The bank executive could have opted to relax and travel after retiring. Instead, she invested her savings in two profitable ventures and employed the entrepreneurial skills that she learned from her high school days.
"I've always been very dedicated to my job and everything I do."
Bank executive-turned-businesswoman Gina Mercado Soler hasn't slowed since retiring from the corporate world. She could've enjoyed an idle life or traveled the world but decided instead to invest her earnings in two businesses that became profitable and money-making, pandemic notwithstanding.
Soler is proudly the managing director for Beach Way Day Spa and general manager for Bistro 501, which owns a franchise for Ben's Halo-Halo Ice Cream. She started Beach Way in 2017, three months after retiring from United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) where she worked for 28 years, and then opened Ben's in January 2021.
"After my retirement, I stayed most of the time in my hometown [in Batangas], and I was so frustrated that there was no good or nice spa to go to when you want to relax. There was one, but it was always fully booked. So, I told my BFF (best friend forever) Dennis Tantay, 'I think I want to start and open a spa business'," she said.
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As for the Ben's venture, "halo-halo (a dessert made from shaved ice and an assortment of ingredients) is an all-time favorite anywhere," she said. "The location of Ben's Halo-Halo Ice Cream is along the way to the beach, also like Beach Way Day Spa. Since our Laiya sand beaches in San Juan, Batangas are sought-after destinations, that contributes a lot to the success of our Ben's Halo-Halo. I owe it also to social media."
Soler grew up in a large brood of 10 kids — she is the eighth — and was raised by her paternal grandparents. "When my mom was about to deliver our youngest siblings, my twin brothers, that was when my grandmother got me," she recalled.
Learning from a young age
"[I]n third grade — I was 9 years old — I remember selling santol (cotton fruit) and sampaloc (tamarind) candies to my classmates. The candies were made by our neighbor and I would sell them so I had [an] allowance. ... I earned 25 centavos for every pack I sold at that time."
While other girls her age considered weekends as a time to rest then, Soler instead helped her mom in the market. "My mom was very popular for her Batangas goto (rice porridge with tripe)," she shared. "I did the dishwashing and sold sliced watermelon inside the cockpit area. She had an area there on Sundays."
Despite doing those things at a young age, Soler was able to maintain her grades and was a consistent grade school honor student.
When she reached high school, Soler spent her summer vacations with an aunt in Manila. Not surprisingly, she embarked on her first business, selling halo-halo in front of her boarding house along T.M. Kalaw in Ermita, Manila.
"I was 14 years old then," she said. "I bought all my school supplies for the next school year from all my earnings during vacation time. I did that for three consecutive summers during high school: 1981, 1982 and 1983. It was then that the small halo-halo table became a small carinderia (eatery) of my Tita Eving. Adamson college students came in for lunch every day."
When Soler got to college in 1983, she went to the University of Santo Tomas (UST) but still found it convenient to live with her aunt. "I had to enroll in night class, from 5 to 9 p.m., so I could work as a cashier in the eatery. The place got bigger at that time. That was the ex-deal for my tuition."
She persevered until she graduated in 1987 with an Accounting degree. "My Tita Eving was a big influence on me," Soler said. "She was the one who exposed me to the restaurant business, as well as in banking since I handled the books and the daily transactions.
"When she migrated to the US in 1991, I was already married and working on my first job. I joined UCPB in 1988 when I bought the rights for the restaurant from her. I was able to use my marketing skills to make our bank clients patronize [us]."
They delivered packed lunch meals daily to almost 300 employees from offices along T.M. Kalaw Street. "The employers were all existing clients in the bank," Soler said. "We had around 12 personnel and we cooked one sack of rice and 75 kilos of meat a day for 300 people in offices."
Soler did much of the hard work, juggling the food business and her daytime job. "I would get up at 4 a.m. to get fresh fish and meat from Paco Market, then I would go to the office at 9 a.m. promptly so I could get off at 5 p.m. to review the sales for the day and prepare again for tomorrow's menu."
For additional income, Soler also sold bed covers and sheets. "I would buy cloth from Divisoria, then bring it to a sewer and sell them (bed covers and sheets) to my officemates, clients and friends in installments."
Venturing amid the pandemic
It is not surprising therefore that Soler dauntlessly ventured into the restaurant business at the height of the pandemic. At Ben's Halo-Halo, she is a one-woman team handling human resources, accounting, payroll, marketing, inventory, operations and social media.
"As long as the place is clean, accessible, boasts of good service, spic-and-span surroundings and good food, that will always be a big come-on to prospective customers. They will always patronize and repeatedly return."
Soler was a fresh UST graduate when she joined UCPB as a teller in November 1988. "I was thinking I could review for the CPA (certified public accountant) board exam while working but the reality when you work in the bank is very different. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take the CPA board exam because of the heavy load and hectic schedule in my work."
She rose from the ranks, starting as a general teller — she used to ride the armored car, too — and retired as an assistant vice president when she turned 50. "I grabbed the early retirement package of the bank, tax-free," Soler said. "I can proudly say, I retired from my banking career with flying colors."
During her stint at UCPB, Soler was even awarded as a top branch manager. "I've always been very dedicated to my job and everything I do," she said.
She became an inspiration to her staff, with whom she shared her incentives. "My branch people traveled with me to tourist destinations in Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and local places like Boracay, Palawan, Davao, Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. They were very thankful for the experience I shared with them."
Soler's husband, Levi, a former politician from Quezon province who is now based in the US, is her role model, especially in business. "He never easily gives up," she said. "He taught me a lot, especially in not getting too emotional in making business decisions. He always stays very positive and very supportive of me and our businesses."
My husband Levi Soler, who is my business mentor
Stretching, personal care, breakfast and checking my plants
TIME SPENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
My two businesses rely on social media that's why I am very much into it.
P1,250 in November 1988
I always try to strike while the iron is hot. I see to it that I always give my 100 percent in everything I do.
To live a healthy and comfortable life. To travel every year
You cannot be in two places at the same time.