More than meets the eye
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - May 31, 2020 - 12:00am

There’s something unique about ophthalmologist Dr. Rommel Bautista whose life revolves around vision. He’s not just an accomplished eye doctor but also an entrepreneur with a heart. His vision to create a business out of a hobby in 1992 was just as sharp as the vision he hopes to improve with every patient. 

When Dr. Bautista was a medical student at UP, he conceived the idea of making leather bags, inspired by a $425 Coach product he saw in a New York store during a vacation and couldn’t afford. Dr. Bautista used surplus leather from his family’s furniture business and crafted stylish bags that made customers out of classmates and professors. The money wasn’t much but it paid for dates, magwheels and a sound system for his car. Slowly, the business grew. However, he never lost sight of the medical profession. Dr. Bautista trained at Stanford then returned home to set up practice while continuing to follow his artistic instincts through his company called Fino Leatherware. It wasn’t difficult to find the perfect name for his entrepreneurial pursuit. Quality has always been No. 1 in his vision, both as a doctor and businessman and Fino, or fine, was just right to describe his products.

Today, Dr. Bautista and his wife Rose Ann own 11 Fino stores in Metro Manila. They’re hands-on owners, sharing in the design work and supervising about 130 workers in their Caloocan factory. His wife focuses on the retail end of the business. Twice or thrice a year, the Bautistas meet with a leather broker from Switzerland and buy raw material, 90 percent from Italy and France, to ship to their factory. 

“As a young doctor building up my practice, I relied on Fino to support my family,” said the 52-year-old Dr. Bautista. “My parents weren’t doctors so I didn’t have the luxury of anyone warming up my seat. I basically started from zero, proving myself through the years.” As his practice flourished so did Fino which expanded from making bags to wallets, card holders, planners and belts. Dr. Bautista, named one of the country’s Top 10 Entrepreneurs in 2006, managed his time efficiently to evolve as a man of vision.

With the pandemic wreaking havoc on business, Dr. Bautista has once more turned to his entrepreneurial eye to stay ahead with Fino but this time, more than ever, his vision is guided by his heart. He has designed a classic-look breathable face mask made of French calf leather with soft sheepskin as lining and a removable/washable filter from foam thermo-welded fabric. There are 11 colors to choose from in the product called La Mascherina. As a surgeon and motorcycle enthusiast, wearing a face mask is second nature to Dr. Bautista so designing a version for protection from COVID-19 came naturally. Each Fino mask comes with two filters and 30 percent of sales goes to the Philippine Red Cross. It’s now a much-sought-after item and a best seller.

“I thought of the Red Cross to find a more disciplined way to equitably distribute what is needed by health care centers and hospitals,” he said. “I notice a lot of waste of resources and almost chaos in how food and PPEs are distributed. Some hospitals get a little, others get a lot but don’t need so much. There was lack of coordination and neither rhyme nor reason in handling supplies. I’m grateful to my La Salle Greenhills classmates, batch ’84, for supporting this project in donating to the Red Cross to focus on procuring the necessary equipment and test kits.”

Dr. Bautista, a father of two college students, said it’s been difficult for Fino to survive the crisis because buying leatherware isn’t an essential. “Malls were closed but now that they’ve reopened, traffic is controlled as it should be,” he said. “But we pay CUSA (Common Use Service Area) fees, rent and salaries of our workers. We’re not a big company but we’re not small either. We maintain a factory but we don’t have a dorm for our workers. Cutting and sewing leather is a craft. We pay for skilled workers, not minimum wage earners, and provide full benefits. Our workers are not easy to replace.” 

A third batch of Fino masks featuring silver studs that are 1mm larger than the original will be out in the market on Tuesday. Buying the mask means you’re contributing to the fight against COVID-19. For particulars, contact Dr. Bautista at cell +639188346133 and he’ll forward a video on how to clean your Fino mask.

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