“My heart wasn’t really in it.”
The path was paved for Juan “Johnny” Abad Santos Valdes—he had to be an accountant, that was that. His upbringing had implicitly told him, it was the only right thing to be. His father was an accountant who founded what would be a foremost accounting firm in the country (Carlos J. Valdes & Co.), and his two other siblings were accountants as well. There was no escaping, or so it seemed.
After graduating from De la Salle College with a BS in Accounting, he faced what would be the next hurdle—taking his CPA licensure exams.
‘As soon as I entered the examination room, all eyes were on me, they knew of my father…’
Johnny Valdes recalls the experience: “As soon as I entered the examination room, all eyes were on me, they knew of my father, so expectations were running very high. I know now, that at that time, I had all the right answers but something happened then and I froze in my seat. I failed that first time. It didn’t help that my siblings breezed through their own tests and were CPAs by that time.
“I was a pothole in the smooth road of accountancy my father had paved for his sons. Of course, when I told him that I had failed miserably, he was mortified, stunned beyond belief…beyond making any comment!”
The young Johnny was shipped out to Cebu to get tutored in accounting and review for a second round of the licensure examinations under the tutelage of Ms. Amparo Rodil, a wizard of a woman whose breadth and degree of accountancy knowledge was as intense as her rigorous ways. Three hours a day, six days a week with Sundays off, for an entire year he got sequestered in the old Magellan Cebu hotel. Johnny was only 21. Reviewing under vigilant eyes, he learned all the practice questions and answers and much more. After a year of rigid tutelage, he took his second crack at the test.
While waiting for the results of the licensure examinations, he was sent to Philadelphia to train with Touche Ross, one of the leading global accountancy firms then. Far away from home, he received word that he had passed. For Johnny, it was anticlimactic news. He knew he was going to wing it. However, in Manila, in the deeply devout Valdes household, there was jubilation. Prayers were said, and the news was greeted with a thanksgiving Mass that rang out with strains of Te Deum Laudamus.
Meanwhile, being in the US changed Johnny, living away from home enabled him to take greater control of his own life. It gave him a sense of freedom and the emotional space he so lacked back home. He knew now that no one could define him but he himself.
He met people who would become supportive lifetime friends, business partners, employees. He traveled around the US, and would go home regularly to the Philippines to visit his parents. But he no longer was the same Johnny they shipped out to Cebu. On one of those trips home, Johnny came out about his being gay to his parents, even if he knew that what he would say was potentially lethal for them. There definitely was drama but it was an emotional decision Johnny never regretted.
‘My coming out was a time of reckoning, I had never felt so happy…. I even became a better accountant’
“My coming out was a time of reckoning, I had never felt so happy, proud of myself and confident. I even became a better accountant. I left home and went to live in New York. It was also while away from home, when I finally decided to go into something other than accountancy, where I could generate income efficiently and have an anchor around which I could plan my own work day. Since I would be doing this by myself.”
Johnny made a life pivot, one that would fit his soul, his lifestyle, his persona, and make him live his best life, while helping his kababayan. He started by selling rice and vegetables to Filipino neighbors in Queens, NY. Every 45 days there would be sure deliveries around the neighborhood for the rice, and weekly deliveries for the vegetables. They loved him even more after they learned about his background; after all here was this guy with a privileged upbringing lugging a sack of rice to your doorstep, refreshingly lacking any air of entitlement!
He was “Mang Johnny” to all Filipinos in the borough. This was a special emotional connection they had with Johnny—he was trusted friend, not just a supplier. Service satisfaction was important for Johnny, it was his baseline in building customer goodwill. And all he needed was a few hours in a day to do the job.
Everybody in Woodside, Queens, knew him. But word spread fast to the other boroughs with large Filipino migrant communities and before long, he was putting in more hours all by himself.
Johnny would be asked to bring packages…. This was the crucial germ of a business idea
On his regular trips home, Johnny would be asked to bring packages, he would oblige since he hardly carried any checked-in luggage. This was the crucial germ of a business idea, and Johnny Air Cargo was birthed from this.
He opened a small receiving office in the garage of his sister’s Makati home, to the consternation of the homeowners association when jeepneys and cargo vans started coming and going. He eventually had to move out and find some real office and warehouse space. Simultaneously, he set up base in a two-story house with a basement in Queens, NY.
Today Johnny Air Cargo has co-loading consolidated agreements with Fedex and DHL, a collaboration that has benefited his operations while reducing lead time for his shipments. With online shoppers being the fastest growing market now, Johnny Air Cargo is busier than ever. Johnny Air Cargo offices in the US are also Johnny Air Mart convenience stores where one can buy everything, from balikbayan boxes to food and dry goods.
Johnny has left the day-to-day operations of his cargo company in very able hands, enabling him to go into other business ventures such as boat rentals and local cruises in Subic Bay (La Banca Cruises) and a small hotel (La Banca) in Boracay which he has repurposed into a beachfront offsite-work space rentals—a switch-up to stay viable in this pandemic. A second hotel just broke ground in Coron, Palawan, and will be operational in two years in time for economic normalcy.
He has also given his workers stakes in his companies through profit sharing. It was a good way to stay on track, find new opportunities and share his success.
‘Trust your employees and teach them to understand the things that create value for your company’
Johnny explains: “With profit sharing, employment becomes a true commitment to the business and it will begin to show in the quality of work they do, whether it’s maintaining goodwill with accounts, giving good customer service, as well as helping the company make profits.
At the same time, they are made aware of their rights and responsibilities. Trust your employees and teach them to understand the things that create value for your company.”
Johnny ponders the past: “Looking back, I credit any business managerial savvy I have to my being an accountant. Accounting has helped me manage my finances. Any disinterest I had for it in my younger years is undeserved. It does, in fact, have real-life application. I see now how it has played a major part in my life choices and financial decisions. I also believe a higher power has always been there for me, showing a hand during some of the most challenging times, helping me out of many hurdles, showing me new avenues to go into. It’s uncanny and amazing.”
Johnny Air Cargo now has eight offices in the US and 12 here. It seems he has been rewarded for being brave, innovative, and always thinking of better ways to do things.
Johnny Valdes has learned to see himself and his role as a capitalist, as somebody who’s always trying to find better ways of doing business, of changing many things around people’s lives through entrepreneurship. But behind creative ideas, success and spirit, the skill sets embedded in accountancy training and practice have, after all, been very helpful. And Johnny is someone who speaks and writes the language of figures in business, while keeping in touch with friends and kababayan, old and new. Charm still and always counts.
My daughter first heard of “Mang Johnny” in the late ‘90s, when she was an art school student and living very humbly in Queens. Eventually she used his parcel delivery service after college.
It is 2021, she still sends all her packages through Johnny Air Cargo. Only last week, she sent me a jar of anti-aging cream and a copy of her latest book. I finally told her, “Did I ever tell you? Johnny and I are friends.” And she laughed: “Oh, I feel like he’s an old friend, Ma.”