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Two weeks ago, my wife and I were invited to the biannual Manila FAME trade show. As always, the masterpieces of Filipino designers are stunning, unique, exquisite and truly world-class.
More than the impressive designs of furniture and home furnishings, ornaments, accessories, bags, shoes, and haute couture clothing, what was more interesting were the entrepreneurs and designers behind the art. Perhaps half of them are women, which somehow makes sense since it is the woman in the family who usually make the home, and women have a real fascination for fashion, bags, and accessories.
In celebration of Women’s Month, I’d like to feature some of the women who run the companies known internationally for their craft and design.
We start with Betis Crafts, a second generation-run family business that still banks on good craftsmanship and artistic design in creating home furniture. As the current president of Betis Crafts, Alona Bituin-Sisnuat shares with us why the business still keeps to the tradition that her parents started.
In a market where there is a growing preference for modern, contemporary furniture, Alona believes in maintaining their niche in old-fashioned furniture made with refurbished wood, carved intricately and artistically. “It’s about finding the right market,” Alona says about dealing with competition. “As long as we find the right buyers, the right fit for our products, then I think we will be able to survive.”
Founded in 1972 with only a handful of workers who built only components of furniture, Betis Crafts now has more than 300 craftspeople in its factory. They have big brands such as Maitland-Smith and Neiman Marcus to name as their clients.
It was Alona’s father, Jose Bituin, who founded the business. As it was growing, they went into export in 1986. Dealing with many big, foreign clients, they slowly learned new processes and technologies as well as the standards of the international market, and now, they are renowned locally and have an international presence.
Today, Betis Crafts Inc. owns four companies run by the founders’ children. While competition is tight, Betis Crafts remains steady. The key to staying afloat? Alona says, “You have to innovate. You cannot just copy others. If it’s in the magazine, then that has been made and you have to develop a new one. Today, you always have to stay ahead.”
With her local and international fame, it’s hard to believe that the success that came to Ann Pamintuan was not something she quite planned. In fact, she didn’t really think of selling her creations. But when her family saw how refined and beautiful her designs were, they thought it such a waste if these couldn’t be shown to the world.
Ann was born an artist, and even before she became known for her furniture designs, in particular, Ann designed clothing, bags and accessories. But it was her husband who pushed her to use her talent to get into business. She also shared this story about her sister proving the worth of her art pieces: her sister asked permission to take some of her creations to sell in the States, then came back to show how much money she made.
Ann then joined FAME in 1996, starting with pieces of jewelry that she made using organic materials such as real leaves, which she then plated through an electroplating machine. The jewelry was attached to home items such as picture frames and vases. It was a hit.
Ann then ventured fully into creating various pieces of art, and when she joined FAME again in 1999, and almost every year afterwards, she started exhibiting chairs, lounges and other home furnishings that she is now world-famous for.
From Picnic Baskets To World-Class Furniture
When Cindy Locsin’s husband Roberto first delved into the import-export industry, he thought he would be dealing air conditioners. But in one encounter, he dealt with a tradesman from Belgium who was looking to import something rather unique or specialized from the Philippines. Roberto then provided him rattan buri chairs, which was the beginning of Locsin International, founded in 1979.
Cindy and Roberto first started with these buri chairs as well as picnic baskets, which they sourced from Bicol. Their hometown Tabako was a rich source of raw materials as well as apt craftspeople who could produce the kind of merchandise they needed for export. Back then, they sold these chairs at three to seven dollars a piece, and getting a buyer was their biggest challenge. Cindy recalls that they’d write a thousand letters to potential buyers through the help of the DTI and shipping lines, and only one of them would respond.
But their passion for the business was what drove them and they never thought of backing out. Apart from this passion, the fact that they were providing a livelihood for hundreds of farmers and artisans was also their biggest motivation. From buri chairs and baskets, they began exporting sofa sides or components and now, they offer fully assembled, exquisitely designed furniture. They can boast of a whole line of world-class furniture designed by such respected local artists as Tony Gonzales.
Malu Bernardo of Geuel Handicrafts takes pride in being one of the leading exporters of Christmas ornaments and decorative accessories in the Philippines. In 1981, she started crafting small Christmas accessories by hand and sent samples to SM’s Kultura Filipino, a lifestyle retail store that carries local products. Luckily for her, Kultura liked her creations and has been one of her major retailers for more than 20 years.
As her business began to boom, the need for expansion became obvious. Having recently married at that time, her husband’s family became very supportive of her and was more than willing to invest their time and money. The business that she began grew into a family business, having her husband and in-laws onboard. Geuel Handicrafts expanded from a single room with 50 employees to a one-hectare factory in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, employing almost 300 individuals.
Malu mentioned that through the grace of God, she and her family have been able to overcome any hardships they have encountered. She also encourages other entrepreneurs like her to strive hard, and more importantly, to keep their faith in the Lord.
Artisans With A Cause
More than just a family business, Pamela Perez-Gonzalez considers Freden her continuation of the legacy that her parents left her and her four siblings. She recalls that back in the 1970s, her dad, who was a woodcarving teacher, was their only source of income. To help augment their finances, as all five of them were in school, her creative mom thought of a way to help her husband. She would gather all of the projects that her husband’s students made, paint them, and sell them to foreigners who would come to their hometown in Marinduque during the Moriones festival.
What’s so special about their negosyo is that the people they employ are mostly out-of-school youth (OSY) and stay-at-home mothers who would like to help their husbands. At this point, Freden, which mainly manufactures garden accessories and home accents out of forest waste, is more of a charitable organization to help their employees. The challenge now lies in training them to maintain the high quality of their products, as well as in instilling in them the values of perseverance and discipline.
As part of her program to help the OSYs and stay-at-home moms, Pam would conduct activities that would boost the morale of the employees, as well as their relationships with their family members and coworkers. She shared that one important tip to succeed is to engage in something that you love to do. In doing so, you will not easily be discouraged once challenges in the business get in the way.