Coming from a family of successful Filipino-Chinese businessmen, sisters Lorlyn, Lorraine and Laura Lim all grew up with an entrepreneurial spirit. And though they could have taken separate paths, they proved that blood is thicker than water when they chose to open and run several business ventures together.
In an interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, Lolryn Lim-Almazora, Lorraine Lim-Aguila and Laura Lim-Rodrigo refreshingly talked nothing about sibling rivalry, but how they shared everything from dolls to SEC papers.
Lorlyn, the youngest of the three recalled, “When I was a kid, I used to love to sell my stuff—little things like my toys or clothes. I’d sell them to my cousins [or]to my classmates,” she laughed. “So I guess you can say we really grew with a strong entrepreneurial background, especially since our parents are both businessmen.”
Agreeing with Lorlyn, Laura noted that the knack for business goes a long way in the family, starting from their grandparents, down to their father and his siblings. All entrepreneurs, their ventures range from the hospitality industry to hospital supplies.
As the eldest sister, she also remembered how their lolo trained and prepared her to follow in his footsteps. “My grandfather made it a point to take me to all his trade fairs every summer. He was engaged in the plastic business, and that really opened my eyes to what’s out there,” Laura related.
“I think growing up in a Filipino-Chinese family and environment, we were always surrounded with hard work and frugality,” she continued. “Those were the pillars we knew of so that every summer, we needed to learn a skill. If we weren’t [in summer school], we’d work on our father’s business or our even our titas’ businesses.”
On Lorraine’s turn to share, she happily recalled how she and Laura began their first-ever business venture, which was joining Christmas bazaars. She related, “When we started selling out T-shirts in bazaars, we were just in college. After that, we went on with supplying to department stores. Both weren’t easy, especially with bazaars. We had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and pack up our stalls very late at night.”
It was from their bazaar earnings that the sisters put up capital for their future business ventures.
But after finishing college education in top Manila universities, the sisters’ business stints were also cut short when one-by-one their father started sending them for further studies and work experience in the United States.
Lorraine, the middle child, was the first sister sent to the US. In 1992, right after graduating from Interdisciplinary Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University, she took a Hotel and Restaurant Certificate Course at the Cornell University in New York.
It was the summer of 1992, and Laura followed her a year later, completing a Master of Management in Manufacturing degree at the J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Illinois. She previously finished a Business Administration degree at the University of the Philippines.
Pursuing different careers during their stay in the US, both Laura and Lorraine chose to return home to the Philippines when they felt they had gathered enough experience in the real world. It was in 2000 when they opened their first-ever company, Palm Foods Chain Inc., which invested in the famed Spanish restaurant chain, Casa Armas.
Founded and first opened in Malate by the late Señor Jesus Armas in the early ‘90s, Casa Armas was known to serve the most authentic Spanish dishes in Manila.
“We were really regular patrons of the original branch in Malate,” Laura admitted. “When an opportunity [for expansion]came, we seized it, and partnered with Señor Armas. He was our industrial partner when set up our first Casa Armas in Jupiter St.”
“After that, we branched out, and grew Casa Armas from Ayala to Ortigas,” Lorraine added.
Currently, the Lim ladies own and operate three Casa Armas restaurants on Jupiter St. and Greenbelt 2 in Ayala, Makati City, and at The Podium in Ortigas, Mandaluyong City.
“The brand became so popular that we needed to open one in the Ortigas area for the clientele there. It’s really about taking chances and opportunities as they come,” Lorraine elaborated.
Lorlyn, meanwhile, was the last to hie off to the US being eight years younger than Laura. After graduating from the Ateneo de Manila University in 1999, she spent the next seven years completing a host of certificate programs in computer science, gemology and real estate. Upon returning to the Philippines in 2009, her sister welcomed her with arms wide open to join them in Palm Foods Chain.
Having successfully run the Casa Armas restaurants for more than a decade, the next opportunity for the Lim sisters to grow their interests came knocking on their door in 2011. This was to open Funmania Inc., which acquired the Active Fun Center in Pasay City, and transferred it to Bonifacio Global City (BGC).
Today, the five-floor Active Fun Center at the heart of Bonifacio High Street not only houses a play and party center for children, but also offers spaces for other offices and establishments.
But what Lorlyn, Lorraine and Laura are particularly proud of besides the playground itself, is the concept restaurant and kiddie party caterer, Circus Café.
“Circus Café is a themed café that serves kids who get hungry from playing, as well the parents who also have to eat while waiting. It’s also the catering arm which prepares food in kiddie parties held here at Active Fun,” Laura explained.
The sisters offer a wide range of food choices including pizza, spaghetti and burgers for the young; and Vietnamese rolls and healthy sandwiches for adults.
“These are not your typical food from fast food chains or kiddie parties, which are always bland,” Lorlyn was quick to note.
The menu is in fact gourmet quality because, as Lorraine explained, Circus Café employs a professional kitchen staff comprised of experienced men and women from the hotel and restaurant scene.
With the success of Active Fun, the sisters excitedly told The Sunday Times Magazine that they would soon open a second branch at the upcoming wing of the SM Megamall.
A year after the successful outcome of Active Fun, the Lim sisters spotted another opportunity to grow Funmania Inc., when they opened Connoisseur Catering in December 2012.
“Because of Circus Café, we began to have a lot of clients who asked if we could cater their parties at home,” Laura related. “That was our signal to go into catering for all occasions, including corporate events, weddings, baptisms and product launches.”
Lorraine was confident they were ready for a larger-scale catering business because they had an existing and efficient kitchen staff already set at Active Fun. She explained, “We have a whole kitchen staff that has so much potential because of their hotel background. They are very seasoned so it only makes sense for us to maximize their talents.”
Laura, however, noted that this kitchen staff is entirely separate from the one at Casa Armas. Nevertheless, she credited their first restaurant as the key to their food philosophy.
“I think that the philosophy started to develop in food came from Casa Armas—that we always have to serve good quality food. And that’s what we’ve carried out throughout this year when we were establishing Circus Café and Connoisseur Catering.”
According to Lorraine, this philosophy is best seen in Connoisseur’s menu, which “not only tastes exquisitely delicious but also looks artistically gourmet.”
“Our chefs really differentiate themselves in their artistic food styling and presentation. But they are also experts in international cuisines, from Asian, Continental, and Western to Filipino cuisine. And our menus range from sit down to buffet, which can both be customized according to client preferences,” Lorraine elaborated.
“If you have a budget of say only P600 per person, we can work with that. We tailor fit every menu to meet the client’s needs and expectations,” Lorlyn added.
Connoisseur Catering also boasts of its very personalized service continues in venue set-up, menu planning, table centerpieces, and color motif for a truly well-prepared gathering.
Proving that three is way better than one—especially with sisters—Lorlyn, Lorraine and Laura uncannily opened three new enterprises, three years in a row. Their newest baby for 2013 is thefunctionrooms, which is located at the fourth floor of Active Fun building.
As experts in the catering business, it was but natural for the sisters to finally open their own events place. Officially launched in September, thefunctionrooms has seven spaces that are flexible to accommodate small meetings of 12 to bigger conferences of 260.
According to Lorraine, flexibility is what defines thefunctionrooms because it enables them to hold social gatherings, corporate meetings and a host of other event. Different set-ups like U-shape, theater, classroom-style, round tables and cocktails arrangements can be requested to meet specific requirements.
All areas are fitted with a complete set of facilities to ensure smooth presentations during meetings or function, namely air-conditioner, built-in sound systems, white boards, projectors, TV monitors, and wireless Internet connection.
For Laura, opening an events place in Bonifacio Global City at this point in time is very crucial. “There is a need for an events place and we are ready to fill it up,” she related. “Our location is one of our main competencies. We are so centrally-located [at Bonifacio High Street]that it will be very convenient for everyone to hold events here.”
Lorlyn cited another attribute that makes thefunctionrooms even more competitive: “Affordability.”
“There is a consumable rate for the rooms and food. So you just order the food [from Connoisseur Catering]and the room comes with it. It’s quite an attractive and reasonable package, because in some places, there is already a fee for the first three hours alone. We don’t even have service charge,” Lorlyn explained.
With flexibility and affordability, thefunctionrooms presents a better choice against traditional hotel ballrooms or boardrooms as Lorraine pointed out. “It is always tough to find a good events place because normally you’ll go to a hotel which is very expensive. This is why we’re letting more people we’re here,” she said.
More than business partners, Lorlyn, Lorraine and Laura agree that they are first and foremost sisters. And for them, this special bond is their greatest asset. Among many things, they know exactly how to divide the tasks between them.
As Laura explained, “I handle the finance. Lorraine handles marketing and operations. And Lorlyn handles purchasing.”
Asked if they always had these specific strengths, Lorraine replied, “Ever since we were kids, we knew our strengths. Laura’s strength is finance; sales is really my strength, and Lorlyn’s strength has always been…”
“To shop,” the three chimed, and laughed.
“Our business just naturally fell into place,” Lorraine summed up.
But while they generally share a harmonious relationship, just like any business partners—and sisters for that matter—they still have misunderstandings now and then.
“We definitely have disagreements. Lorraine and I are opposites, for example. Anything she likes, I do not like,” Laura admitted.
Lorlyn, who observes her ates best, elaborated, “This is how it goes: If it’s a choice of two colors, let’s just say, the designer comes here and say, ‘We are trying to decide if we will have orange or green chairs.’ When you ask Laura, she will immediately say orange. I’ll bet all my money, that Lorraine will say green.”
“Laura is the quite one, while I am the noisy one,” Lorraine added. “We’re opposites but it doesn’t mean there will always be an argument. At the end of the day we’ll come an agreement because someone will give in to what’s best for the whole team,” Lorraine declared.
With a relationship that goes beyond the boardroom, The Sunday Times Magazine also asked how they bond together, since they are all busy at work and each have a family of their own.
Lorlyn replied, “Every Sunday, we have this family lunch, which is not just for the immediate family but it also includes our whole clan. Every Sunday is like Christmas for us,” she ended as she glanced at her sisters and smiled.