Inspiration
Michael Concepcion On How He Built His Own Company at 21
The owner of Ronnie & Joe started a clothing line at 16, put up his own company at 21, and hasn't looked back since. Still, he isn't resting on his laurels.
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Finding yourself in possession of youth, privilege, and good looks often goes two ways. Rely on these too much, and you have yourself a recipe for failure; use them wisely, and you could become immensely successful. Michael Concepcion, the young entrepreneur behind the retail distribution company Ronnie and Joe, could very well be a model for the latter.

When we meet Michael, he is running late coming from another media interview, one of many that are regularly sandwiched in between early morning store visits and office meetings with his team, because a lot of people are interested in him—and rightfully so. After all, Michael is smart, attractive, and running a growing enterprise at the age of 24.


Many will agree that nothing about Michael’s charmed life happened by chance, except maybe the part about having been born next in line to the throne of the Unilever RFM Ice Cream empire. The eldest child of John and Peachy Concepcion, he is the natural successor to the corporation that sells what is perhaps the best-known brand of ice cream in the Philippines. Although Michael immersed himself in the family business for a few years, eventually leading the company is miles away from his mind, at least for the time being, as he’s busy running his own business. In 2011, he put up Ronnie & Joe, an eyewear store that has since evolved into a retail distribution company. The name pays homage to his twin grandfathers, Ronnie and Joe Concepcion (Michael’s father is the son of Jose Concepcion Jr.), but that’s where his family’s influence ends.

“I had always been a little bit different from my friends growing up. When a lot of their interests had to do with being a normal 16-year-old, I had already envisioned what I wanted to be doing later on in life.”

Those who know Michael weren’t too surprised when he ventured into opening a store, considering he’s been an entrepreneur for nearly eight years. While still in high school at La Salle Greenhills, Michael co-founded a clothing label, Greater Good, with his cousin Christian Concepcion. Originally built as Christian’s college thesis, Greater Good integrated social consciousness into its business model, which spawned a store in SM Mall of Asia three years later. “I won’t ever say I regret the experience, because at 16, I was learning the ins and outs of production, visiting fabric factories, and exposing myself to things I never would have done, so five years later I knew how to work with people and uphold myself in certain situations,” he says. “It was a great learning curve.”

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Where most 24-year-olds are only beginning to forge their paths and making sense of the ‘real’ world, Michael, in comparison, seems to have figured it all out. “I had always been a little bit different from my friends growing up. When a lot of their interests had to do with being a normal 16-year-old, I had already envisioned what I wanted to be doing later on in life,” he says. “With my dad and what he does, I was exposed to the corporate world early on, and I became very familiar with it. It was great, and while I appreciated it and admired it, I also knew right away that it wasn’t for me.”

Having worn prescription glasses since age 12, Michael was well-acquainted with various brands from around the world, but those he gravitated to happened to be smaller, craft brands not available in the Philippines. That Michael decided to find a way to bring in the brands he liked instead of being content to shop for them online should clue you in to the way Michael’s mind is wired, and the kind of background in which he was raised. “That entrepreneurial spirit was really pushed upon me by my dad,” he says. “He believes in following your passion, and being so supportive, he has always tried to make sense of what I enjoyed. But to him it needs to make sense, it needs to be something that can be done long-term, and that shifted my thinking to making sure that any interest of mine could be developed into an eventual business or career pursuit.”


It was a good compromise for Michael. He was passionate about eyewear and all things alternative to the mainstream, and that, coupled with his existing background in retail, convinced him to start his own company. Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on a gap in the market, he drew up a wish list of 30 brands that he wanted to introduce to the local market. Then, he wrote to each of the brands via e-mail, pitching a possible partnership in Manila, even without a brick-and-mortar store to speak of at the time. “We got several rejection letters saying, ‘Sorry, we’re not interested in the Philippines, there’s nothing there for us,’” he recalls. “And some of them were like, ‘What is the Philippines?’”

Unfazed, Michael held on to the plan. At the top of his list was Moscot, an optical store founded in New York’s Lower East Side in 1915. He reached out to the company with a message saying he would be visiting in Manhattan, could they give him five minutes for a business presentation? They said yes. Michael flew to New York two months later and was surprised to find out he would be meeting with the company president, Harvey Moscot, and vice president, Wendy Simmons. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit,’” Michael recounts, grinning. “I had just turned 21 and was starting college at the time, but I didn’t tell them that. I dodged the question of my age and I walked into the meeting extremely confident, extremely passionate about their brand, and with a clear vision. I think they saw that, and they fell in love with my idea. That was huge for us.”

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“And I don’t want to be a jack of all trades. I want to be really good at what I do.”

Once Moscot had joined the Ronnie & Joe roster, it became easier to convince other small but similarly storied brands to come to the Philippines. “That was when we began to cultivate the idea of our company, which we

meant to become a platform to house these independent, like-minded brands and give them a space to thrive. We didn’t want to come up with a passé retail concept,” he says. “At Ronnie & Joe we’re a believer in customer experiences, communicating stories, educating more people about heritage and tradition. That ties in with why we named it after my grandfathers—those two embody values and a mindset that we as a brand want to emulate, and it instantly gave us something to talk about,” he says.


Michael began flying to Singapore, Japan, and Europe in search of ideas, setting up meetings with prospective partners along the way. Today the Ronnie & Joe boutiques exclusively carry a number of upmarket brands—from Karen Walker, Barton Perreira, and Thom Browne to Matsuda, Ksubi, and Cutler and Gross—that wouldn’t likely have found their way to Manila otherwise. Michael commissioned Ed Calma to design the three locations with the directive to inject a luxurious, modern, urban feel into each space. “I felt that eyewear was always looked at as a necessity, and we wanted to disrupt the industry and convince everyone that eyewear boutiques should be treated as lifestyle and fashion concepts. They shouldn’t be next to supermarkets,” he says.

Michael continues, “Funnily enough, when we first got in touch with these brands, they were considered ‘indie’ here in the Philippines, but already there’s been a shift in the paradigm, and now they’re the popular guys.”


From an optical salon, Ronnie & Joe has grown into a retail company that’s preparing to launch more similarly considered boutiques purveying not only eyewear, but also footwear and clothing. Michael visibly lights up when he starts talking about Commonwealth, the lifestyle store he launched in the first quarter of 2016 specializing in skate subculture. Located on the ground floor of SM Aura, the space was designed by a Los Angeles-based architectural firm and eschews traditional store design values by excluding a window display from its store layout. “Our vision is not to become the next big retailer trying to bid for an H&M,” he says. “We want to introduce small brands that haven’t been represented in Manila yet and be the best at bringing those in, whether it’s limited-edition sneakers or hard to find apparel. We want to be the guys who do that right.”

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“I had my own vision, and I knew I had so much more to offer. I knew I could provide valid input to the episode, concept, even set design. I’d sit and do what they asked me to do, but I didn’t like the idea that I was just there as a mannequin.”

Ambitious, assertive, and straightforward, Michael is a doer in every sense of the word. He has smart, well-formed opinions on many things. He’s unafraid to assert himself, a characteristic that has helped him categorically decide on whether certain pursuits would lead to a solid career path. In the last five years, he has tried his hand at various things, from hosting a television show in 2012 to starting an events group, Manila Pop Up, with Erwan Heussaff and Dee Jae Paeste in 2013. Manila Pop Up was a fun venture, but eventually the partners decided to channel their energies onto their own personal projects. “Erwan opened all of his restaurants, Dee Jae focused on his work as an artist, and I opened Ronnie & Joe. It was good, we all thought about what we really wanted to become known for. And I don’t want to be a jack of all trades,” Michael says firmly. “I want to be really good at what I do.”

A brief stint on television helped Michael realize that what he really wanted was to be involved in every aspect of a project. It makes sense that building his own business was the best way to ensure that. “I’ve never been shy about being in front of a camera, so when they asked me if I wanted to try it, I went to the audition, and they liked me. But I quickly found it wasn’t for me.” Asked how that dawned on him, Michael responds, almost sheepishly, “I felt that I wanted to tell them how to do their job behind the camera,” he says. “I had my own vision, and I knew I had so much more to offer. I knew I could provide valid input to the episode, concept, even set design. I’d sit and do what they asked me to do, but I didn’t like the idea that I was just there as a mannequin.”


The school of thought that generalizes millennials, the generation born between 1980 to 2000, as lazy and entitled plagues many young people today, and Michael is familiar with it, though not for the reasons you might think. “I don’t want to generalize, but man, it’s really true. It’s so often that you see that weird sense of entitlement,” he says. “It’s a pity, because I love working with fresh graduates, people who don’t have much experience, because my thinking is that we can grow together. But then the first thing many of them do is demand for what they want, or they’re like, ‘I can’t do this, I want to travel to Europe.’ They fixate on certain kinds of lives that they want to have, and they think there’s an easy way to get there really quickly.”

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It’s funny that Michael says this from a detached perspective, because at 24, he is unceremoniously lumped in that very same generational pool. But, unlike many people fresh out of college—he graduated with a degree in marketing management from De La Salle University just last year—he runs a company that employs a staff of 60, and is growing his own retail brand completely from scratch. In many ways, Michael doesn’t seem like he’s in his early 20s, representing instead the best qualities of the millennial stereotype: he’s eager to prove himself, and is privy to the things that catch young people’s attention. He’s a savvy marketer, using connections and social media to the brand’s best interests.

I ask him if having an enormously accomplished father and grandfather has its drawbacks, if being constantly introduced as “the son of,” “the grandson of,” has gotten old. He pauses thoughtfully before shaking his head. “I guess when I was younger I wanted to separate myself from that, but now I’m proud of it,” Michael says. “I learned a lot from them—to be passionate, to love what you do, whatever it may be, to the point of obsession. Now I’m my own boss.”

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Manica C. Tiglao
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