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Lifestyle Features - Travel ( Leaderboard Top ), pagematch: , sectionmatch: 1

The family that travels & works together stays together

The mother brings her own blankets and towels even when she’s staying in a five-star hotel. The eldest son once stood on the steps of the Opera House in Paris and was blown away by the history of the city and imagined how the French kings once stood where he was at now. One daughter seems to have a penchant for being in the right place at the right time — or not: she once sat across a guy on the plane when he suddenly dropped to one knee and proposed to his girlfriend; she was at a Paris airport when a fire broke out and they had to run out to the tarmac; and she was once drenched with water from the plane’s air-conditioning system as it took off. The other daughter got trapped, alone at four years old, inside a hotel elevator, which led to hysterics (by her family; she enjoyed the ride). And the other son— well, he was the one who left his sister inside the elevator after pressing all the floor buttons.

These are but some of the adventures of a family that has been involved in the travel business for the past 35 years: matriarch Dading Clemente, who founded Rajah Group of Companies with her husband Joe Clemente in 1972, and her children Jojo, Aileen, Mari-len and Alex.

The gracious and outspoken Dading — always with a funny anecdote usually involving some faux pas — has indeed withstood tough challenges in her personal and professional life. She’s been around long enough to see how tourism in the Philippines was such a promising industry in the 1970s, then slumped for much of the ‘80s, and is just now showing promise again.

As Rajah Group of Companies celebrates its 35th year, Dading tells us that she is taking a backseat to running the companies as chairman and adviser. Her daughter Aileen has just been promoted to president of Rajah Travel, which handles the outbound market; Jojo remains president of Rajah Tours (inbound); Mari-len, VP for finance of the group; and Alex, manager of Rajah’s San Francisco office.

"The decision to give them the control of the companies under the Rajah Group was not a hard decision to make at all," Dading says. "They were all ready to carry out the expansion plans of the company and to remain the leader in the industry."

Dading says proudly that when Aileen became executive vice president of Rajah Travel in 2003, she increased the volume of business of the company and expanded the market from leisure market to corporate business. From 40 staff, she now has 157 people whom she divided into different teams. She enhanced the company’s operational capability by setting up the much needed information technology and making the company fully automated.

With Jojo heading Rajah Tours and Trans Inter Corporation, both companies have expanded by relentlessly courting the Europe and North American market, which are the high-yield and quality market. He is also doing wonderful work for the country’s tourism as president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA).

Dading explains that her husband Joe imbued the kids with a strong sense of leadership, honesty and hard work. They all started as ordinary employees: Alex with the motorpool, Jojo as a reservations agent, Aileen with the tours department of their office in Baguio, and Mari-len…well, she started as assistant vice president for finance at 25 years old, after a stint at SGV’s corporate finance department.

Aileen relates that when she was working in Baguio, she would dispatch the tour buses and take reservations. "My dad gave me P10 a day so that I could learn how to budget daw. I said, it wasn’t even enough for lunch! He said no one gets everything they need, you must make the most of it and still appreciate it, and also to strive to get something better. Lesson aside, I was able to find a restaurant that served mashed potato for P7, which I ate for lunch for a month. And I still ended up saving P3 per day!"

The eldest among the children, Jojo adds that their parents had the old-school style of running a business. "Everything was hands-on and they felt that they had to micro-manage everything. Being educated in the States meant that I approached the business with a more modern style where delegation and empowerment were the key concepts. At first they had a hard time understanding that they didn’t have to do everything themselves and I understood where they were coming from because they built Rajah from blood, sweat and tears. Then again, I always have to make sure that people talked to me or did things for me because of me and not because I was the son of Joe and Dading."

Alex points out what every family business is all about: "Family is always a strange situation where everything has a meaning beyond the actual and where things can never be just left at the office, at the same time it is one of the most satisfying things to work with the people who completely understand the nature of what it is you are trying to accomplish because all of you are geared toward the same goal."

Working with siblings, however, poses a different kind of challenge. Jojo says they stay out of each other’s way but they do give suggestions or comments when appropriate. "We have different styles and ways of doing things and we’re careful not to step on each other’s toes."

Dading couldn’t agree more. Her children, she says, have very distinctive personalities. "Mari-len and Alex are very even-tempered. Half their personality comes from me and half from their father. Although Mari-len is a deep thinker and very quiet by nature, she does express openly what she wants to do. She is very caring and always looks after my health. She was the only one who did not want to join the family business because, as she said, it was already crowded with her brothers and sister there. Now she wants to work in an investment company in New York where she can pursue her MBA.

"Alex, being the middle child, does not have the great ambitions of Jojo and Aileen. He is happy with what he is doing, and his strongest point is PR and marketing. He still finds his job at Rajah Tours San Francisco office very challenging.

"Jojo and Aileen are the ones who are carrying the flagship companies, Rajah Travel and Rajah Tours. Their strong character is a very big plus factor for them. They want to show that Rajah is a global company and not just a travel agency.

Aileen adds: "My mom and I fight the most because of our personalities. We have the same Chinese zodiac, which is the tiger; in the western zodiac, I am also a bull, while my mom is a fish. So I rarely back down. But most arguments are about the business, the usual variance of opinion. I think we’ve had enough practice through the years that these disagreements have become almost normal. Besides, there are a lot more issues that we are advocating together like the passage of the tourism bill, the pursuit of having machine-readable passports, and the implementation of correct taxation on travel agents."

Jojo says that they had the best mentors in this business because their parents taught them everything, from how to treat clients to how to service their passengers. "They taught us to take care of our clients as if they were our only clients! My mom is a repository of information and experiences and there is always something you can learn every time you talk to her."

Dading says that Rajah Group has further strengthened its position with its new organizational structure. Apart from Aileen’s promotion as president of Rajah Travel, Tessa de Guzman, formerly from Air France, is now general manager of the Makati office which handles 95 percent of their corporate accounts; Mayi Crespo as general manager of the Manila office handling 65 percent of the leisure market; and Badette Javier as general manager of Rajah Travel in-plant office in the World Health Organization (WHO). "Mercedes Cruz, whom I consider as my 5th child is now the EVP for finance handling all the company’s financial management and operations."

One might think that their being involved in the travel business, the Clemente kids have seen every corner of the world. Not so, says Jojo. "The tragedy of being in the travel business is that although we do get to travel a lot, it’s 99 percent for business. We don’t have much time to stick around and go around as tourists. We know the best hotels and restaurants in certain cities around the world but if we talk of tourist places, I would be at a loss. I have not yet been to Italy and would like to visit Rome with my family one day. I’m green with envy every time my siblings talk about having seen the Sistine Chapel or being to the Vatican and all of that."

The most adventurous among the four of them, he says, is Mari-len. "She’s the globetrotter, the one who gets to smell the roses when she travels. She enjoys it and really takes the time to go through the small details of the places she visits. She can actually write a guidebook if she wanted to."

Aileen once related how she and Mari-len, along with cousins, went on a European train tour on a shoestring budget and she regards this trip as one of the most memorable for her. Armed with a guidebook, they were able to eat at the best (but cheap) places, stay at the best-kept-secret (again, cheap) hotels.

Mari-len says that when they were on a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, they had the option to either look at the church where Maria von Trapp got married or go and get the best apple strudel. "So what we did was divide the experience: I was assigned to look at the church while my cousin was assigned to eat the apple strudel and we were supposed to describe to each other what happened afterwards. I do wish I got to eat that apple strudel."

Alex, according to his sister, is the most adventurous because he tries out all the food. "My dad always told me to learn about the nature of the place you are visiting by eating the food and learning three words in the local language: ‘hello,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘delicious.’ From my mom I learned that wherever you go you represent Rajah Tours so you must comport yourself in the best light."

As Aileen looks to the bright future of travel in the country — inbound or outbound, everybody seems to want to be somewhere else — she reflects on her relationship with her mom and boss. "At the end of the day, being the ‘mother’ prevails over being the ‘boss.’ So you would always have someone who will think about what you went through that day. If it was something dreadful, she will always hope that it is something she could take away so that you wouldn’t have to have endured it."

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