The Pharmaceutical King’s little-told tale
BULL MARKET, BULL SHEET - Wilson Lee Flores () - August 21, 2006 - 12:00am
Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. –Chinese proverb

One of the country’s largest and best employers almost became a war hero in Asian history books instead of a billionaire taipan. Unknown to most people, the late, extremely media-shy "Pharmaceutical King" Jose Yao Campos (Chinese name: Yao Cho Diat) of United Laboratories (Unilab) almost became a war hero in China’s 20th-century epic struggles against feudalism, Western colonial impositions and bloody Japanese military invasion. During those tumultuous times, another young boy named John Gokongwei Jr. was in Cebu dreaming of becoming a swashbuckling jet fighter pilot.

Campos once told a confidant that he was already accepted for admission to the prestigious Whampoa Military Academy, which he described as "the ultimate dream of all patriotic Chinese boys." Unfortunately, his boyhood dream was quashed when his father in their Ha-ngo-po village in Kimchi district, Jinjiang county of Fujian province, decided to send him over to pre-war Quezon province instead to learn the basics of entrepreneurship. The Philippines was then under American colonial rule and his elder brother, businessman Yao Shiong Shio, was already a trader in Quezon.

Revolutionary hero Dr. Sun Yat Sen established Whampoa, and its first principal was Chiang Kai Shek (future President of Nationalist China and of a government-in-exile in Taiwan). Among the early teachers included Zhou Enlai (future Premier of Communist China and a close ally of Mao Zedong) and Wang Jing Wei (a revolutionary hero who later became President of the Japanese puppet regime of Manchukuo and considered a traitor by Chinese patriots).

Jose Yao Campos was educated in the Chinese classics. If not for his migrating to Quezon province, it was possible that the idealistic youth could have become one of the military heroes of China against Japanese invasion, and in the ensuing civil war.

Little is known about the personal and business life of Jose Yao Campos, because the "rags-to-riches" taipan preferred a low profile – the choice of most Chinese entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia. He was so low-key that a Who’s Who book on business VIPs once wrongly used the photo of a Philippine stockbroker – a Spanish mestizo – as the picture of the Unilab founder. Almost no photos of Campos have ever been published during his legendary career. Associates recall that the immigrant taipan exemplified the Confucian values of hard work, frugality, discipline, perseverance, filial piety to parents and ancestors, love of education and delayed personal gratification. After surviving the war as buy-and-sell trader, in 1945, Campos started Unilab with partners on Sto. Cristo Street in Manila’s Chinatown district and the venture was called United Drug Co.

Campos and his associates Mariano K. Tan and his wife Beatrice Dee’s younger brother Howard Q. Dee propelled Unilab to the No. 1 position in the Philippine pharmaceuticals industry in 1959, after just 14 years of operation. This belies the misconception that Campos only built up Unilab during the martial-law era of his friend, the late President Ferdinand Marcos, who only came to power in 1965 and who only assumed authoritarian powers after the 1972 declaration of martial law. This year, another newspaper unfairly depicted Campos as a mere confidant of President Marcos, oversimplifying the life of the self-made billionaire who had his quiet charities, was an exceptionally talented entrepreneur, and was a benevolent employer to tens of thousands.

Ambassador Howard Dee, Unilab president from 1964 to 1970 and son of the pre-war lumber magnate Dee Hong Lue, said of his late brother-in-law Jose Yao Campos: "Unilab started with humble beginnings as a small manufacturing enterprise. Our offices and modest production facilities were located in JY’s residential compound in Sta. Mesa. We literally began as a home industry with no more than 30 employees. With the new monetary policies, in no time, a dozen foreign pharmaceutical companies established large manufacturing facilities. Unilab was the smallest but under the leadership of JY, we developed a game plan like no other. Our strategic planning showed us the way to segment the pharma market with a multi-divisional approach that would enable us to compete on all fronts. The keys were product sourcing and planning, synergism in promotions and distribution outreach… We can truly say that he was not only the father of Unilab but also the father of the Philippine pharmaceutical industry."
No Labor Union or Strikes But Economic Council
In an industry dominated mainly by Western multinationals – which today account for 70 percent of the Philippine market – Unilab has been the biggest pharmaceuticals manufacturer and the only Filipino-owned firm among the top 10 biggest for decades. Unilab’s annual sales now average P20 billion, with 22 percent market share, and its revenues are reportedly equivalent to the top three biggest competitors Glaxo, Pfizer and Wyeth combined.

What is unique about the low-key Unilab success story is that its huge labor force has never had a labor union similar to other huge industrial firms in the Philippines or Southeast Asia. Unilab is fair and generous to its workers and even its retirees.

In the 1950s, Jose Yao Campos once attended a three-month course by the American Management Association. Though he was so busy he attended only the last portion of the seminar, he was intrigued by the president of McCormick – a top US food firm – who explained how the giant food company never had labor problems in the decades of its existence due to its "Junior Board" composed of managers and employees. This body was tasked to look after the welfare of employees and their families.

Upon his return to the Philippines, Campos immediately organized a Junior Board for Unilab, with all members chosen by him and with the goal of ensuring workers’ welfare. Later, in 1959, Campos further improved the Junior Board concept and established the Unilab Employees Council to take its place. Unknown to most people, Unilab under Campos not only grew to profitability and No. 1 market leadership, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Personnel Management Association and other groups cited it as one of Asia’s best employers.

The taipan’s heirs are now led by his eldest child, Jocelyn "Joy" Campos Hess, now Unilab chairman, and Wharton-educated eldest grandson Clinton Campos Hess, vice chairman. Son Joselito "Butch" Dee Campos Jr., Del Monte’s boss, is now the country’s "condiments king" (in partnership with the Danding Cojungco-led San Miguel), and partner of the Zobel-Ayala clan in their Fort Bonifacio joint venture. Another younger son, Jeffrey Campos, is also in real estate. Will they continue the Confucian values, entrepreneurial courage, sterling employee-relations record and bold vision of their father?
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