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The most successful entrepreneurs in the Philippines and how they got started

From Henry Sy to Socorro Ramos, the Philippines has its fair share of entrepreneurs. Here’s how you can emulate their success.

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The Philippines’ most successful entrepreneurs span a diverse range of fields, from the culinary to the pharmaceutical. What they all have in common, however, is a willingness to overcome the odds.

In this article, we’ll explore the most successful entrepreneurs in the Philippines, how they got started, and how you can pick up the skills needed to emulate their success.

The Top 12 Most Successful Entrepreneurs in the Philippines 

1. Henry Sy (Shoe Mart)

Shoe Mart, or SM for short, is one of the country’s retail behemoths, and far more than just a mall.

It is now a well-loved institution of which many Filipino families hold fond memories. It provides a wide range of services, including shopping, theatres, locations for date nights, parties and other special occasions, ice skating, and food courts. SM started modestly and from humble beginnings, despite its now upmarket reputation.

Henry Sy grew up in Jinjang, Xiamen, China, in a low-income household. Due to the challenges in their home country, they moved to the Philippines in 1936 and opened a tiny convenience shop in Manila.

Shortly after, World War II broke out and ruined the family business. Sy, on the other hand, continued to pursue his entrepreneurial interests by selling worn military combat boots and other items to American soldiers. This is where the name “Shoe Mart” originates: it was Manila’s first shoe store at the time. Despite being unable to find vendors that could make the shoes he wanted, Sy persisted.

Sy, who died in 2019 at the age of 94, was survived by his family. Sy’s legacy lives on today in his many SM malls and other acquired businesses. As a result, he was one of the world’s wealthiest men.

Today, the fashion industry looks somewhat different to when Henry Sy founded his humble shoe store. Get a handle on this ever-changing industry with our Fashion Management course.

2. Tony Tan Caktiong (Jollibee Foods)

The cheerful tagline “langhap sarap” – a Jollibee trademark – is well-known among Filipinos.

Tony Tan Caktiong, another Chinese immigrant, is the brains behind this popular food chain. His family maintained a Chinese restaurant in Manila at the time, which enabled him to finish college.

He bought an ice cream shop in 1975, but owing to low sales, he decided to add other items such as fried chicken, fries, and burgers. Customers came to the store to buy his products after word spread in his area.

Caktiong was able to expand across the country after embracing the fast-food business model, growing his humble restaurant into one of the Philippines’ most successful businesses.

Furthermore, by establishing a franchise, he has been able to break into the international market. With over 2,500 outlets in the Philippines and locations in the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and the UK, Jollibee is a fast-food behemoth.

If you’d like to set up your own food business, check out our Entrepreneurship in Food and Beverage course, which will get you set up in this exciting, fast-paced industry.

3. Socorro Ramos (National Book Store)

Socorro Ramos began her career in publishing and retail as a salesgirl in a bookshop. With a capital of PHP200, she and her husband launched National Book Store in Escolta at the age of 19, selling books and school supplies to children. The Japanese imposed censorship on books and publications at the time, which included her burgeoning business. She and her husband supplemented their income by selling other products such as candles and soaps.

The Ramoses built a nine-story structure along Avenida after the postwar boom brought increased revenue for the company. Ramos adopted a hands-on approach to running her business, even designing the company’s logo herself.

The National Book Store now has around 3,000 employees. At the age of 98, Socorro Ramos is worth an estimated USD 3.1 billion, making her one of the country’s richest people.

If you want to sell books, it’s also important to know how to balance them. Check out our Bookkeeping for Personal and Business Accounting course to get your burgeoning business off on the right financial foot.

4. John Gokongwei Jr. (J.G. Holdings)

Born in China, John Gokongwei Jr. was the heir to one of Cebu’s wealthiest families.

When his father died, however, the family fortune evaporated and he had to support his family by peddling goods from his bicycle in the streets of Cebu. He then began to trade by boat and truck until he began importing from the United States.

Seeing that low trade margins would always limit his income, he switched focus to manufacturing. He borrowed PHP 500,000 from Chinabank to launch a maize milling company that is now known as Universal Corn Products.

Although this business venture was a success, he did not stop there. He began adding more goods, such as Blend 45, and soon changed the name of his company to Universal Robina Corporation.

Gokongwei died in 2019, aged 93. His family is now one of the most successful Filipino business families and owns the Robina Land Corporation, which owns Robinsons Supermarkets and Department Stores, as well as the commercial airline Cebu Pacific.

John Gokongwei Jr. overcame setbacks to ensure his success. Follow in his footsteps with our Science of Success course.

5. Edgar Sia (Mang Inasal)

Edgar Sia, the brains behind Mang Inasal, is widely regarded as the Philippines’ pioneer in limitless rice meals.

Sia, who is native to Iloilo City, dropped out of college at the age of 19 to start his own laundry and photo-developing business. Sia, then 26 years old, decided to launch the fast-food restaurant Mang Inasal – meaning “Mr Barbecue” in his native Hiligaynon – in 2003. In his hometown, the first branch was erected in a mall parking lot.

The restaurant was a huge success. Jollibee’s Tony Caktiong bought Mang Inasal for PHP5 billion after hearing about Sia’s growing business. Sia invested the proceeds from the sale of Mang Inasal into banking and healthcare. He is the country’s youngest billionaire, at the age of 42.

If you dream of launching a fast-food franchise, you’ll need to make sure that the products you sell are safe to eat. Take our Introduction to Nutrition and Food Safety course to get off on the right foot.

6. Mariano Que (Mercury Drug) 

Following WWII, Mariano Que discovered a commercial opportunity. Que, who had worked at a local drugstore before the war, opened his own drugstore when he noticed the demand for sulfa, a type of antibiotic used to treat bacterial illnesses.

He began selling good-quality sulfa for a low price. As a result, he was able to expand his clientele. In 1945, he founded the Mercury Drug chain of pharmacies.

Mercury Drug was named after the Roman god Mercury, who was known for his speed as well as for originating the medical industry’s symbol, the caduceus. He helped the company grow over time, and it is today one of the best-known drugstores in the country.

Que’s knowledge of pharmaceutical principles propelled him to success. With FutureLearn, you too can learn the essentials of good pharmacy practice.

7. Cresida Tueres (Greenwich Pizza)

Greenwich began as a modest over-the-counter pizza shop in Greenhills in 1971, founded by Cresida Tueres. Tueres had a natural talent for cooking; her friends and family were so taken with her food that they supported her in developing her humble shop into a national franchise.

Jollibee Foods Corporation, impressed by Tueres’ commercial acumen and Greenwich’s expansion, struck an agreement in 1994 to buy 80 percent of Greenwich’s stock.

The new company was renamed Greenwich Pizza Corporation after the successful commercial agreement, and it launched its first store in the Ever Gotesco Commonwealth Shopping Mall in 1994.

If you’d also like to open your own restaurant, check out our How to Open a Restaurant course.

8. Cecilio Kwok Pedro (Lamoiyan Corporation)

The story of Cecilio Kwok Pedro is a classic example of Filipino entrepreneurial spirit overcoming the odds.

Pedro was once the president of Aluminum Container Inc., a company that made aluminium toothpaste tubes for Procter & Gamble, the Philippine Refining Company (now Unilever), and Colgate-Palmolive. His clientele, however, switched to plastic-laminated toothpaste tubes due to environmental concerns. Aluminum Container Inc. went out of business in 1986.

Unabashed, Pedro founded Lamoiyan Corporation and began producing toothpaste at a 50% discount to his competitors. Hapee and Kutitap, two still-popular brands, were among them. Although overseas brands retaliated by decreasing their prices, Pedro responded by launching a children’s toothpaste featuring Sesame Street characters. Pedro’s brands have spread throughout Asia, including China, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Pedro’s ambitions aren’t limited to success in the business world; he’s also known for his work helping hearing-impaired people find work in the United States. His initiatives include providing free lodging for more than 30 deaf–mute employees. DEAF, or Deaf Evangelistic Alliance Foundation, has provided college education for more than 180 hearing-impaired students to date.

Learn how to take your business idea a reality with our Business Idea to Action course with King’s College London.

9. Alfredo M Yao (Zest-O)

Alfredo Yao’s father died when he was 12; his mother supported him and his siblings by working as a street vendor. Yao was able to attend college at the Mapa Institute of Technology thanks to the help of a family member, but did not complete it.

Yao did a variety of odd jobs, including working at a printing machine. He learned how to print cellophane wrapping for candy and biscuits during his time there, and was inspired to create his own printing company as a result of his experiences.

His printing company was thriving, but it was his discovery of the Doy Packaging technique from Europe that really launched his career. He sought to market the system to juice companies, but they showed little interest. Yao decided to start his own juice company, initially concocting recipes in his kitchen.

These juices were not only tasty but also appealed to parents, who found the lightweight, vividly coloured packaging convenient to pack in their children’s lunchboxes. The packaging also helped the juice to stay cold for longer.

Zest-O now owns 80% of the Filipino juice market and has spread to other markets in Australia, China, New Zealand, Korea, Singapore, the United States, and other European countries. Yao’s commercial success has resurrected the Philippines’ juice industry and boosted dalandan orange farmers’ businesses. Small-scale entrepreneurs recycle the Doy packs into handbags for export to other countries.

By acquiring Asian Spirit Airlines and renaming it Zest Air, Yao has expanded his business interests into the airline industry.

Yao used technology to turn his burgeoning juice business into a global success. Find out how you can use technology to transform your business with our Revolutionising the Food Chain with Technology course.

10. Gregorio G Sanchez Jr (LactoPAFI)

While working as a provincial board member in Cebu, Gregorio Sanchez noticed that pigs sold to the market were visibly underweight.

He dedicated his spare time to finding the cause of this anomaly and did various tests and trials on how to ease Cebu’s cattle malnutrition, using only the pots and pans in his home.

Despite several setbacks, his perseverance paid off: he found out that the pigs were infected with dangerous bacteria. His solution was probiotic bacteria that would boost the body’s healthy bacteria count.

Sanchez eventually developed his discovery into LactoPAFI Probiotic Bacteria, which would go on to become a global probiotics leader with buyers in Japan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Norway, Australia, France, and the United States.

Sanchez found success by identifying a gap in the market and innovating. Find out how to exploit gaps in the market with our How to Become An Entrepreneur course.

11. Joe Magsaysay (Potato Corner)

Potato Corner is a well-known food cart company in the United States. It was founded in 1990 by Joe Magsaysay, who dropped out of school to work at a fast-food restaurant.

He was then offered the opportunity to become a manager; his store management abilities came in handy when he and a friend decided to open Potato Corner. He went on to become one of the Philippines’ most successful businesspeople.

Potato Corner’s food cart business grew rapidly in 1992 and is now a global franchise. Learn the skills that transformed Joe Magsaysay’s fortunes with our course on realising your vision.

12. Milagros, Clarita, and Doris Leelin (Goldilocks)

When Milagros, Clarita, and Doris Leelin founded Goldilocks, it was a 70-square-metre Makati store with only two cake displays and ten employees. Sisters Milagros and Clarita Leelin had a passion for baking and opened their first branch with the help of their sister-in-law, Doris.

Goldilocks debuted its franchising programme in 1991. The bakeshop franchise now has around 420 stores, with additional locations in the United States, Canada, and Southeast Asia. Goldilocks has grown from a PHP 66,000 start-up to a multi-million-dollar food company with over 4,000 workers.

If you’d like to become a successful baker, check out our baking course offered in collaboration with BBC Good Food.

Final thoughts

The Philippines’ business heroes didn’t find success overnight – they strived and adapted to reach their goals. With a business course from FutureLearn, you too can launch a successful company.

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