Rustan’s head Nedy Tantoco laid to rest amid outpouring of love

It was a morning of touching eulogies by a brother, a nephew, a granddaughter, and finally, the son. ‘Power need not terrorize nor distract….True power whispers…’—Nikki

At the end of the day, we came to her funeral not really as media who have covered her feat that shaped the Philippine retail landscape—but as friends who have come to know her for more than three decades, but more important, to admire and respect her as a business leader and, more precisely, as a significant Filipino. We were not alone. The Santuario de San Antonio church was filled with family, friends, business partners, diplomats who came to mourn and celebrate the life of Nedy Tantoco.

At the end of the day it was a gathering of loved ones—people Nedy loved and who loved her in return.

Rustan’s chairman and CEO Zenaida “Nedy” Tantoco was laid to rest Friday morning, Feb. 16, 2024, after a concelebrated funeral Mass at Santuario de San Antonio church, Forbes Park, Makati. The main celebrant was the Archbishop of Manila Jose Cardinal Advincula. The internment followed at Manila Memorial, Paranaque City.

As early as 9 am, family and friends waited in church for the arrival of the funeral cortege, as the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) played and soprano Rachelle Gerodias sang a most poignant Ave Maria. Nedy was a steadfast supporter of the arts.

In her IG post, Nedy Tantoco’s daughter-in-law Kathy Huang, wife of Michael, captures the solemn funeral Mass. She wrote in part: ‘She was a titan, larger than life….but to me she was just Mom…. A piece of everyone who was blessed to know you is now broken, and we will never be the same again.’

Shortly before 9:30 am, the church doors opened and the pallbearers, led by her sons Anton and Michael Huang, grandchild Cameron, and her only brother Bienvenido “Rico” Tantoco, Jr. escorted the casket down the aisle—a scene that left the gathering teary-eyed, for many still couldn’t come to terms fully with the sudden death of one of the most active, visible and influential business leaders in the country. Nedy Tantoco passed away in Metro Manila on February 8, a few days after undergoing heart surgery. She was 77, and kept a tight rein on the Philippines’ premier department store chain and luxury brand retail; apart from retail, the Tantoco family is into property development and food chains.

Apart from a few diplomats, also at the funeral Mass was Charriol CEO Coralie Charriol, who flew in for the funeral, and from Cartier regional team in Singapore, Cedric Laroche, head of retail partners.

Aside from Gerodias and baritone Byeong In Park, the artists who sang and performed during the Mass were soprano Camille Lopez-Molina, leading concert pianist and former Cultural Center of the Philippines president Raul Sunico who played Hindi Kita Malilimutan (composed by Fr. Manoling Francisco, SJ) at the recessional, cellist Renato Lucas who played Bach’s Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 3 during the blessing rites of the remains, and violinist Coke Bolipata, the final song Kahit Isang Saglit by Louie Ocampo. The PPO was conducted by Herminigildo Ranera. The PPO had a concert February 9, the day after Nedy passed away—it was a concert whose details she attended to up to the time she was admitted in the hospital on January 26. During the February 9 concert, the PPO, the concert performers and the audience devoted a moment of silence to pay tribute to the art patroness.

Nedy’s siblings did the Offertory: Renato and Maritess Enriquez, Menchu and Jun Lopez, Merle and Eddie Pineda, Rico and Nena Tantoco.

After a very touching homily by Fr. Tito Caluag, a close friend to Nedy and the Tantoco family, Rico Tantoco, Jr., the president of Sta. Elena Golf and Country Estate, gave the eulogy to his sister, muffling emotions in some moments. “She is very much alive…not to think her life has ended. All I need is faith,” he said.

Thanking the people gathered and who came to her funeral service the past seven days, Rico said, “I discovered through her death how awesome Nedy’s community was.” And such community referred to her country, her family, the Catholic Church (“She brought many people closer to Christ”), the culture and the arts.

Rustan’s president Donnie Tantoco spoke of his “Ninay Nedy,” his aunt, “godmother and boss.” “She was one of the busiest persons in the world…. And I’ve often wondered when did she have the time to perform epically generous and loving things for me….”

Donnie recalled how, when he was a college student, his aunt visited him, and since he lived alone, she wondered, “What on earth do you eat now?…. I didn’t have time to cook, so I said I was eating ground beef three times a day. Ground beef? Que horror, she said.” The godmother was horrified and before flying back to Manila, she was able to have puchero and other Filipino dishes delivered to Donnie—every week.

“Two years later,” Donnie continued, as he broke to her the news of his plan to marry Crickette, “she wanted to know the wedding preparations—the music, what kind of wine we were serving….” Nedy changed the simple music ensemble to the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, and the wine to Dom Perignon.

Donnie was speaking on behalf of the third-generation Tantocos: “At Rustan’s, ZRT was a “living legend…even if she wasn’t interested in that…. she was the toughest boss….no ego… but to inspire us to love Rustan’s.”

Then Donnie repeated a tale that has been passed on through the decades in Manila society. Thirty years ago, he recalled, a mass of political protesters gathered in front of Rustan’s, calling on the employees to leave the store and join the protest. The employees did—but to form a human cordon in front of the building. At this point, Nedy, then Rustan’s EVP, stepped out, stood before the crowd, and before a hapless security detail, took over the megaphone—and told the crowd that had been reduced into silence and disbelief: “I’ve organized an exclusive sale only for you, only for today. Please visit our store…”

In fact, that really happened, and those in the crowd went in. (Later after the Mass, Babette Aquino-Benoit, Nedy’s close friend to the end, recalled to us how she was among them, and how politics never got in the way of her friendship with Nedy that ran to 40 years. “She was my soulmate,” she said, in tears.)

Donnie then defined Nedy’s leadership—“true leadership on the firing line of whatever threatens our company and our people…Turning the negative into the positive, enemies into allies while facing enormous risks to our person.

“More than a queen, she was a combat general,” Donnie summed up Nedy’s persona.

What touched the gathering was the eulogy of Nedy’s eldest grandchild, Nikki, whose diligence, proud lola Nedy once told us herself, “was into academics and the scholarly pursuits.”

Nikki defined her lola through her own insights. “…. I will admit that I’m not afraid to do life without you,” she said. “….You did not raise me to falter in the face of hardship…You taught me everything I know, after all.”

She summed up what she learned from and observed in her lola, that “power need not terrorize nor distract….True power whispers… It protects, strengthens others.”

‘…. True power whispers…. It protects, strengthens others’

When it was the turn of Anton Huang, the president of SSI Group and Nedy’s eldest son, to give the final eulogy, the empathy of the close-knit assembly was almost palpable. A low-key business leader, very rarely does Anton speak at non-work events. And it had to be this morning, as the primary steward of the legacy his mother has left quite suddenly.

“Focusing on what so many people told me the past few days,” he began, “it was evident” how these people saw her presence as a “gift to many.”

He spoke of her legacy of “love, kindness and inspiration”—”the daughter, mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, grandaunt, partner and friend.”

He noted what many know so well—how his mother “possessed an extraordinary ability to see the good in people, to inspire them to be the best of themselves…her empathy knew no bounds…Always ready to extend a helping hand, to listen, and most of all, to understand.”

Anton said how Nedy has come to be described as “a force of nature,” for her incomparable work ethic, how she was not only a leader but also a role model. “Her loyalty, kindness extended beyond the company…”

Then Anton, who had shown composure since that tragic Thursday and a calm demeanor of authority, recalled what many among the mourners knew—the training his mother put him through as a young student and as an adult, how she was a task master to her son: “…. Many things my mom made me do…..”

Then in pained voice, he added, hardly did he know that one day, without her, he would speak about her “in front of all of you.”

That poignant moment drove home the point to many in the church that indeed, Nedy had taken leave—but not from the hearts of family and friends.

The Mass co-celebrants were Fr. Tito Caluag, Fr. Adame Bakari, OFM, Fr. Prex Fajardo, Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM, Fr. Eli Manlangit, Fr. Baltazar Obico, OFM, Fr. Marlowe Rosales, OFM, Fr. Joel Sulce, OFM, Fr. Flaviano Villanueva, SVD.


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