Sunday Lifestyle

Socorro Ramos’ success story: One for the book

- Ching M. Alano -
In the ballroom of a five-star hotel packed with men in crisp barong tagalog and women in chic ternos, no one was the least bit surprised when Socorro Ramos’ name was called to receive this year’s Entrepreneur Of The Year Award. Perhaps no one except for Socorro "Nanay Coring" herself. She was busy collecting the untouched leftover chicken of the other guests seated at her table. The anxious Nanay Coring forgot to give her driver dinner money and couldn’t wait to brown-bag the four pieces of chicken that auspiciously landed on her plate, courtesy of her seatmates, for her driver.

There was standing ovation. Applause thundered across the room as a smiling-but-unbelieving Nanay Coring made her way to the stage in an Inno Sotto gown that she borrowed from her daughter-in-law Virgie Ramos, who called up Inno to rush a new panuelo for Nanay for this Oscar night of the business world.

(The Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award honors entrepreneurs whose ingenuity and perseverance have created and sustained successful, growing business ventures. Begun in 1986, Ernst & Young has since awarded the most successful and innovative entrepreneurial business leaders in more than 115 cities in 35 countries around the globe. The winners become lifetime members of The Entrepreneur Of The Year Hall of Fame, which is part of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Academy.)

That night, Nanay Coring went home with three trophies: as one of 17 finalists, another as Woman Entrepreneur Of The Year, and finally as Entrepreneur Of The Year. Three cheers for Nanay!

But the loudest applause that night probably came from the two tables occupied by members of the Ramos family – children and grandchildren, all present and accounted for. Twins Alfredo and Benjamin Ramos and only daughter Cecilia Ramos-Licauco couldn’t be prouder of their mother.

"They had to pay for their dinner," says Nanay, the heart and soul behind the National Book Store. "Ako libre."

Of course, Nanay Coring knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch. She’s always worked for what she has. Tagged as the super tindera, she inherited her business savvy from her grandmother, Aling Akang, who supported her family by buying and selling bananas, bakya, gugo, and other assorted goods. So good is Nanay at what she does that she could probably sell you an old toothbrush. At 81 (born Sept. 23, 1923 in Sta. Cruz, Laguna), Nanay Coring has the boundless energy of a 20-year-old and an undiminished passion for work.

Certainly, Nanay Socorro Ramos’ success story is one for the book. And one that you’d be inspired to read again and again. Allow us to share a few chapters from Nanay’s life story in these excerpts from the STAR interview:

PHILIPPINE STAR: What did you dream of as a young girl?

Putting up a bookstore was the farthest from my mind. We were poor and I was always thinking of how I could help my parents (Jose and Emilia Cancio) support our family of six. My father died when I was 10 . . . I remember I was an honor student in Grade 7 and my uncle was the one who bought my white dress and white shoes. During the war, my grandmother’s house was near a sugarcane field and they were making panocha (candied brown sugar). What I would do was buy up the produce of the day and then put them in the kaing and my two sisters would then sell them in the market the next day. I remember I would go home with bites from wasps. I must have been 12 or 13 years old then.

So you’ve always been business-minded?

I don’t know if I was then, but I was always thinking of how to make a little money. During summer vacations, I had to work for the whole two months so I’d have money to buy my notebooks, paper, and pencils. Because I went to public school (Arellano High School), there was no tuition. On one vacation, I worked at American Sweets wrapping bubble gum. I was paid the minimum wage of 50 centavos a day (the exchange rate at that time was P2 to US$1). Back then, you could buy a kilo of pork for 45 centavos. Magaling akong magbalot, I was a very fast worker. So my American supervisor would say, "Look at this girl, how fast she wraps bubble gum!" So all the more I would show off.

What happened after high school?

I wish I could have gone to college and taken up medicine after high school, but my parents had no money to send me to school and I had to find a job. After high school, I worked as a sales clerk at Goodwill Bookstore, which was owned by my older brother Manuel Cancio and his wife (Doña Juana Cancio). Here, I met my future husband, Jose Ramos, the brother of my sister-in-law. Yes, it was love at first sight. I was only 20 when I got married.

It was the stuff romance novels are made of. Girl, 18, meets boy, 14 years her senior. They wanted to get married, but the girl’s family was against it, what with World War II hanging threateningly over their heads. The girl was exiled to the province to stay with her grandmother. An elder sister of the boy followed the girl to the province to implore her to return to Manila as the boy was truly heartbroken. Despite her grandmother’s objections, the girl went back to Manila and married the boy the next day.

And you and Jose were married and lived happily ever after as business partners as well?

My eldest brother opened a branch on Escolta and he put me in charge of the store. Later, my husband bought the place from my brother and named it National Book Store.

Why did you name it National Book Store? Did you envision a book store that would be national in scope?

No, I named it after the National Cash Register, our second-hand caja. National Book Store was very, very small (a tiny 4 x 15-meter space inside a haberdashery shop) during the Japanese time in the 1940s. And we were not selling books because the Japanese were censoring them. The Japanese soldiers were asking for slippers, toothpaste, toothbrush, writing pad – so those were what I was selling. Whatever the customers were looking for, I was selling. But we were forced to keep our books because if you brought them out, the Japanese would tear off the pages until there was none left of the thick books.

After the war, my husband was able to get the corner of Rizal Avenue and Soler Sts., to put up a small – barong-barong muna – store. Our nighttime door served as our morning table where we put our books.

Where did you get your books?

We had this stock which I bought during the Japanese time. I bought all the textbooks which were available then and kept them in our warehouse. I bought from the vendors who kept their books in the bodega. Since they could not sell these, they might as well sell to me and make money out of it.

You were busy running the store? What about the kids?

I really wanted to have a houseful of kids, from A to Z, but I only got ABC – Alfredo, Benjamin, and Cecilia. And I had to make a nine-day novena to the Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran to have Cecilia seven years after the twins. The twins were born premature at seven months, weighing only threesomething pounds each, my fist was bigger than their faces. During the war, I breastfed them so they survived.

As the children were growing up, so was your business?

In the beginning, it was just me and my husband and two other employees. We did everything – from being manager to janitor. I fixed the show window; my husband swept the floor at 2 a.m. It took 20 years before we branched out. Recto was our first branch; it’s still there. But before we put that up, we finished Avenida Rizal first. We did it slowly, one at a time (to date, NBS is the largest chain of bookstores in the Philippines with 72 branches nationwide and No. 10 in the top 300 retail companies in the country).

When I got married, my only dream was to give my children the best education money could buy (Nanay sent her boys to Ateneo). What I lacked I wanted my children to have. In fact, I got insurance for education for my children during the war. I said, "What if I got shot? At least, there’s insurance to finance my children’s schooling."

What’s the best lesson you’ve taught your children?

Work hard. Be frugal (laughs). Persevere. Those have been the guiding principles in my life.

If there’s one book that has influenced your life, what would that be?

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It taught me how to be humble and how to get along with other people, no matter what class of society they come from.

And we guess this must have helped you influence or charm publishers into giving you low prices for your books?

Yes, people are surprised that our mark-up is really very low. My job is to talk to foreign publishers to give us a low price. I have to explain to them why I’m squeezing their necks for a low price. I tell them our people can’t afford their books. And I add, "Wait until Filipinos are a little richer, and I will not have to bargain with you. In the meantime, you have to help us." That’s my trade secret.

Our aim has always been to contribute to the educational upliftment of Filipinos by selling books at low prices. Not only books, but also office/school supplies. During the time of President Marcos, he allowed the reprinting of college textbooks under Presidential Decree 285. We could reprint a foreign book and pay them royalty based on the US dollar price. What happened was we were able to reduce our prices by up to 75 percent. I was talking to a certain fellow the night I won the award and he told me, "You know, when I was in college, I was using your book – the paper is not so nice, but the content is the same as the imported one." By using newsprint, we were able to bring down the price of books and make them available to more people. I think that’s the most important thing we’ve done for students. Maybe now, some of them are in the US earning good money.

What’s your favorite book?

The book I like very much is The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. It just came last year. I got two copies. You know how many we sold? 330,000 copies last year. I think people were buying five or 10 at a time. Except for the dictionaries, it was the biggest number we sold. Even the Catholics were reading it (the author is a Christian). I was so surprised! It even beat Harry Potter. Harry Potter Return of the Phoenix sold 32,000 copies last year. Frankly, I had to sign a contract with the publisher not to put it out before the launch date worldwide. On the day it was released, people were waiting outside National Book Store as early as 5 a.m. And to think the hardbound copies were selling for more than P1,000 per. It was a year after that the paperback edition came.

Did your children join the business on their own or were they forced to?

I never impose on my children. They have always been there to help; the same with my grandchildren. When my children were young, they were the cashiers in the store. Naturally, they could see what the customers were buying. So they got an early business orientation – kung baga influence of the environment.

How are the children involved in running National Book Store?

Alfred is the president of National Book Store; Ben is in charge of publishing and printing; Cecile is in charge of purchasing. One of my grandchildren (Gabby Licauco) is in charge of Powerbooks.

So you’re letting your children run the business now?

I’m allowing them to make mistakes, to think for themselves. Once in a while, I look for mistakes.

What about retirement?

Work has become a habit for me. All these years, when I wake up in the morning, I look for something to do.

What advice would you give somebody who wants to go into business?

Work hard. Be frugal, be patient, persevere. And be willing to take a little risk.

How much of a risk-taker are you?

There are things you want to order for the store, but you do not know if they’d sell. For example, in the early days of National Book Store, I was looking at what the customers were buying. They were buying Christmas cards. So I made these Christmas cards with Philippine sceneries on them. I asked some artists to draw and then I made them into cheap Christmas cards selling from 10 to 20 centavos each. They sold well. Then I also thought of making postcards. My son Alfred went all over the Philippines with a German photographer to take pictures of the Mayon Volcano, the vintas in Mindanao, Pagsanjan Falls, etc. When they came back after two months, they were very dark from having been exposed to the sun. We made these very nicely done pictures into postcards. And then I made them into Christmas cards as well. It was a risk, but they got sold again. I was also thinking: Filipinos love to sing, but they don’t know the lyrics of the songs. What I did was to put these lyrics in a card, like Let me call you sweetheart, with a little design on the side. It cost me three centavos to make and I sold it for 10 centavos. But people were buying not just one card but five to 10 cards of the songs whose lyrics they wanted to know.

How does a typical day go for you?

I wake up at 7 a.m., take breakfast, usually a fruit and a sandwich. I eat anything, I have no diet restrictions. After breakfast, I go to work – I visit a few outlets at a time. I meet with people. Sometimes, I have to treat foreign visitors to dinner. It’s part of my job. I usually sleep at 2 or 3 a.m. Because I still have to read the STAR. Ang kapal ng dyaryo nyo! Enjoy ako sa STAR. I’m a woman, I look at the fashion pages. But no matter how late I sleep, I’m automatically up at 7 a.m.

If it’s necessary to work even on Sundays, I go to the office.

Do you travel a lot?

Once in a while. I like to go out if they give it to me for free.

What is the favorite bonding activity of the Ramos family?

We eat out a lot. (The Ramoses love Japanese food – which is probably why they put up Tokyo Tokyo.)

What’s the secret of your good health?

I don’t take vitamins. I think what’s important is to eat a balanced diet. But I eat a lot! And I think you have to be less stressed. My job may be stressful, but because I enjoy doing it, I don’t get stressed.

What legacy would you like to leave behind?

I hope National Book Store would continue what I’m doing by helping people have good books, good school/office things at reasonable prices. Because I can never forget that once upon a time, I was in their shoes.
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