“What’s your problem?” asked his grandfather, the former ambassador to Italy and co-founder of the Rustan’s Group of Companies, Bienvenido “Benny” Tantoco, Sr.
Anton, executive vice-president of the Rustan Commercial Corporation (RCC) and president of Stores Specialists Inc. (SSI), the leading luxury retail group in the Philippines, replied that he was saddled with problems wrought by the pandemic and empathized with many who suffered its impact.
Without missing a beat, Lolo Benny, sharp at 99, said, “You keep complaining. You haven’t been through a world war yet.”
This remark made Huang realized two things: His current troubles pale in comparison to his grandfather’s harrowing experiences during the Japanese Occupation; and that worrying wouldn’t solve anything.
‘He would implore that I take care of our employees’
In an email we asked Zenaida “Nedy” Tantoco, chairman and CEO of RCC and SSI, what her father would have advised her now in dealing with this lockdown. She wrote, “He would implore that I take care of our employees. Make sure the shopping environment adheres strictly to health protocols and is extremely clean and sanitized to keep shopping safe (post-lockdown).”
As Ambassador Tantoco turns 100 on April 7 this year—truly a milestone—one realizes that his longevity could be attributed significantly to the daily expressions of love by his children and grandchildren and his long-lasting friendships, including those with his doctors. It is no exaggeration to say that his children and grandchildren take turns daily to keep him company; it helps that his house is next door to that of Nedy. He is always surrounded by family.
The patriarch continues to be a caring soul whose generosity of spirit is matched only by his integrity and diligence.
It’s an oft-repeated observation that his wife Gliceria (Glecy) had the selling acumen while Tantoco, an accountant and corporate executive, kept himself in the background. When she died of cancer in 1994, he took over Glecy’s networking task, and with his strong people skills, won over the foreign principals of the many luxury brands that the Rustan’s Group carried in the country.
Tantoco has become known as the “Father of Philippine Luxury Retailing” for being the backbone of the retail business and industry.
“Retail is tedious. If you don’t have a good back office to support the merchandise and marketing, the efforts are worthless. Lolo established the foundation of this organization. When Lola died, he carried on by supporting the groundwork she had set up,” said Anton.
Bienvenido “Rico” Tantoco Jr., the eldest of the six children, explained, “My father excelled in finance, personnel administration, logistics and security. My mom had the eye for merchandise and the talent for marketing and store operations. They complemented each other’s skills to succeed.”
Rico has walked his father’s path in the business, sometimes literally. The ambassador would bring his only son to work and to the golf club. At five years old, Rico would visit his father’s office at Luzon Theaters, the mother company of the movie houses owned by the Rufino family in the ‘50s. As chief cashier, the older Tantoco was entrusted to collect the ticket sales and deposit the money in the bank. Rico had his choice of free movies and an allowance to spend.
In 1957, Rico, then 12 years old, picked up the golf club; he played with his father into adulthood and his father’s senior years. In the days before the use of golf carts, Tantoco Sr. walked the 36 holes. Firm about his principles, he instilled in Rico that golf was a game of civility that must be played with focus, honesty and right conduct, just like in business.
The father apparently doted on the son, getting him a driver’s permit at age 14 and giving his first car at 15 years old. Upon graduating from industrial engineering at Ateneo in 1965, he received a gold Rolex watch, the only timepiece he has worn to this day. The patriarch also doted on all his children—aside from Rico and Nedy, there are Marilen, Menchu, Marilou, and Maritess. For instance, Nedy got a car (Cougar) from her dad when she was a college sophomore. “I was the envy of my friends,” she recalled with light-hearted fondness. The grandchildren, their spouses and the great grandchildren always receive gifts on their birthdays.
Seven months after his graduation, Rico went to New York to pursue M.E. in mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
While dangling the carrot, his father also wielded the proverbial stick. “People thought I was spoiled. When I was young, I was naughty and he spanked me. I don’t remember him spanking my sisters. My mother, on the other hand, grounded me,” he recalled with a chuckle.
The young Rico spent his holidays at Rustan’s export office in New York where he ran errands and repackaged merchandise.
His father became his role model for his hard work and dedication. Rico observed how the older Tantoco diligently read the bottomline, managed the cash flow, hired, promoted, disciplined and even filed suits against errant employees. “He was objective and fair,” noted Rico.
Rico could well have been his father’s understudy. While he handled other family businesses in paper, packaging, and other investments, he served as his mother’s financial adviser. In 1990, she asked him to assume the presidency of RCC, a post he held until her death. His father never left his mother’s side during her cancer treatments in the States.
When the local retail industry was hit by increasing competition from foreign brands and then the Asian Crisis, the resilient older Tantoco developed strategies to keep the business profitable.
In 2000, his father asked Rico to become president of RCC yet again. Like a dutiful son, he obeyed until he vacated the post in 2008.
Post-retirement, the patriarch continued to give advice on the business, all the areas. “His advice was always sound,” said Rico.
He attributes his interest in golf to his father. When he built the Sta. Elena Golf Course and Country Club, the older Tantoco had just returned from work overseas and was delighted to see the fairways amid the forests and river streams. From Sta. Elena’s establishment in the ‘90s up to 2019, the gallant patriarch hosted the annual golf tournaments, the biggest of which was the Sta. Elena Ambassador’s Cup which served as Christmas party for the club members.
‘Don’t be slow or else your competitor will beat you to it. There is no better time than now’
Rico has many learnings from his father.
Foremost is the sense of urgency. “He would say time is money. Don’t waste it. Don’t be slow or else your competitor will beat you to it. There is no better time than now.”
The patriarch trained his children to be cost-conscious. “He hates wasting stuff, even soap. Don’t release supplies at once. Make them available a little at a time.”
Tantoco’s advice on personal matters: “Don’t argue with your wife because you will never win.” This was the winning whimsical formula of his partnership with Glecy.
Now that he is 76, Rico feels that the love of his 100-year-old father is stronger than ever. “He looked after my wife and family. To this day, he watches over me, and shows concern for my security,” said Rico.
Anton remembers so well how Lolo Benny valued every member of the family. He recalled the childhood excitement of the cousins sleeping over in their grandparents’ house and leaving early morning for the farm. The grandparents and grandchildren bonded with nature.
One of Anton’s most treasured years was seeing his grandfather perform the role of a diplomat, as the Philippine ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. From 1983 to 1985, Anton lived in Rome with his grandparents, with his cousins Bienvenido III (Donnie), Joel Tantoco and his aunt Maritess, the youngest of the Tantoco siblings. The post wasn’t a bed of roses. He witnessed how his grandfather set up the embassy staff, interacted with other envoys, the Filipino community, the Pontificio Collegio Filippino, the college for diocesan priests based in Rome. He saw his grandfather’s interaction with Jaime Cardinal Sin.
Anton remembered the days he would make sure to be home early from the Notre Dame International School, to help his grandfather get dressed for Vatican functions, in his black waistcoat, white bow-tie, sash and accoutrements.
Anton considers himself fortunate that in later years he could accompany his grandfather on buying trips and meetings with principals.
‘Healthy relationships could have disagreements but Lolo valued partnerships’
“Lolo was very charming. He got along well with his counterparts. The exchange was always pleasant even if the deal wasn’t meant to be. Healthy relationships could have disagreements but Lolo valued partnerships,” noted Anton.
The patriarch was careful with his language and could speak in a disarming tone to cool down tension. “He knew how to read the person across the table. He came across as trustworthy,” Anton noted.
From his Lolo, Anton learned how strong relationships could help sustain a venture. “To thrive in business and corporate life, you need to be open to other companies and individuals. You can create opportunities together that can be advantageous to both of you,” he said.
However, Anton learned that the ultimate relationship is that of family. “Lolo is a very family-driven man. To this day, he expects us to be together for lunch or dinner. We are a family business. We, the third generation, grew up very close to each other. I hope that bond will prevail way beyond our time. Lolo set up the foundation which has been carried on by his children. And we honor that,” said Anton.