” Monteiro grins. And so, he persevered, guiding the company through the crisis by managing conservatively their expenses and growth. He took the extra time and effort to reach out personally to old clients and friends who could help provide projects. “I just kept thinking that there was no better person than me to do the job.”
The company survived the regional slowdown although recovery took longer than predicted. “Even 10 years later, around 2007, we were still struggling,” Monteiro says, admitting he was confused by the paradox. There were enough activities to keep the operations afloat, but the business refused to take off.
It was during a conversation with his wife about their problems that an epiphany occurred. “I was telling her: ‘I really don’t understand it. I’ve done everything, but bakit di tayo umaasenso [Why isn’t the business succeeding]?’” His son Benson, who was but a young boy then, suddenly said: “Tay, parang ang tagal na ata nating hindi nagsisimba [You know what Dad, it’s been a long time since we went to church].”
And that was it, he says. A light bulb clicked in his head. People work so hard during the week to provide for their families that they forget to look up to The One, who is the ultimate provider. From that moment on, Monteiro made sure to set aside time and give thanks to God and give back to the church and the community. “Kahit na maliit ang kita, may sweldo ako e, nilagyan ko ng tithe [Even if I earned little, I would still give a tithe].”
Monteiro believes this signaled the pivotal moment that turned his luck around. A deeply spiritual man, the engineer says that what Benson said prompted him to define his company as a God-centered organization. “I really consider my staff and employees as extended family, and I’m grateful to have such loyal ones who have stayed through the good and hard times.”
Bigger, better, stronger
From a small outfit with just a handful of employees in 1998, Levinson has grown to become a multi-million corporation, now employing 500 contractors and staff. Levinson is one of the most trusted local firms that services global companies and top-tier telecommunication companies such as PLDT, Globe, Eastern Telecom, Miescor, Huawei Technology, Fibr Homes and many other smaller but vital players.
Levinson’s accomplishments have also been recognized by the industry, earning for it numerous awards and citations. Most of these are from their clients, particularly Globe Telecom. Levinson was recognized as “Outstanding Contractor for Luzon 2011,” “Best in Repair SLA for 3Q 2011,” “Outside Plant Maintenance and Services Contractor of the Year 2012;” and “Excellence in Quality of Installation and Repair Best Contractor, 3rd Quarter 2012” with accolades still streaming in.
In 2008, Monteiro formally changed the name of his company to LB Levinson Brothers Inc., reflecting his greater vision for the organization and to welcome his two sons on board. Today, Levin Jetrho is now president of the company, while Elvin Allyson serves as vice president. Monteiro, however, continues to keep a close eye on the company and goes to work without fail every day.
“My only wish [for my sons]is that they take care of the company which I had taken so long to build. It was initially created for them—to provide for my family’s needs and my sons’ future families. Now, I hope [my sons]understand the responsibility they have to our company and our employees who look up to us to help them provide for their own,” he says.
In addition to its contractor’s role, LB Levinson Brothers Inc. manages 16 branches of Generika Drugstore, over which Monteiro has held a franchise since 2009. “I realized that with Levinson’s growth, we had to diversify. You cannot put all your eggs in one basket.”
Monteiro ventured into the pharmaceutical retail business and acquired a Generika Drugstore franchise with its first outlet in Santa Maria, Bulacan. This move proved to be as successful as contracting, and to date, 11 of the 16 Levinson-owned stores have been included in Generika’s Top 100 Stores nationwide. Both the Santa Maria, Bulacan, and Angono, Rizal, branches have earned spots in the Top 10 performing branches.
Monteiro is considering to further expand and diversify his portfolio by acquiring another business in the healthcare industry.
Now turning 65, Monteiro admits that his memory has become a little hazier, and he doesn’t have the same energy he used to have. But that’s fine with him because he has fulfilled his promise to his family of providing the best life he could give them. He has handed over the duty of taking care of the rest of the Levinson “family” to his children.
“I have been working ever since I was a teenager, and had often complained: ‘Bakit ako pinanganak na mahirap, trabaho lang ako nang trabaho, while my peers pa-relax relax lang [Why was I born poor? I had to work, while peers could just relax].” Now he’s realized that there is no greater blessing than work, and to be able to provide not only for his family, but also for those who work for him, is his greatest pride and achievement.
A man of humble beginnings, Monteiro shares some of the most important life lessons that have molded him into a grateful boss.
• Mahirap maging mahirap. (It’s hard to be poor.) But you will find no greater drive to succeed, than the moment you realize you have to make ends meet for your family.
• Success is not a destination, it’s a journey. You always have to keep adjusting, moving the goal so that you achieve continuous growth.
• Hard work and honesty will always be rewarded; good business is built on trust from your clients.
• You may be led down one path initially, but don’t be afraid if the world surprises you by making you go down another. Be willing to change and adjust accordingly.