Keeping up with the Tantoco men

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre () - November 10, 2010 - 12:00am

Where would our modern retail industry be if not for the Tantoco family? And where would the Tantoco clan be without its legendary lolo, Bienvenido Tantoco, and his legendary wife, Glecy Rustia-Tantoco, the true empress of the retail industry?

My efforts at hobnobbing with the rich and famous have finally brought me up close and personal with the Tantoco clan — and its four generations of men who have made it possible for Filipinos to enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous — or, at least, to shop like the rich and famous!

It starts, of course, with Bienvenido Tantoco, or Benny (such a charming gentleman in person), and leads all the way down to Bienvenido IV or Christian, his great grandson. In between, there’s Rico, or Bienvenido Jr., the oldest and only son of Benny and Glecy; and Donnie, or Bienvenido III, who is Rico’s son.

That’s four generations leading to the Rustan’s retail empire. Many believe that Rustan’s was the sole creation of the no-nonsense and indefatigable Glecy, but it was actually Bienvenido who took care of many aspects of conducting their retail business. His wife concentrated on merchandising, which meant choosing what products to sell. Everything else was Benny’s domain.

Donnie recalls that his grandmother, Lola Glecy, would order or buy merchandise — like a particular figurine or a bag — with a prospective customer in mind, “and most often, that person would buy that product.” It was all about gut feel, of course, but I am sure there’s a scientific term for this kind of market analysis that people studying retail and business know about.    

Modern family: (From left standing) Paolo Tantoco, Nicole Tantoco, Donnie Tantoco, Crickette Tantoco, Camille Tantoco, Christian Tantoco, Katrina Lobregat, Paolo Lobregat. (From left seated) Alana Tantoco, Dina Tantoco, Rico Tantoco, Ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco, Sr., Gippy Tantoco with Zoe, Hindy Tantoco with Anouck, Bea Tantoco, Lucas Tantoco

Benny and his wife Glecy produced five daughters and one son, so he must have wanted another son. And when Donnie came, that might have been the other son his Lolo Benny wanted. For the first 16 years of his life, Donnie spent every weekend with his grandfather.

Donnie says the day almost always started with his grandfather asking, “What will we eat today?” It turns out Benny is a gourmet and while he likes caviar and pâté de foie gras, he also enjoys tuyo and all those delicious Filipino treats we all love. Hence, Rustan’s Supermarkets’ new coffee shop is aptly named Benny’s. (I wonder if, at home, his bangus is served on a sterling silver platter.)

Weekends meant going to an island, just a tiny one, in Laguna de Bay where the family had fish ponds. They also went to the family farm in San Pedro, Laguna where they harvested fruit in season. His love for the rustic life probably harks back to Benny’s younger days in Bulacan where the Tantocos come from. Glecy Rustia was from Batangas, and her forebears were not exactly affluent. I mention this because, as fate would have it, some Batanguenos who now work for her daughter, Nedy, belong to families who were originally much better off than Glecy’s early roots.

Meanwhile, as an orphan, Benny made an important choice in life. Since the oldest child in his family was a musician, and musicians have time only for music, the second son Benny decided he would take care of his family. He went to Manila with only his middle initial — “R” — as his asset, along with his charm, grit and faith in God. He went to Ernesto Rufino, a relative on his mother’s side, to ask for a job and he got one. Benny also went to the Fabellas, who owned Jose Rizal College, and eventually received a degree in commercial arts.

His Lolo Benny, according to Donnie, started out as the guy who tore tickets for patrons at one of the Rufino movie houses. Of course, he also did other things. Benny rose through the ranks and finally made it to the table that wasn’t too far from those of the bosses. Ernesto and Vicente trusted and admired young Benny so much and, recognizing his good work, they decided to reward him and Glecy with a round-the-world tour.

But before the tour, the young matron Glecy had already begun her “department store” in the sala of their home along San Marcelino Street in Ermita. Manila being such a small place, word got around that Glecy sold beautiful, imported items not seen nor sold anywhere else. The matrons would come and buy them, much to Glecy’s glee. This time, the young and successful executive Benny had to help with financial management.

During their world trip, Glecy did not buy things for herself, nor did she spend on pasalubong for her children: when she came home, Glecy brought home 10 suitcases full of merchandise that, she hoped, would last a year. Manila’s 400 families, along with the post-war millionaires, lapped them up in a month’s time. Remember, those were the years when people were first building expansive homes in Forbes and the new Makati villages.

They probably were outbidding each other for the china and the linen. Benny and Glecy’s path was laid and Rustan’s was on its way to following Aguinaldo’s eminence in the world of department stores. And the rest is retail history. Benny had no choice but to resign from his work with the Rufinos, who gladly assured him that “in case it doesn’t turn out well, you can always come back. We will keep your position for you.”

In time, their son Rico married Nena Vargas and she bore him Donnie, their eldest. Rico, according to Donnie, was a busy young man who bonded with his son when they played basketball. He also brought Donnie and Joel to his place of work, including the mines where he and the two boys would descend into the mineshaft. Rico, during Marcos’s time, worked as an undersecretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources.

An important project that he handled was the Manila Seedling Bank, which he nurtured from day one. When he conducted reforestation drives, he went up to the mountains with Donnie where they broke bread with members of the New People’s Army. That’s Donnie for you: no wonder he’s so good to the employees of Rustan’s Supermarkets. From the start, Donnie showed a sense of social responsibility.

When Benny was Ambassador to the Holy See, Donnie, his brother Joel and his cousin Anton Huang, Nedy Tantoco’s son (who helps Nedy run Rustan’s Department Store and Stores Specialists Inc.), studied in Rome. Benny put on a brave front for the Philippines, as it was the time after the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. At the same time, as ambassador, he laid the groundwork for the canonization of Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz. It was not an easy time to be an ambassador to the Vatican. He had to perform a balancing act: reconciling the divergent viewpoints of the Marcoses, Cardinal Sin and the Vatican.

In the end, as contemporary history has judged, Benny conducted himself admirably as the Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican. Donnie recalls that his grandfather would occasionally travel to other parts of Europe and when he came back, he always had some delicacies that he eagerly shared with his grandsons. A loving grandfather, he also shared stories of his youth and his success in business. A year later, the Marcos regime was toppled. Donnie went to the US to take his economics degree at Connecticut College.

When Donnie came back after earning his MBA at Kellogg Graduate School of Business and working abroad, he had his baptism of fire: assigned in Subic to manage the family’s duty-free business. Donnie did a good job, with the Ramos presidency allowing every Filipino to spend US$200 at the Subic duty-free shops. When the local retail industry complained about this policy, the government had no choice but to rescind the $200 consumer privilege; and Donnie was faced with the prospect of declaring bankruptcy, as other stores ended up doing.

To the rescue came Lolo Benny, who advised his grandson to keep the operations going, because “he said he has never reneged on his loans so let us keep the company going to be able to pay our debts and to ensure that our people have jobs.”

It was a big sacrifice for everyone as the management and staff had to take a cut in their take-home pay. In a year or so, the Tantocos’ Royal Subic Duty-Free shop paid off all its debts. Once again, it was Benny’s integrity that kept the company in good stead, with his grandson Donnie working with him to ensure that everyone — especially creditors and employees — was happy.

“That was when my lolo, having seen how the staff worked double time with their monthly take-home pay cut in half, asked me to look for a venture where we could work with the same selfless and effective team,” shares Donnie. He, along with wife Crickette, and their Lolo Benny traveled to various parts of the world to hunt for a business idea. In the “hypermarket,” they found a concept “that would bring us to the middle-income market and not just the upper classes that Rustan’s is known for catering to.” And this led to the opening of the first Shopwise.

Today, Bienvenido Tantoco Sr. serves as the chairman of the Rustan Group of Companies. He and his son, Bienvenido “Rico” Tantoco Jr., are chairman emeritus and chairman of the board, respectively, of Rustan’s Supercenters Inc. Rico’s son, Bienvenido “Donnie” Tantoco III, is the president of the Rustan’s Supercenters Inc., which runs the Rustan’s Group’s grocery operations consisting of the Shopwise and Rustan’s Supermarket.

Donnie, while busy at work, makes sure to be a good dad to his son Christian. Donnie’s style of parenting gets Christian’s nod of approval: “Daddy is not strict. He sets rules only to protect me and my elder twin sisters, Nicole and Camille. There are a few very clear do’s and don’ts. We have curfew at 12 midnight. We have to choose our friends (carefully). He supports us in whatever we do that makes us happy. He tells us his opinions if he thinks something is not right. He allows us to develop by ourselves. He guides us as we are growing up.” Donnie is happy that Christian is doing well in school.

Bonding time for Bienvenidos Jr., Sr., III and IV: Son Rico, father Benny, grandson Donnie and great-grandson Christian.

Bonding time for Donnie and Christian takes place every morning, “because we wake up at the same time and have our breakfast with my mom, Crickette and my twin sisters before we go to school, and again, at night when the whole family takes dinner together,” says Christian. “On weekends, we do much the same activities as other families. We hang out in the house, go to Mass together, and have lunch or dinner outside.”

Christian relates that they have lunch with his Lolo Rico and Lola Nena “every two months when we have a family day with them and my dad’s siblings and their children. Lolo Rico and I talk a lot. I am close to him, even if I don’t see him as much.”

Christian fondly recalls the summer in the United States he spent with his great grandfather, Lolo Benny. “It was one of my best vacations. My parents left me there because I had basketball camp at Duke University. There I stayed with my Lolo Benny. He is amazing. I learned pretty much to live by myself. He taught me about manners and how I should behave as a gentleman.”

Donnie is happy that Christian is turning out to be a fine young man. (It must run in the Tantoco genes.) “He is very responsible and very reliable. He has a very good sense of what is right and what is wrong. His values are defined and very entrenched.”

And here’s to that legacy continuing.

* * *

The story of the Tantoco clan — along with 56 other stories about families that are Filipino success stories — is contained in Fathers and Sons: The Fruit Does Not Veer Far From The Tree, a book to be launched by book creator and social historian Bing Nieva Carrion with Rodolfo “Jojo” Silvestre as principal writer and researcher this Thursday, Nov. 11, at 6 p.m. at the Dusit Tosca. It’s a book project that also features profiles and stories about President Noynoy and his father Ninoy Aquino; Ambassador Nachong and son President Eddie Ramos; George Yang and Kenneth; Andrew Tan and Kevin with Kendrick and Kester; President Ramon Sr. and Senator Jun Magsaysay; Senator Ed Angara and Congressman Sonny; Senator Manny Villar with Paolo and Congressman Mark; Ambassador Luis Moreno with son Ruy and grandson Rod; Ambassador Raul Goco and chef son Robby; Dr. Alberto Romualdez Sr. and sons DOH Secretary Alberto Jr. and executive editor Babe; and Jaime Gonzalez and son, Philippine STAR columnist Enrique.

If you wish to learn more about the book, write to cyber.proust@yahoo.com.

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