What’s next for Lucio Co?

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Lucio Co is perhaps the most quiet and media-shy tycoon in the country, rarely revealing his plans big or small for his sprawling business empire until they’re complete.

And so he remains mum about the chatter in the business grapevine about his supposed interest in Phoenix Petroleum. As I wrote in a previous column, Co is among those interested in Phoenix.

He is now looking more closely into the company, but Phoenix founder Dennis Uy supposedly does not want to sell more than a 30 percent stake, several sources told me over the weekend.

However, Co, who usually goes for majority ownership, wants more than that. Thus, the two are still in talks about the price, investment size, and operational scope of the agreement, sources said.

If an agreement happens, I’m sure Co, who is awash with cash and has a successful track record in retail, would bring Phoenix to greater heights. After all, his retail empire is already one of the biggest in the country, a long way from his humble beginnings.

Lucio Co, retail king

Co’s retail story started in the maze-like district of Sto. Cristo, Divisoria, the country’s Mecca for anything and everything – from housewares, textiles, sex toys to love potions. It was there where he learned the secrets of the trade.

His family owned the Atlantic Glassware store in the labyrinthine district.

As a young boy, Lucio spent hours there, listening to what customers wanted. He learned that the customer is king and that the target was not merely to have a day’s sale, but to develop a relationship with each customer.

Not long after, Lucio would master retailing like the back of his hand.

He applied this business acumen in structured retailing, grabbing the opportunity to operate Puregold Duty Free in the former Clark Air Base in Pampanga, which had been converted into an economic zone after the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption.

But when the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck, the peso went on a tailspin and the duty free business was affected.

Lucio, together with his wife Susan, thought about their employees in Clark and how they can survive the turbulent times.

In 1998, they then decided to put up Puregold Price Club along Shaw Boulevard and came out with a new retail concept of offering basic commodities at great value, and all on a single floor.

The store attracted not just families, but sari-sari store owners all over the country who found an alternative source of goods for their stores – air conditioned, orderly and secured –unlike the usual wet and dry markets in Divisoria or elsewhere.

It was a hit and the company soon came up with a loyalty program, Tindahan ni Aling Puring, now known throughout the country for helping sari-sari store owners start off on the right foot.

Today, Puregold is one of the biggest supermarket chains in the country.

Not afraid of failure

However, not every venture of Co went the way of Puregold’s success, but he was never afraid to fail.

In recent years, for instance, he had to let go of Liquigaz, Lawson and Wendy’s.

“Failures and disappointments should never stop us from moving forward. Instead, it should serve as lessons learned. What is important is we never give up on our dreams, no matter the obstacles, and even when people discourage us,” he told me in 2017 for a book I wrote on retail tycoons, Legends, Lives & Legacies.


But why would Co invest in the oil and energy sector after exiting Liquigaz a few years ago? Is having an oil company part of his dream?

My guess is that Phoenix would be in synergy with his oil infrastructure business, Pure Petroleum, which commenced operations in 2012.

The terminal operates storage tanks and jetty facilities for bulk loading and unloading. Co also has an oil and gas exploration business, Alcorn Petroleum and Minerals Corp.

Back to Phoenix, the Delgados and tycoon Ramon “RSA” Ang were also rumored to be interested in the oil company. During the Holy Week, talks even circulated that Petron had already acquired Phoenix, but RSA quickly denied it. Theoretically, it would bolster Petron’s position as the country’s top oil company, but it’s unlikely it would get the approval of the Philippine Competition Commission.

If no sale happens, DAU may just ride out the difficult environment and see his company soar like a phoenix again after COVID-19. After all, it’s not like Phoenix is on the brink of collapse. It is nothing like that, with DAU even reiterating that Phoenix’s April 2021 numbers are likely back to pre-COVID-19 numbers already. Phoenix registered a net income of P415 million in the first quarter of 2019, but incurred P215 million in pandemic-related losses in the same period in 2020.

Like other oil firms, Phoenix is merely facing challenges given the low demand for fuel now. It also has a high level of debt – P65 billion in total liabilities, according to its 2019 annual report.

From retail king to oil tycoon?

As for Co, the tight-lipped Forbes-listed billionaire declined to comment on the ongoing talks so, for now, it’s still up for anyone’s guess if Phoenix is indeed his next big bet.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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