“At the time, toys were considered a luxury. Toy stores were unheard of. I had to change this way of thinking. But, I also had to ensure that the Barbie doll was something the public could afford.”
How one woman shaped the local toy industry with Barbie’s help
“PIONEER of the Philippine Toy Industry.”
This is the title that Myrna Tang-Yao, president and chief executive officer of Richwell Trading Corp., is most proud to have earned. Known as the lady who introduced Barbie to the Philippine market, she made the iconic doll a requisite part of many little girls’ childhood.
How she ended up at the top of her game can be traced to her enduring entrepreneurial spirit. “From an early age, I knew I wanted to be in charge of my own business,” Tang-Yao says. “At 10, I was already trading and selling candies.”
Tang-Yao’s entrepreneurial mindset was further honed when she took over her parents’ Goodyear tires distribution franchise in Bicol and began dabbling in commodities trading. She remembers how satisfying it felt learning the ins and outs of the business, as well as ensuring that it grew into a booming endeavor.
“My parents had no formal business background. But I was really interested in learning the business, so I offered to manage it. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she says.
Tang-Yao looks back to reading business and etiquette books growing up, certain that she was going to enter the world of business. As a college student, she took on part-time jobs even if she didn’t need to, stubbornly resolute in mastering the ropes of operations and sales and marketing.
“Then Filipinos were not viewed highly by the world. People didn’t know how beautiful our culture was. I wanted a doll to showcase that to the world. So, I made [a] Filipina Barbie.”
However, when Tang-Yao married her husband Albert in 1971, she relocated to Metro Manila, which necessitated starting from scratch. She was not fazed, though. She persuaded Goodyear to allow her to represent them in the city, and when her husband stopped working for her father, they set up Richwell in 1979. Her financial acumen did not let her down, and in two years, the Yaos became one of the biggest tire distributors in the country.
But Tang-Yao wanted to do more. She says: “I love children. I wanted to do something related to giving them happiness.” With that purpose in mind, she approached Mattel Toys, which only had a manufacturing plant in the Philippines and did not distribute their products locally — a fact Tang-Yao was determined to change. In 1982, she won exclusive rights to distribute Mattel toys nationwide.
However, there was still the matter of getting the stores to carry the toys. “At the time, toys were considered a luxury,” Tang-Yao explains. “Toy stores were unheard of. There wasn’t even a toy section in the department stores!”
“I had to change this way of thinking. But, I also had to ensure that the Barbie doll was something the public could afford.”
Exerting relentless efforts and implementing innovative marketing strategies, such as producing television ads, Richwell succeeded in captivating youngsters with America’s beloved doll and making it high on their Christmas wish lists for Santa Claus.
By 1989, it achieved another milestone, not only in the Philippines, but the world: the Barbie Instore. The first Barbie Boutique Character Shop opened inside SM Makati. It seemed there was no stopping Tang-Yao’s impressive professional trajectory. That is, until disaster struck: in 1989, Mattel Toys ceased local operations. Barbie dolls would no longer be manufactured in the Philippines.
The change in fortunes merely saw Tang-Yao accept another challenge: persuading Mattel executives to let her manufacture and distribute the dolls. “Everyone told me it was impossible,” she says. “Many bigger and more established companies had tried and failed. They asked me what I could offer that those companies didn’t have.” The odds were stacked against her: her experience lay in distribution, not manufacturing, and Mattel Toys had never agreed to a similar deal with any other partner.
She flew to the US to negotiate — and returned triumphant. She succeeded where others didn’t: she was able to bring Barbie home.
It was then she proposed a unique project.
“At the time, Filipinos were not viewed highly by the world. People didn’t know how beautiful our culture was. I wanted a doll to showcase the Filipino culture to the world,” she says. “So, I made [a] Filipina Barbie.”
Collaborating with various designers, including the late Jose “Pitoy” Moreno, to deck the Filipina Barbie in various costumes from different regions of the country, Tang-Yao was on a mission. “I put Barbie in all the Filipino costumes I could think of. While I wanted the world to see our culture, I also wanted Filipinos to identify with her,” she says.
Tang-Yao took a doll that was a classic and used it to send the message that the Filipino was indeed world-class.
Mother of four
This alumna of the University of the East Manila is the mother of four daughters — Ana Melissa (Liza), Jenny Jane, Maye Antoinette and Joan Ross — and grandmother to nine grandchildren. Richwell, she says, eyes twinkling, was “her first child.” Liza and Jane are involved with the company, Liza heads marketing and finance and Jane looks after operations and human resources.
Liza, a summa cum laude graduate from the famed Wharton School of Business, remembers spending summers doing accounting work and summing up invoices in the company warehouse. “We didn’t have computers back then. So, we would do everything by hand, then type them out. I typed so much that by the time I entered high school, I could type very fast,” she says.
Jane, on the other hand, ended up back in the company in a roundabout way. She had hoped to be a doctor, but a conversation with her mother prompted her to give the family firm a shot. I had no formal business background. So, I knew I had to complement everything I learned growing up in the business with formal education,” says Jane, who finished her Masters in Business Administration degree at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
While invoices and warehouse work took up a large chunk of their school vacations, growing up in the toy business was not without some wonderful perks. Liza and Jane hark back to trips to toy conventions and shows overseas to catch up on the latest trends in playthings.
“But we were only given Barbies as rewards if we had good grades,” Liza emphasizes.
Working alongside their mother provided the best learning experience the girls could hope to achieve. They saw up close the value of determination in getting things done. She trained them to spot the next “hot thing,” not only in the toy industry, but in children’s goods as well. Liza observes: “As youngsters, we definitely enjoyed being one of the first ones to see new toys. But we were also aware that we were there for work. We knew that we should be thinking of what other children could enjoy and what they could afford.”
Currently, the sisters are focused on expanding the company. Jane is keen to enhance employee skills to enable them to step in as future leaders when the time is right. “We want to make sure that the employees grow, not only as professionals, but also as individuals,” she says. “We spend time on this because we really believe that the only way we can truly stay relevant to the industry is to ensure that we are ready for the future. We can only be truly ready for the future if our people are well-trained and well-equipped.”
Liza, meanwhile, checks on the products Richwell distributes, certifying that these meet the needs of both parents and children. The company now also promotes several children’s apparel and brands, such as Fisher Price, Cosco Juvenile, Chicco and Vtech.
“All of our products go through all the US-grade testing to ensure that they are not only fun to play with or functional to use, but also safe for our primary customer, the children,” she stresses.
Strategy for success
It has been 37 years since their mother harbored a dream to light up children’s faces, and Tang-Yao remains enthusiastic and active. In fact, she says: “As long as I can, I would like to be part of running this company. It’s all I can do to give back for all the years we’ve been able to fulfill our mission.”
The seasoned toy distributor has kept the same goal within sight, allowing it to guide her through the unpredictable twists and turns of enterprise. She sums up her no-fail strategy for success in three words: Vision, Direction, Action.
“My vision was to give joy to children by establishing a company that would ensure that they get the happy childhood they deserve. My direction was forward and upward: to grow the toy industry. My actions were to try what has not been tried before. I started with Barbie,” she declares.
These days, Tang-Yao splits her time between managing the company and supporting various charitable causes serving children, community and the Church. A devout Catholic, she credits all her success to the Lord.
“People have told me that I was so brave to do the things I’ve done. But I was brave because I knew that God would always guide me and steer me in the right direction,” Tang-Yao says.
“Life without loving your neighbor is nothing. If you only love yourself, then you will be alone,” she adds.
This trailblazer is indeed a fine example of commitment and courage at its best.
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Backed by the divine
If Myrna Tang-Yao dared to blaze paths that no one had ventured on, she admits she owes it all to the Great Cheerleader — God. His help and a few other guiding tenets set her on her way to success.
• Trust in God. Offer up the good and bad things that happen in your life. He is the Almighty in your heart and mind.
• Vision. Direction. Action. This is what successful entrepreneurs or leaders should internalize to reach their goals.
• Patience. Plus perseverance and hard work are important to achieve your goal or dream.
• Others before self. Think less of yourself and more of others, then you find you will emerge with more in the end.
PHOTOS BY MINDY GANA