“We have always believed that Max’s represents Philippine cuisine and culture. We often hear [the] balikbayan (Filipinos returning from overseas), who, when asked where they want to eat, reply without batting an eyelash: ‘Sa Max (At Max’s’).“
Experienced marketer sees the world in living color
Max’s Fried Chicken has been part of the Filipino story since its inception in 1945. Almost every Filipino at one time or another — introduced to the restaurant by parents of grandparents — has dined on the best-selling savory dish that’s “Sarap to the Bones (devoured until only the bones are left),” with the ubiquitous banana catsup served on the side.
If there is someone in the company who’s responsible for ensuring the narrative about the country’s most popular homegrown comfort food continues well into the next generation, that would be Paolo Serrano, chief operating officer (COO) of Max’s Restaurant and Max’s Corner Bakery.
The role certainly suits Serrano, who has always viewed the world in enthralling visuals and colorful chronicles, which he has found inspiring and uplifting. Such perspective whetted his interest in the arts even at a young age. “My childhood was filled with memories of watching ‘Sesame Street,’” he recalls. “I collected comic books. I wanted to become a graphic artist for computer games.” He also developed an ear for music, discovering vinyl records and learning how to play on the keyboard. In high school, Serrano ventured into photography.
At the heart of these various interests, Serrano says: “There was always an element of art in whatever I veered toward.”
“As a leader, I always want to inspire people to do their best. I do not just give orders, but challenge them to do more. This is my way of showing my respect and trust in them.“
Serrano, who was born in 1974, considers himself quintessentially a southern boy on both sides of the family. His father, Edmundo Serrano, a pharmaceutical executive, hailed from Mati, Davao, while his mother, Cynthia Roxas Santos, who belonged to the pioneering batch of employees that opened the old Hyatt Manila on Roxas Boulevard (now renamed Midas Hotel and Casino), is a Lipeña from Batangas. The couple presented a model of dedication and perseverance for Serrano and his older brother Mario, who witnessed how conscientiously they worked to provide a comfortable life and quality education to make their dreams possible. The Serrano kids schooled at the Colegio de San Agustin in Dasmariñas Village, Makati City, with Serrano later opting to enroll in marketing management at De La Salle University on Taft Avenue, Manila.
Food was another preoccupation that caught the young Serrano’s fancy, and perhaps accounts for his current work environment. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen,” he admits. “I guess it was due to my mom’s influence since she was a hotelier. My decision to go the corporate route was because of my dad. I just combined the two, and established a corporate career that has mostly been in the food industry.”
Nowhere but up
Serrano entered the work force when he was hired in 1998 by the food and drink behemoth Nestlé. He joined the food services sales team and was assigned to field duty in Nueva Ecija. Eventually, he hopped onto the marketing team of the company’s Dairy Business Unit. But even as he was taking baby steps up the corporate ladder, he was already envisioning his career path. Serrano’s set a bar for himself that others would have thought was as high as the moon. “I wanted to be president; I wanted to be head of a company,” Serrano reveals to Boardroom Watch, his eyes gleaming impishly in remembrance.
At the same time, he realized that reaching the pinnacle would not happen overnight. He determined specific career goals that could be broken down into smaller components. He worked on learning and mastering the different aspects of running a business such as its sales functions, marketing and conceptualization strategies, finance aspects and the whole supply chain operations.
After 10 years in Nestlé, he became head of food services for Kraft Philippines before moving into the marketing arena. He explored a new industry, telecommunications, joining Globe Telecom where he handled international business matters. Prior to joining Max’s, he helped launch Arla, the giant European food brand in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, as its regional marketing director.
Fried chicken fortune
“The house that fried chicken built” — Max’s iconic tagline — emerged from the devastation of World War 2 and a city ravaged by the ambitions of two aggressors. Teacher Maximo Gimenez, who gave his name to the business, opened a café for American troops stationed in Quezon City, at 21 South F Street (later renamed Scout Tuason after one of the 24 boy scouts, who perished in an air crash over the Arabian Sea, on their way to attend a jamboree in Athens, Greece). Gimenez’ niece Ruby, who ran the kitchen, whipped up a chicken dish from a special recipe, which became an instant best seller. Soon, it wasn’t only American GI’s, who came to munch on the crispy favorite, but Filipinos as well.
Seventy four years later, Ruby’s concoction is still being served, along with other delicious items that have captivated local palates, hungering for home-style Filipino dishes. “People often ask how Max’s has been creating the best tasting chicken in the country all these years,” Serrano remarks. “What one has to understand is that it is not about having the best plates or the most Instagram-worthy food. There are so many people, who put their efforts into our chicken, to ensure that people from the northern region all the way to Zamboanga will get the same consistency in taste and quality.
“This is a family recipe that has stood the test of time.”
As COO of Max’s Restaurant, Serrano has crafted both a vision and transition process aligned with the direction laid down by the Board of Directors of the Max’s Group Inc. With Max’s Restaurant as the company’s flagship, Serrano realizes he has an immense responsibility, not only to grow the brand but more importantly, to preserve and enhance its legacy. “The natural progression of any organization is to transition to becoming more professionally-managed,” he says. “But in order for that to work, I have to be able to earn the trust of the people, most of who have been with Max’s for a very long time. This entails protecting the culture of the company, which is founded on the values of ‘grit’ and ‘malasakit (compassion)’.
“We have always believed that Max’s represents Philippine cuisine and culture. We often hear [the] balikbayan (Filipinos, who return from overseas to holiday or settle back in the country for good), who, when asked where they want to eat, reply without batting an eyelash ‘Sa Max’s (At Max’s).’ We just [recently] opened in Singapore. The lines of Filipinos were just really long. Proud ka [it makes you feel proud] that this is what Filipino food is about.”
This sentiment about Max’s is what Serrano wants to maintain, along with the company’s ability to keep developing professionally. He is accountable for the jobs of roughly 10,000 people — those who work for Max’s Group and its commissary, and those who work for the franchises. He says: “As a leader, I always want to inspire people to do their best. I do not just give orders, but challenge them to do more. This is my way of showing my respect and trust in them.”
But despite this all-consuming concern, he never compromises the quality time spent with the two most important persons in his life — his wife Geraldine Barrios Serrano, a unit head in Manulife Philippines, and their nine-year-old son Gerard Daniel, a student at De La Salle Zobel. Close friends are also not neglected, as Serrano believes: “Forming connections balances you.”
And there are the hobbies that enrich Serrano’s artistic side. He continues to engage in an old love: photography, never hesitating to capture his favorite subjects such as food, landscapes and destinations, especially when he travels for work or on family holidays. His eye for detail is an inextricable part of a personal fabric that has helped him see the world in terms of manifold hues and compelling stories waiting to unfold.
For Paolo Serrano, each day is a chapter in the book of life, and one that he can’t wait to read.
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Some useful tips from long-time photography enthusiast Paolo Serrano
• How to enhance selfies and group shots? Move into the shade.
• Use your phone’s light meter to brighten or darken shots.
• Since the moment is fleeting, know your phone’s shortcut to open your camera.
• Use your phone’s grid and practice the Rule of Thirds.
• Use leading lines: experiment with different perspectives to create a unique image. Keep your composition simple.
PHOTOS BY HERMES SINGSON