Features

A guide to passing on the family business to the next generation

The new generation are learning the hard lessons firsthand: Innovate the family brand or get left behind

Photos by Patrick Segovia

The road they each took may have been different, but when it comes to the question of possibly wanting to do something else other than work in the family business, the sentiments of the heirs of iconic catering business The Plaza, the six generations old Distileria Limtuaco, and local Italian chain Amici/Cara Mia are uncannily similar.

Philip Moran, 35, had started out with a career in finance, working in Citibank offices in New York and San Francisco, but he eventually found his way back to the family business. His parents Danny and Tessie had owned local bakery leader Red Ribbon before selling it to the Jollibee group in 2005, and soon after, the couple took interest in a small pizza and pasta operation run by the Italian priests of Don Bosco School in Makati City. They eventually bought it and turned it into a serious contender in the food chain game. Their son then returned to Manila to become the general manager of Amici and the gelateria Cara Mia, and he admits it was a great decision on his part. “I’m excited to go to work every day. Even doing store visits during weekends don’t feel like work.” His brother Paolo, 32, also recently moved back from the States to help in the business, and he didn’t just “show up,” either. Despite growing up privileged and graduating with a Communication Arts degree from the Ateneo de Manila University, the younger Moran gamely earned his stripes in the humid kitchens of California and Italy to learn the ins and outs of the food business. Now, he is slowly learning the ropes, actively participating in the company’s research and development.

The Plaza’s Karla and Millie Reyes

Karla Reyes, unica hija of catering titan Millie Reyes of The Plaza, may seem childlike and fun, but she is actually one of the aggressive forces bringing the 50-year-old business into the 21st century. She, too, seems to be right at home and perfectly at ease with her role. “To be honest, I really cannot imagine doing anything else.” Growing nostalgic, she shares, “I remember my class doing a presentation in front of our parents in grade school. We were each asked what we wanted to be when we grow up. Everyone wanted to be doctors or lawyers or engineers; I wanted to be a restaurateur.”

Distileria Limtuaco, meanwhile, has shifted focus under the helm of the beauteous Olivia Limpe-Aw, going from tapping bikini-clad starlets to market their still-bestselling White Castle Whisky and Toska Vodka to promoting local produce through their Paradise Mango Rum and the recently launched Manille Liqueur de Calamansi and Dalandan. Her son Aaron, 27, has already accepted the burden of growing the family’s 163-year-old distillery together with his older brother (their youngest decided not to be involved), seeing the job as inevitable and simply putting his participation in the business as “a part of life.”

These are not your stereotypical rich brats with a sense of entitlement and Machiavellian tendencies. Being born into successful family businesses have not rendered them lazy or irresponsible. In fact, quite the opposite: they each have an obvious sense of purpose, a growing urgency from within to live up to expectations and sustain a legacy that their ancestors have worked incredibly hard for.

It is a burden that The Plaza’s Millie Reyes knows all too well. She, like Limpe-Aw, is one of five siblings who followed closely in the footsteps of their father Jose Cruz Reyes, son of Aristocrat Restaurant’s Asiang Cruz Reyes.

RICH HISTORY

Limpe-Aw knows the story well, of how his great great-grandfather Bonifacio Limtuaco had started the company in 1852, mass producing the secret family recipe for the Chinese medicinal wine See Hoc Tong. It was his maternal grandfather Julius, however, with his affinity for Western spirits, who truly expanded the business into what it is known now. “He was bold and fearless. During martial law, when everyone was afraid of being censored, White Castle Whisky’s commercials stood out for being sexy and provocative.” His daughter Olivia, the fifth of seven, draws from this same sense of self-assurance, holding the reigns as company president and bearing the responsibility of the company’s survival.

It is a burden that The Plaza’s Millie Reyes knows all too well. She, like Limpe-Aw, is one of five siblings who followed closely in the footsteps of their father Jose Cruz Reyes, son of Aristocrat Restaurant’s Asiang Cruz Reyes. The Plaza in the 1960s was a massive complex comprised of eight independent restaurants, including function halls where important events during that time were held. With the help of their Scandinavian chef, the family had also opened Round Table, the first smorgasbord concept in the Philippines and a precursor to modern-day buffets. When Reyes graduated from Switzerland’s L’Ecole Hotelierre de la Societe Suisse des Hoteliers in 1973, her fate as the successor to the family’s burgeoning restaurant business was sealed. Soon after her return, she began catering at the then newly opened Philippine International Convention Centre (among other major occasions of that era). It was also the time when her family made the decision to focus on events.

BUMPS ON THE ROAD
One of the pizzas from Amici’s menu

Shifting focus was something the Morans had to deal with as well after they had sold Red Ribbon to tycoon Tony Tankationg. From running a slew of bakeries to operating an Italian food chain, the family admittedly went through a slight identity crisis. Says Philip Moran, “We wanted to stay true to what the Italian priests were doing, which had more of a cafeteria feel, but that didn’t really translate well to a wider market when we started operating under the brand. People just didn’t associate Italian food with self-service. We had to go through a bit of rebranding.”

The Limpe-Aws are also familiar with a sometimes unyielding market. Paradise Mango Rum, their first attempt at promoting local produce, was not as warmly received as they anticipated. “Local bartenders didn’t even want to use it in their drinks. Back then, they preferred imported brands and viewed local ones as inferior. It became more like a novelty, something Filipinos would give foreign guests or balikbayans to take home. I think this is what challenged us to develop really high quality products that Filipinos can be proud of. Otherwise, if we don’t have the support of the local market, how can we promote [the products] abroad and convince foreign markets that they’re good?” With their dedication to product development and branding, and perhaps a bit of luck with the market now readily looking to local producers, Distileria Limtuaco’s citrus liqueurs are making waves in the bar scene. 

The Plaza’s ham

Reyes also recalls the trials she had to endure as a 25-year-old catering to functions at the PICC with up to 10,000 delegates in attendance; her trial by fire was the 1976 IMF World Bank Conference. “There were times when I locked myself in the walk-in chiller and screamed at the top of my lungs. It was really stressful.” During the Aquino administration, things really got testy: the sequential bomb threats and regular brownouts that defined the period meant canceled events and lost income for the company. This was when Reyes decided to take a sabbatical from The Plaza and help out an uncle with his resort in Cebu.

FINDING THEIR PLACE
Aaron and Olive Limpe-Aw

However, a brand backed with generations of excellence is not something that can be easily brushed to the sidelines. The Plaza continues to get prized accounts one after another, the favorite food operator of prestigious country clubs and the go-to caterer for high-profile celebrations and gatherings. Reyes proclaims her daughter Karla lucky, saying, “She’s got things easy. She doesn’t have to go through the same things I had to endure.”

While the elder Reyes had to battle a bit of resistance from the company’s higher-ups (“The usual ‘who does this kid think she is?’”), her daughter was spared from all that. “Besides,” she adds, “I started slowly. When I was still in college, there was a crisis in the company: one of the brand managers had bailed on us right before we launched a new venture. My mom was ready to scrap it, but I told her ‘Don’t worry, I’ll help you.’ That’s how I formally started in the business, although I have always been just lurking around even when my lolo was still alive. My stance was always to learn. That’s why I think I didn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers.”

Destileria Limtuaco’s growing line of Philippine-made liquors

This resonates with the Moran brothers as well, who have to learn to play well with their parents’ veteran workers. Paolo Moran admits he is still in the process of “fitting in” and finding his place in the company, while his older brother shares the pressure he feels to “live up to expectations and earn the respect of the older employees.” He, too, believes in taking a gentle and humble approach, like that of a student learning from those who have come before him, instead of barreling into the scene as the anointed successor. He also values his parents’ input when it comes to game-changing decisions. “After all, they have been there before. Why would I want to make the same mistakes?”

“Many take it for granted, but once they realize what a great gift it is, then the responsibility to sustain the business comes naturally,” says Aaron Aw.

MAKE IT LAST

Regarding the secret to their enduring enterprises, the Morans believe in being passionate about what they do. “Otherwise, it would be difficult to sustain if you are just forced to do something.” As for the Limpe-Aws and the Reyeses, they swear by the importance of a united front. Reyes particularly values the significance of being respectful and supportive of each other, not just during the easy and prosperous times, but also during the more difficult ones. This is something her daughter espouses among the many other values her elders have taught her, adding that it helps to share the same vision for the company with her mother.

The younger Limpe-Aw, meanwhile, discloses that it’s important for heirs to appreciate their privileged situation of being born into a successful business. “Many take it for granted, but once they realize what a great gift it is, then the responsibility to sustain the business comes naturally.” These are words his mother is very pleased to hear. “I’m glad he said that,” she expresses. “I myself am so, so grateful. It’s really not just for the sake of making sure the business survives. More than anything, I value the legacy that the company represents: those six generations that had worked hard to make the business a fixture in local Philippine culture.”     

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