“We were like refugees [when we arrived in Thailand]. I didn’t speak the language; I couldn’t converse with anyone. When I met my in-laws, I didn’t know if they liked me or not.“
Filipino businesswoman thrives in Thailand and seeks to inspire others to similar success
Even as a child, Filipino-Thai entrepreneur Zenaida Vannaying knew that there had to be something more to life. “I’d look up at the sky and wonder: “When are things going to get better?”
Born Zenaida Romero Siao in Tondo, Manila, “like Isko Moreno [Manila’s dynamic mayor],” she says cheerfully, recalling their shared origins. He rummaged for leftovers to be recooked at home and recyclable trash to sell to neighborhood junk shops; she grew up nearby in equally precarious conditions, the fourth of eight siblings.
Her father was an air-con mechanic, her mother, a dressmaker. She had to contribute to the family’s meager income from a very early age. They moved to a house in Malabon City, managing to find space to grow sampaguita, that strongly scented national flower of the Philippines. Every afternoon, after a half-day at school, the girl, who was called “Evelyn” then, would wander the streets selling intensely scented garlands. Her best customers were the jeepney drivers, who were then charging centavo fares, rather than the current peso rates. By the end of the day, she’d have enough to buy coffee, rice, sugar and maybe, some wilting vegetables that no one else wanted. Her brothers would fish in the local waters and the family scraped by.
After graduating from high school, her father informed her that a university education was out of the question. He expected her to marry. “I challenged my dad and told him it was okay if he could not send me,” Vannaying recalls. “I’d help myself. I was determined to do this.” Study was going to be her ticket out. Against his wishes, she enrolled in Far Eastern University, and landed a job as a working student in the Registrar’s office during the day, then attending classes at night. It took her five years to finish. During that time, she met her Thai husband, Viwat, who was studying political science at the University of Manila, and they married. The couple finished their master’s degrees at the University of the Philippines in Baguio and produced Peter, the first of their three sons.
Stranger in Bangkok
There were setbacks and failed projects. These incidents may have occurred 40 years ago, but Vannaying reels off figures and narrates the story in detail as if it were yesterday. In 1980, she, her husband and their 11-month old infant left for Thailand. They arrived with $200 dollars and moved in with her in-laws. “We were like refugees at the time because we didn’t have a house yet,” she says. They moved from room to room among various houses in the family compound. She felt alone and confused. “I didn’t speak the language; I couldn’t converse with anyone. When I met my in-laws, I didn’t know if they liked me or not. When they shouted, I didn’t know what they were saying. When I met my husband in the Philippines, he was like a Filipino. But when we came here, everything changed.”
Back in the Philippines, her family borrowed P6,000 against the house for projects that didn’t pan out. Over time, the interest on the loan ballooned to P40,000. (The dollar was worth P7 then.) She renegotiated the loan and agreed to pay back $100 a month so the family could keep the house. She had to take matters into her own hands. “I applied for jobs without any referrals. No one helped me.” During the week, she taught business administration, English, marketing and other subjects at ABAC (Assumption Business Administration College, which is today, Assumption University). She supplemented that income with teaching and training jobs at St. Joseph Convent and at the Royal Orchid Sheraton, then one of the newest and most fashionable hotels along the Chao Phraya River.
Political change in the Philippines in the 1980s yielded unexpected benefits. With the return of Cory Aquino to the Philippines, the dollar shot up from P7 to P18. Vannaying was able to pay the bank loan back much quicker, enabling her to save the family house. During these years, her second son, Tan, was born in 1983, followed by her third, Mai, in 1985. “I gave up teaching when Mai was born,” she states. He was a premature baby and spent the first month of life in an incubator.
“His chances were 50-50,” his mother remembers. He had a respiratory condition and his care became her sole priority. When he left the hospital, he weighed just 1.8 kilogram. “He was so tiny. I brought him home, and nursed and looked after him.”
A chance meeting in Sampaeng Lane, the teeming covered market that is the backbone of Bangkok’s Chinatown, would change all that. She met a Filipina, who offered to teach her the ropes of the import-export business in exchange for her local knowledge of everything, from booking plane tickets to shipping cargo. She also became a de facto agent and fixer for a community of Filipino business people, who stayed at the Miramar, a popular business hotel. They traded in jeans, shoes and copy watches among others.
Vannaying started selling door-to-door, directly in the hotel. She also encountered executives connected with the Philippines’ top retail and supermarket chains, Robinsons, SM, Gaisano’s and Shopwise among others. Margins were slim, but the orders were huge. She could make 50,000 baht (then $2,000) in one night, the equivalent of a year’s teaching salary. “That’s how amazing it was! I was shocked to learn I could do this business. My salary teaching was 4,200 baht (then $168) a month.”
The feisty woman knew she had to seize the opportunity, but there was one problem: she lacked capital to set up her business. So, she took a gamble, pawning her college ring and watches. But her biggest asset, she says, was her word of honor. “I used my credibility. When I say it, I mean it. I’m always on time [in repaying bank loans and debts].” Her business, servicing the needs of Filipino entrepreneurs in Thailand, snowballed. She made deals for both passengers and cargo with airlines including Air France that operated an under-capacity last leg between Bangkok and Manila. She could place up to 10,000 kg of cargo on that turn-around flight. She made similar deals with Emirates, Egypt Air, Pakistan International and Lufthansa, and almost every airline, except Philippine Airlines “because they didn’t understand the business.”
Soon, she was running a travel agency, a buyers’ service and a trading company. Turnover that first year was 4 million baht (then $160,000), still not quite enough to buy the office space she needed. But shrewd calculation and carefully negotiated loans allowed her to move into her own site, and then expand into other properties. She bought and sold units at a profit, and transformed a guest house into her first hotel. Her flair for sniffing out opportunities was her asset. By this time, she had learned to speak Thai, but still couldn’t read the language. Driving by Bangkok’s Victory Monument she saw a sign on a building. She asked the driver to tell her what it said. She immediately asked him to knock on the door, and after convincing both the seller and her husband that this wasn’t a flight of fancy, she bought the property, and in today’s parlance “flipped it” for a 300-percent profit a year later.
“I guess it involves perspective and knowledge about what’s coming in the future,” Vannaying explains. She follows the news obsessively, looking for trends and indications of future scenarios. “I’m lucky,” she admits. “When I look at something, I can see if it’s going to get better.”
Today, at 65, she has no problem delegating business decisions to her children. “But I’m always looking over their shoulder,” she grins. Each son has responsibilities within the company, but each is also encouraged to pursue his own passions. Tan has started a retail cosmetics business. Peter and Mai will be looking after their mother’s latest find: a Filipino restaurant that started as a stand-alone business in Bangkok that Vannaying feels is ripe for expansion. Tentatively called Bahay ni Toto (Toto’s House), the restaurant will serve inasal (grilled marinated chicken) and other Filipino favorites in a retro, Old Manila atmosphere. Her sons will provide support to the talented husband-and-wife team, which founded the restaurant.
Vannaying, whom many people affectionately refer to as “Tita Zeny (Aunt Zeny),” sees a real mission in giving back to the community. Her hotels employ Filipino trainees in the hopes that they will return, share their knowledge and develop tourism in their homeland. She and Sonia Zerrudo, regional sales manager of Klopman International, were instrumental in organizing the first Ateneo Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship program in Bangkok, a workshop, conducted by the institutions’s professors in different cities around the world for overseas foreign workers. They provide business mentoring and support for the best projects, to come out of these training encounters. Of Vannaying, whom she calls “her partner in crime,” Zerrudo says: “When I approached her about doing something for the community, it was she who insisted on [promoting] financial literacy. She wanted to share her experience, helping her family achieve a better life, with other Filipinos — that’s always what has driven her to confront challenges head on.
“Zeny really has a ‘nose’ for business, combined with an amiable and simple demeanor. She is truly inspirational.”
For midnight Mass on Christmas Eve each year at the Holy Redeemer Church in Ruamrudee, Bangkok, Vannaying’s hotels provide 400 to 500 Filipino meals, a pledge she made to herself and her community that she honors every year. She also works with the Philippine embassy to promote Filipino products at trade shows like Thaifex-World Food of Asia. She is an active member of the Philippine Ladies’ Group Foundation that offers scholarships and enables a wide range of charities.
What’s left for Vannaying to do? With some wistfulness, she says: “I want to go back to the community where I sold garlands. I want to teach them [the people there] that they can survive; they can better their lives. It’s up to them, [to have] the willingness, the drive, the perseverance.”
Her message is simple. “How do you get out from the mud? [Remember,] I was selling flowers in the street once, too.”
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‘PINOYS’ IN BANGKOK
The Filipino diaspora has touched countless cities across the globe, and Bangkok — a little over three hours flight from Manila — is no exception. Here’s how Pinoys have established a presence in the Thai capital.
• Holy Redeemer Church is the parish for many Filipino Catholics in the Thai capital. Its distinctive architecture was deliberately designed to echo the roofs of a Thai Buddhist temple.
• Pinoy Thaiyo (a play on words on “We Filipinos”) is the online magazine of Filipinos in Thailand where the community shares its news.
• Ateneo Leadership and Social Enterprise Program, conducted in many countries around the world, is an empowerment initiative for overseas Filipinos. The first training activity in Thailand, spearheaded by Zeny Vannaying and Sonia Zerrudo, was held this year.
• Philippine Ladies’ Group Foundation started off as a social group 25 years ago, but now supports a wide range of charities, from building affordable housing in the Philippines to assisting orphanages in Thailand.