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How Mighty became the Philippines’ oldest cigarette firm

Alex Wongchuking, president of Mighty Corp. and executive director of the Wong Chu King Foundation

Not many family-owned and managed businesses last beyond the lifetimes of their founders, often disintegrating either due to family squabbles or internal decline. A century ago and even up to the mid-20th century, the Philippines had many cigarette manufacturers but most of them have become extinct. Why?

Today, the Philippine cigarette industry rakes in P150 billion per year and is a top source of national government taxes for Philhealth, education and other social services. A “hidden champion” has quietly emerged in recent years, with the oldest Filipino-owned cigarette firm Mighty Corporation — owned by the Wongchuking family since its founding in 1945 — increasing its two-percent market share in 2000 to now approximately 20 percent.

Mighty Corp. has a philanthropic arm called the Wong Chu King Foundation, which honors the business founder, focusing mainly on educational, civic and religious charities. The foundation will celebrate is 36th anniversary on March 30 by inaugurating a church at Our Lady of Piat in Cagayan and also donating a new water tank to supply 240 households in Piat.

What are the success secrets or strategies of Mighty Corporation? Here are 14 success factors shared by its president and the founder’s fifth child, Alex “Kokoy” Dy Wongchuking, in an exclusive interview for The Philippine STAR:

1. Anticipate future trends and adjust. Many businesses have failed to study and analyze industry trends locally or globally in order to ensure long-term sustainability.  Before, many Filipino cigarette or cigar factories manufactured the native style of “cigarillos” that had no filter, were short at only 85 millimeters in length, and were often smoked the other way around or chewed by customers.

Wongchuking said he was the assistant sales manager of their company from 1983 to 1985 when he noticed the changing fashion in local smoking, and saw how the then-new tax system was killing the native cigarette segment. So the family business, which was then called “La Campana Fabrica de Tabacos,” decided to adjust and change. They developed new, Virginia-tobacco type cigarettes in 1985, and the company and brand name was changed to “Mighty,” a name suggested by their eldest brother, Manny.

2. Preservation is basically harmony. Wongchuking explained that family businesses can only do well and last long “if you have family harmony and you can work well together with family members and other people.”

3. Succession should be based on meritocracy. The choice of who should be the successor or next leader should be based on who is the most qualified. Even the choices of other executives and managers should be based on merit.

4. Perseverance. Alex said that in order for success to be attained and continued, “There should be a high degree of patience and perseverance. It is like courting a girl, a lot of patience is required.” His example is how their factory La Campana remained steadfast in persevering for decades at only two percent market share, weathering all the storms and challenges. They never gave up, always preparing, competing and waiting for their opportunity to flourish.

5. Faith. Mighty Corp. founder Wong Chu King was a devout Buddhist all his life, and his children Alex and Caesar are devout Roman Catholics. Alex said, “Faith is important to business or the profession, because faith gives you spiritual development and direction. Meaning, faith keeps you cool all the time, whatever happens to our business, profession or life.”

The Wongchukings are devotees and supporters of the reputedly miraculous Our Lady of Piat, the Virgin Mary shrine in Cagayan province. Their Wongchuking Foundation also donates to various Catholic churches nationwide.

6. People. Alex Wongchuking attributes part of Mighty Corporation’s enduring success to their people, whom he describes as “very prudent and very dedicated.” He said it is important to take care of one’s people, to strengthen teamwork.

7. Filial piety. The Wongchuking family adheres to the traditional Confucian virtue of “xiao sun” or “filial piety,” which is reverence for and total obedience to parents and family elders. Alex said that apart from their late father and company founder Wong Chu King, the guiding force now of the clan and of Mighty Corporation is their 87-year-old mother, Nelia Dy Wongchuking, who was originally from Naic, Cavite.

Up to now, the matriarch still goes to the office daily from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. She was the daughter of a Chinese storekeeper in Naic, Cavite, to whom the young cigarette trader Wong Chu King used to sell his products; that’s where they met. The younger generation of the Wongchuking clan also remembers their ancestral roots in Fujian province and have donated to charity there to honor their patriarch.

8. Hard work. Alex says there is no substitute for traditional hard work. He says he and his siblings work beyond the normal eight office hours daily, even working during Saturdays and Sundays.

9. Innovation. Mighty Corporation and its owners have always innovated, not only with new products like modern-style cigarettes; they also modernized their manufacturing equipment to improve quality and increase yield of production. Their father also bought a new, bigger factory site in in Malolos, Bulacan.

10. Philanthropy. The Wongchuking family has always believed in philanthropy as part of their social mission for Mighty Corp., and also to honor the memory of their hardworking, simple-living and Confucian-oriented patriarch. Founder Wong Chu King had no chance to finish high school or college, so their foundation supports educational scholarships for three sets of beneficiaries: the kids of company employees, the kids of non-employees who are deserving students and need help, and also for children of rural tobacco farmers who want to study agriculture in college.

The founder himself migrated from Diok-Khue village in the Yeng-Ho township of Chio-sai area in Chingkang county (now a city and called “Jinjiang” in Mandarin), Fujian province, in 1919 as a seven-year-old kid with his father. The family had a small sari-sari store on H. Santos Street, Tejeron, Makati. Wong was later sent back to Fujian and came back at age 12 to help his father.

As a youth, Wong worked as a salesman for Lucky Strike cigarettes for what was then Columbia Tobacco of the Chinese tycoon Yao Shiong Shio from the 1930s to 1940s. Wong was 33 years old in 1945 when he decided to start his own small business called La Campana Fabrica de Tabacos on Tayabas Street, Sta. Cruz, Manila, on a 200-square-meter property. Wong Chu King has always been a philanthropic businessman.

11. Humility. Alex believes that for people to truly achieve success and be able to maintain it, one needs humility. “There should be an element of self-denial,” he explains.

12. Focus. He also believes in the power of focus, on the importance of “concentrating on your core business.”

13. Have only one family. Wongchuking strongly believes that whether for businesspeople or professionals, being faithful to one’s spouse is important to true success. Alex explained: “Having only one family is crucial for genuine success, because if one has too many families, that is a sure recipe for chaos and for nonstop family quarrels.”

14. Destiny. When asked what he meant by “destiny,” Alex said, “Destiny is key to success, just like in the Bible. When God called Jeremiah to become a prophet, he said ‘No, I’m a shy person.’ But God said to him, ‘Before you were born, you were already destined to become a prophet.’ It became true, Jeremiah became a good prophet, naging madaldal (he became eloquent). Read the Bible, Jeremiah Chapter 1:4.”

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