For This Trailblazing Liquor Exec, Women Do Have A Place in Business
(Philippine Daily Inquirer)SIGHT unseen, it would be so easy to hate this woman who, faced with so much public condemnation, still refused to withdraw a liquor ad that several quarters had described as exploitative of women and children.
But finally meeting Destileria Limtuaco & Co.President Olivia Limpe-Aw provokes even more questions: How can one so young and hip harbor such outdated views on women? Or, given her business background, how can a woman who has successfully hurdled the odds in a male-dominated company show such meager sense of sisterhood?
Indeed, the woman behind the controversial Quince Anos billboard that sobered up the local advertising industry last year seems like a walking mass of contradictions. Fortunately, rather than gloss over what was essentially unpleasant business, Limpe-Aw is vocal and forthcoming in discussing the issue.
I did it on principle, she says of the episode that had womens groups, church organizations, several politicians and the Advertising Board dashing off letters and petitions calling for the pullout of the ad and the boycott of Limtuaco products.
Sexist and disgusting
Put up early last year, the ad for Napoleon Brandy had the tagline Nakatikim ka na ba ng Quince Anos? (literally, Have you tasted a 15-year-old) which the womens party list group Gabriela described as attacking women and children. A letter of protest circulated by several groups described the tagline as sexist and disgusting, and clearly coined for its sexual, if criminal, undertones. A radio ad of the same product had the wife confronting her husband over a 15-year-old. Both commercials, detractors contended, demeaned women by portraying them as commodities to be tasted and sampled by men. The ad, one group claimed, encouraged pedophilia.
Not so, responds Limpe-Aw, who cited the absence of a womans shot as proof that the blurb referred strictly to the liquor product. I didnt find anything offensive about that ad, she says. They are worse billboards out there on Edsa that show womens bodies outright. Besides, she adds, the ad was approved by the Adboard. We went through the whole process of seeking official approval for that ad, and theyre demanding our apology? For what? We did nothing wrong!
If anything, she adds, the entire controversy was an election gimmick by some politicians and groups. We felt the issue was only being used by some candidates to project themselves.
After several months that saw then senatorial candidate Alfredo Lim defacing one of the billboard ads, a flurry of suits and counter-suits and official censure from the AdBoard, Destileria Limtuaco finally pulled out the ad and replaced it with a new campaign that had the blurb, Nakatikim na sila (Theyve tasted it)! showing four men raising their glasses in a toast.
We wanted closure, says Limpe-Aw of their decision to finally withdraw the ad. Although she was earlier quoted as saying that the protests had made the brand a byword and boosted liquor sales, Limpe-Aw now admits that the price of fighting on principle has been rather steep. More than a year after the ad pullout, the company still cannot advertise because of a pending case.
Thats the standing policy of the Advertising Board, she reveals. The AdBoard wont issue us a clearance to air advertising materials and KBP in turn wont air any commercial without clearance.
But no regrets, she shrugs. I felt our company was being used and being bullied, so I did what I thought was right. If I believe in something, Id fight for it all the way.
Already, she has put the experience behind her, says this first woman president of a 153-year old liquor company. She has more than just advertising feedback to worry about.
The fifth in a brood of seven daughters, Limpe-Aw and her sisters knew they faced a tough battle to take over the family business, given the Chineses cultural preference for male heirs. Well, I guess my father gave up trying to have one when number 7 turned out to be a girl, as well, she says of Julius Limpe, now the companys board chairman.
Fortunately, the Limpe patriarch also subscribed to the belief that Daughters are like sons; what men can do, women can too, sometimes even better, says Limpe-Aw with a laugh. Which was how she and her sisters ended up training on the job early as in most Chinese families.
At 10, Olivia was pasting labels on liquor bottles in the distillery plant. My father had always drilled in us the value of work and of money, and how it was to be a laborer, she recalls. He used to say that the only difference between our workers and us was that their father just happened to be poor, but that we cant choose which family wed be born into. Some are just luckier than others. The experience taught us humility.
From labelling bottles, the teenage Olivia graduated into errand girl or go-fer, before assuming secretarial and clerical chores in high school. I would go with my father in his business meetings and Id just sit there, absorbing everything. I hated the long hours because I had to go to school early the next day. In college, she was promoted to cashier and later transferred to accounting where she learned to prepare vouchers. Her other sisters went through the same routine. The seven sisters ended up working in the family business except for time off during pregnancies.
Growing up, Limpe-Aw heard enough business talk to consider taking on the reins after her father retired. My mother conditioned me to take the family business seriously. Shed tell me how four generations had put their life into it, how their efforts have blessed us with a good life and how we should continue it so future generations would be as blessed. With no other sister as keen as she was, Limpe-Aw felt it was her responsibility to keep the family outfit going.
Destileria Limtuaco was established by Chinese immigrant Lim Tua Co, who sailed for the Philippines in 1850. Born of a merchant family in Amoy, China, he was a Mandarin trained in martial arts who also possessed a secret formula for medicinal wine that has been with his family for five generations. Within two years of his arrival in the Philippines, the 36-year-old immigrant put the formula to good use, brewing it into a bittersweet herbal concoction at the distillery he had set up at Gandara Street in Binondo. Called Vino de Chino, the wine was known to build up stamina like todays energy drinks and became immensely popular among Filipinos, especially pregnant women, as sioktong.
When Limtuacos only son Carlos died while visiting his ancestral home in Amoy, the company passed on to two of his nephews, one of them Lim Chay Seng, and later to James Limpe, Lim Chay Sengs son. Limpe took over in 1937 and introduced modern management into the business. His son, Julius Limpe, became the company CEO in 1958. Olivia, Julius fifth-born, became EVP in the early 90s.
She couldnt have chosen a worse time.
It was 1989 and we were in the middle of a bad strike. The plants had been closed for more than six months and when we reopened them, we found that wed lost our market share for White Castle whisky. It was then I realized that no matter how big your company is, it can be gone in a flash. So I became determined to continue the business no matter what, recounts this Business Economics graduate of UP.
When she took over the reins, Limpe-Aw confessed to facing doubts and resistance from several shareholders, customers, suppliers and employees. What could a young woman in her late twenties know about running a male-dominated company that targets liquor-drinking men? And did she know how to deal with labor unions? A liquor company on strike was certainly not a place for a young mother of two, others pointed out.
Those were certainly very difficult years, Limpe-Aw acknowledges, and it took her six to seven years to overcome her two main handicaps: her youth and her gender. I had to put in more hours and work harder to prove my worth and earn the respect of clients and colleagues, she recounts. Fortunately, she adds, she had good help and supportive sisters who took care of her young children. Husband Benny Aw also proved to be a wonderful backstop.
She met Benny through a family friend who had initially matched him with one of Olivias older sisters. But my sister already had a boyfriend at that time and decided not to appear at all during the official introduction, recalls Limpe-Aw. Para di mapahiya (so he wont lose face), I had to go down and see him. Then we started dating. I was only 19 at that time. Three years later, the couple got married. They have three sons aged 19, 17 and 13.
Benny the buffer
Her husband, reveals Limpe-Aw, willingly became her buffer when she talked with more traditional clients from Asia. We were exporting to several Asian countries, and most Asians still prefer to negotiate with men. When we go abroad, they would talk with Benny directly even when I was there. It was a good thing he handled domestic distribution so he knew the business inside out. And of course, he came in handy after the deals had been signed. Otherwise, how could I have entertained our clients and suppliers in karaoke bars?
In business, she adds, it is important to know where you stand. You have to accept the reality, she says. Instead of forcing the issue, you must find ways to do things and not take problems personally. She shrugs. Lifes not fair, especially in business. Its basically a mans world, and you have to adjust. You must learn to go with the flow.
But women definitely have a place in business, she notes. They have their particular strengths. They give more attention to details and are better at improving systems. Female managers, she adds, are really good at planning and organizing. Theyre also more sensitive to the feelings of those around them. Male managers are better as implementors and excel at technical stuff and sales. Ay, talagang men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Were totally different! she adds with a laugh.
Good sales knows no gender, however, and Limpe-Aw cites several changes she had introduced to Destileria Limtuaco that firmed up her leadership in the company. Though our products are geared for a mass market, I overhauled our portfolio and introduced premium local brands like VSOP. We became more flexible, with custom-made products and private labels. We also improved the packaging and the quality of our liquor to become ISO 9000 certified. Then we went into export to generate more sales. Customer satisfaction became our main concern because we thrive on repeat business.
Her best contributions, she adds, remain Paradise Mango Rum Liqueur, which won first place in the CITEM ethnic food fest in 2002, and the Vodka Knockers in 2005. Limtuacos other products include Napoleon Brandy, London Dry Gin, Maria Clara Sangria and Rainforest Mineral Water.
Limpe-Aw is also known as the publisher of The 9 Lives of Luis Chavit Singson, a biography co-written with Singson by her sister Linda Limpe. But theres nothing political about the venture, Limpe-Aw explains. The publishing business was something she got by default, she adds. My number 6 sister, Isabel Limpe Chungunco, is an artist but couldnt get any publisher for her picture book, Alphabeto. So I put up a publishing company and sold the book to the Education department. But when I tried to pass on the company to Isabel, she started weeping. She wanted to remain an artist, she said; she never wanted to become a publisher. So by default, the company landed on my lap and I had to look for materials to publish. The Chavit project just happened to be around.
Her latest project, says this natural-born business woman, is closer to home. Im training my children to take over the company someday. I tell them, If you find the old ways corny, make a difference in your own time and on your own terms, but continue the family business. Keep it alive. Entrepreneurship creates wealth, and that improves the country.
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