Inspiration

Lessons on Business and Life From Rustan's Tantoco Family

Yvette Fernandez sits down with one of the oldest retail families in the Philippines.
IMAGE WIG TYSMANS
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One of Nedy Tantoco’s earliest memories of Rustan’s is as a preteener working behind the claim counter during her summer break. It’s where customers—many of them friends of her parents, Gliceria Rustia and Bienvenido Tantoco, also known as Glecy and Benny—would claim their gaily wrapped and beribboned packages to take home with them.


“They would call me by name and ask me to look for their purchases. I was thrilled they knew my name,” says Nedy. At the time, Rustan’s was still a small gift shop in what used to be the living room of their family home in San Marcelino. “We were very familiar with the store since it was right there in the house where we lived,” says Nedy. “It was a part of our lives.” Nedy says she and her siblings—Rico, Menchu, Marilou, and Marites—always knew they would join the family business when they got older.


Nedy Tantoco in her own Josie Natori dress, Rustan’s Makati, 813.3739; Bulgari watch, earrings, and necklace, Greenbelt 4, 728.5061.

“It ran in our blood,” she says. “At dinner, we would hear our parents talking about the business, so we learned all about business by listening to them. When they would travel and go buying, we would take turns going with them. Sometimes we’d all go on vacation together and they would use this as an opportunity for us to see the process. We would go with them to New York and L.A. It was very exciting. I never wanted to do anything else.”


Gliceria and Bienvenido Tantoco on their golden wedding anniversary.

The seeds of the store were first planted in 1952, when Benny was rewarded by his company with a trip to the United States and Europe. At the time, he was managing a movie theater for his uncle, Ernesto Rufino.

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“He did so well in his job they rewarded him with a trip. So he and my mother went to L.A. to see the movie studios and then went elsewhere,” says Nedy. “My mother had always been so naturally business minded. She saw so many things that she could bring home and sell to her friends. So she bought all these little things and put them into her suitcase. When she got home, her friends were so excited and bought them all, so she decided to go on another trip on her own and buy more things.”


Nedy Tantoco on her first visit to Paris in the 1960s.

In the beginning, Benny continued to work in the theater business. “When they decided to set up an honest-to-goodness store, my dad resigned to help my mom with the store,” says Nedy. She says her mother was the face of the business, doing the buying, marketing, and customer relations. Her father was in the backroom, doing the administrative end— accounting, paperwork, working on tax returns, among others.

“My dad let my mom do what she knew best. And he worked behind the scenes. It was really a partnership,” says Nedy. Nedy remembers very clearly when Rustan’s moved into its original Makati location, very near Rizal Theater in Makati. “We were right across Henry Sy and his Shoemart store,” says Nedy. “Henry and Daddy would see each other every morning and would wave to each other.”


Nedy with her parents on her wedding day; Nedy, circa 1980.

Over the last six decades, the families have grown into two of the largest retailers in the nation. And yet those in the industry admit the retail landscape is changing. “It’s really a big challenge to be in retail nowadays,” says Nedy. “As a family and as a group of managers, we are looking towards the future. How to be relevant to whatever customers are looking forward to today. It’s different. It’s no longer the same. We have to change, of course. We’re looking for ways to keep relevant to our customers. That’s what the Rustan’s Group is focused on right now.”

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Today, Rustan's Department Store has five branches, Rustan's Supermarket has 26. Other companies in the group include Store Specialists, Inc., the nation's largest luxury retailer with over 100 international brands and over 500 specialty stores; Rustan's Marketing which distributes an array of fashion and beauty brands; Royal Duty Free in Subic; Starbucks Coffee; Rustan’s Supercenters; Shopwise; and Sta. Elena Golf and Country Estate.


Donnie Tantoco and Bienvenido Tantoco Sr. on a working visit to Subic in the 1990s; Donnie and cousin Anton Huang with a Tiffany & Co. executive.

“The story of Rustan’s is about my wife,” says Benny, now 96 years old, who insists that images of his late wife be included in the portraits we are taking of him. “She was the founder of Rustan’s. Don’t forget about her. It is her story.” And what is his story? The legacy he would want to pass on to his great-grandchildren and the generations to come? “Work hard,” he says simply. “Work hard.” Nedy agrees.

“Work hard. That’s the lesson we learned from our parents,” she says. “They were always such hard workers. They were willing to work as hard as they could to reach their goals, their dreams, their success. But they really loved what they did. If you’re forced to do something you don’t love, you won’t last. You have to love it. We all do. I think it’s quite rare have everyone involved in a family business, but it was in our blood. We loved it.”


Rustan’s Makati in the 1970s; The current façade of Rustan’s Makati.

A few days later, we again meet up with Benny and this time, with his first grandchild, Bienvenido Tantoco III, also known as Donnie, for coffee at Starbucks. Grandfather and grandson have just come from their weekly Wednesday breakfast at Benny’s home. “I like coming to Starbucks, being out here in the open and watching the people walk by. It’s like Luneta. Our house in San Marcelino was near Luneta so I used to go there every day,” says Benny.

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“We come here and have coffee, and he tells me stories,” says Donnie. “I’m very lucky to have this time with him. I admire him so much. He never preaches. He just tells us stories and we learn by listening to him.” Like his Ninay Nedy, some of Donnie’s earliest memories involve Rustan’s.


Glecy and Benny at the launch of Christian Dior in the Philippines

“I remember my time with Lolo visiting the stores, sitting in the boardroom while he was having meetings, inspecting the warehouse with him on Sundays. He was always encouraging us, involving us,” says Donnie. “Every summer we had to work, every Christmas we had to work. I was always put in the supermarket. I worked at the package counter, then as a cashier, and at the information counter dealing with customers. I also helped in the stockroom getting rid of defective products, and receiving goods. When I was a little older, Lolo assigned me to work in the buying office in New York. There was a lot of manual, heavy lifting work. I worked with the truckers who delivered products. We would bring them up to a warehouse space, then consolidate and repack them. We put things in big wooden boxes, and put steel reinforcements around them. Now, when I see these boxes, I know the process that starts with people from the other end of the world.”


Rustan’s Cubao in the 1980s

“You know, I always tell Donnie that we treat our people as if they’re part of our family,” says Benny. “That is what we’ve done from the first day of Rustan’s. People who work with us become members of the family. You cannot rule by fear. You have to gain the love of your people.”

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Donnie is now President of Rustan Commercial Corporation. And his management style is patterned after that of his grandfather’s. “Rustan’s is more than retail. I love the retail side, the successful business, but I also love its higher purpose,” says Donnie. “We preserve jobs. Jobs are a source of dignity, of livelihood, of self-confidence. You have to learn the love and trust of your employees. But to earn it you must first give it. You as the employer must first love them. Lolo believes you build trust by trusting them first.”


Nedy, Glecy, and Benny with Oleg Cassini in the 1960s

“Everyone has goodness in them. Everyone has greatness,” says Donnie. “Trust them. Leadership is believing in the goodness and the greatness in each of them and harnessing that for a purpose that’s bigger than making money. When you do that, you’ll be unbeatable. And that’s what will lead to success. Lolo has always lived that way and has taught all that to us.” Benny smiles.

“Any ordinary person when he feels he is trusted, he will give back that trust,” says Benny. “Trust and love. That’s what is necessary. Remember in the olden days, when people worked on rice plantations. At the end of the season, there would be a fiesta, when everyone celebrated with each other. Landowners and tenants. Everyone shared. Success should be shared. Shared with those who make success possible. Pag animado ang mga tao mo, loyal to you, lamang ka na. If you take care of your employees, they will be loyal to you. They will take care of your customers and your customers will be loyal to you.”


Nedy and Glecy launching Charles Jourdan

Benny’s youngest daughter Marites arrives and joins the conversation. “More than anything, Rustan’s has always been at the forefront of fashion and luxury,” says Marites. “Mommy loved fabric. She would travel to Como in Italy for the fine silk and then take a train to St. Gallen in Switzerland to buy Swiss lace.” “Forster-Willi,” recalls Benny. “The top lace in the world.”

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“Mommy worked with the top designers and couturiers, they all got fabric from her,” says Marites. “And then one day Mommy said, ‘Let’s bring in the House of Christian Dior, make it available here in the Philippines.’ So she approached Dior himself and she said, ‘Why don’t we bring in your clothes to the Philippines? We’ll use your design and manufacture them in the Philippines.’ It was such a good idea. She was the first to introduce licensing to them. They had no idea what it was all about but they said yes. So we worked with a patternmaker over there at Dior who understood manufacturing. Daddy established a corporation here that was in charge of doing the season’s collections that would be suitable for the Philippines, using Italian and Swiss fabrics.”

“We did that also for Oleg Cassini too,” says Benny. “And YSL for men,” says Donnie. “I used to wear locally made YSL shirts.” “Mommy got Charles Jourdan too,” says Marites. “With leather and heels from France, but made here in the Philippines.”


“Rustan’s has always brought in the latest fashions. Ever since. Someone’s got to do it,” says Benny. Today he is wearing a jacket by Façonnable and a belt by Montblanc. He says he is fond of suits by Ermenegildo Zegna and Ascot Chang, shoes by Bally. All brands available at Rustan’s, of course.

“Can you imagine, the founder of Rustan’s is still around 65 years later,” says Benny. “I’m 96 years old. Four more years and I will be 100. I promised my grandson Christopher I will live till I am 100 so I can get the 100,000 pesos the mayor gives everyone who turns 100. Christopher says he will use it to pay for his wedding. So I have to live till I’m 100.”

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This story was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Town&Country.

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