Manila, Philippines – Rommel Juan has made a piggy bank for his young daughters that is divided into four sections – save, invest, donate and spend.
The president of Binalot Fiesta Foods, Inc., the innovative food business that serves Filipino dishes wrapped in banana leaves, is teaching his three girls – aged 11, eight and five – that there are many ways of handling money rather than just spending it.
This is apart from making them open bank accounts, encouraging entrepreneurial habits by letting them participate in a Kiddopreneur Bazaar and exposing them to the work that he loves.
“You have to start them young,” is his advice to parents when it comes to cultivating financial literacy and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit among children.
Rommel is just employing the things he learned when he was growing up. After all, if not for his childhood training, he wouldn’t have built Binalot, which now has 41 branches in Metro Manila and some key areas in Luzon.
“I come from a very entrepreneurial family. Our family business is actually automotive. My dad would expose us to the business at a very young age. He would bring us to banks when he had appointments. We would just be there beside him, observing how he would talk to the people from the banks, or how he would talk with the customers. This was when we were around seven or eight years old and well into our teens. Those were our bonding sessions with our father,” Rommel, whose father is into manufacturing wrangler-type jeeps while his mother runs a school in Malabon, tells STARweek.
“My dad never showed us na mahirap magtrabaho. Ang daddy ko, never ko narining mahirap magtrabaho. Enjoy siya, he likes what he is doing, and it rubbed off on me. Since I opened Binalot, I’ve been enjoying it ever since,” Rommel adds.
“It was very normal for us to (go into) business. My dad really encouraged it. It was not classroom teaching; it was just exposure. It was really the training.”
When his father would arrive home from trips overseas, he would buy them toys, but out of the 10 pieces, Rommel would be instructed to get only one for himself, and to sell the rest.
Since Rommel’s classes were in the afternoon, he would be in school during the morning session just so he could sell the stuff.
“But I realized it wasn’t the money that was motivating me. It was the interaction. I enjoyed selling. I enjoyed talking to the customers. I liked selling to kids who were older than me,” he shares.
In college, he and his older brother dabbled in other entrepreneurial pursuits, including a t-shirt selling and printing business, coming up with prints like “I Survived the Coup D’ Etat” (this was during the Cory Aquino presidency) which became a hit in other universities and with orders even coming all the way from Cebu.
After graduating from De La Salle University with a marketing management degree, upon the suggestion of his father, he worked in the car industry to gain experience. From his first job, he also developed discipline as he had Japanese bosses.
After a couple of years, he returned to the family business. But with his father’s business already doing very well and with everything in place, he found himself with a lot of free time on his hands, so what to do?
He suggested to his like-minded older brother that they venture into the food business. “When we were kids, we had a little farm in Cavite, and we got the idea from my mom – binabalot niya ang pagkain namin ng dahon ng saging (she wrapped our food in banana leaves). So Binalot was inspired by nostalgic childhood memories.”
With a capital of P50,000, they started in Makati in 1996 – a “guerilla operation” where they simply distributed flyers, and people would order. Then they opened their first outlet on Jupiter street, offering delivery service.
The business turned out to be a success, with Binalot selling 500 meals per day.
However, the 1997 Asian financial crisis came crashing in, and their business was not spared.
When they were on the verge of closing shop, an offer for a food court space came from Shangri-La Plaza.
“I thought, let’s go for gold, if it works out, then good; if not, then we will close.” It worked.
From that food court space, they were emboldened to branch out into other malls.
In 2004, Binalot finally began franchising. This was when the business really started to flourish, with the “food court phase” transitioning to the “full-dining set-up.”
Binalot now boasts of 41 branches, selling an average of 200 meals a day per store – and counting.
“Organically, we are growing,” he says. “We opened in the provinces already. What we are trying to do right now is to sell more provincial franchises. We are granting area franchises now with a minimum of three stores. We also have a company supervising scheme which is best for OFWs. You invest your money, and we will manage the stores for them. In terms of franchise package, I think we have one of the most affordable franchises in the industry, with an all-in package ranging from P2 million to P2.5 million, inclusive of franchise fee, construction, training, manuals, use of materials, etc.”
But what Rommel is particularly proud of are the advocacies of Binalot.
In 2006, when typhoon “Milenyo” struck the country, their supply of banana leaves in Luzon got wiped out. “That’s when we went straight to the source, the farmers, and we found them in Nagcarlan, Laguna.”
Binalot organized a community there, and right now, around 30 families are supported by their project.
“We realized that even if you’re a small company, you can still have corporate social responsibility. You can help others, and it’s also helping your business,” he says.
With that, Binalot has become a poster child for the Small Medium Enterprise Corporate Social Responsibility (SME-CSR), receiving national and international recognition from the UPS Global Small Business contest, Entrepreneur Magazine, Anvil Awards, Bid Challenge Philippines and the Asian Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility last year.
Binalot is steadily increasing its CSR, which is closely tied up with where the company is expanding. They have projects in Zambales with an Aeta community and also with a women’s group in Legazpi, Albay.
Environment is another strong advocacy. In 2009, when “Ondoy” devastated the country, they realized, after serving hot meals to the typhoon victims, that they have to consciously promote biodegradable packaging and to imbibe other green practices in the way they run their business.
Of course, Binalot has long been a step ahead by packaging their food in banana leaves and not in plastic or non-biodegradable containers.
This is not entirely unique to the Philippines, as people in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia also pack some of their foods with banana leaves, but it is only in the Philippines that it is done fastfood-style. Rommel is proud to have introduced a food business that has created an atmosphere that makes any diner truly feel that he is eating in the Philippines.
“I think we should be proud of this legacy (wrapping food in banana leaves). It’s fresh, it’s eco-friendly, and do you know that banana leaves have anti-bacterial properties? That’s why some disinfectants have banana fibers. So, food is more fresh when they are wrapped in banana leaves,” Rommel says.
When asked for tips for budding entrepreneurs, he shares, “I always say that a good decision done quickly is better than a great decision done slowly. Meaning to say, if the idea is good enough, try it out already. Don’t wait anymore, kasi minsan ‘pag analysis parati, yun yung problema. Work with the resources you have. Huwag kang sumugal ng di mo kaya.”
Rommel says that he is grateful for all the challenges that were thrown his way, otherwise he wouldn’t have the opportunities to better his business.
“With the financial crisis, we were able to enter the food court. Because of Milenyo, we were able to establish our communities. Because of Ondoy, we realized we had to promote the environment. With Binalot, I realized that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – really. Trials and challenges, you really just have to learn from them.”
Passionate as he is about business, Rommel realizes business should not consume all of one’s time, one’s life. For him, his family takes priority. When he brings his kids to work, it’s not just the early training he’s after, but also the father-and-child bonding that it affords, just like what his parents did with him.
“Business is like a rubber ball,” he muses. “If it falls, it bounces back. But family is really more important. It’s like a crystal ball, if it falls, it breaks apart. So what I’m saying is, business should be a tool to improve family life and the community.”