A New Year conversation
Allow me to wrap up another successful celebration of the Lunar New Year and Bacolaodiat by being a fly on the wall and sharing this interview between two outstanding members of Bacolod’s Chinese community.
Stephanie Ong Dychiu is a management professional with an impressive body of work that includes co-authoring a book on leadership for the Management Association of the Philippines and producing features for various publications in the country.
In this feature, Stephanie interviews Mark Gomez the head of this year’s Spring Festival Gala, the annual joint dinner of Bacolod’s Filipino-Chinese community and the culminating activity of the BacoLaodiat Festival.
Without further ado, here it goes:
Stephanie: Since it’s Chinese New Year and Bacolod is remembering its glory days 80 years ago, how did your grandfather from China end up in Bacolod eight decades ago?
Mark: My grandfather came to the Philippines from Fujian province in the 1930s. He went to Iloilo because he already had relatives there. He then moved to Bacolod to start a business supplying materials to the sugar mills being built in Negros. My father was also born in China and stayed in Hong Kong for a while before following my grandfather to Bacolod in the 1970s. The Spring Festival Gala and the Bacolaodiat Festival are significant to me because they remind us every year how great it is when our two cultures, Filipino and Chinese, work and celebrate together as one.
S: You studied Economics at the Ateneo de Manila University but instead of working in Manila, you returned to Bacolod to start a business. Why?
M: When I graduated in 1996, I knew sooner or later that I would choose to build on what my parents have built, so I just made it sooner. Our family was distributing consumer products such as candies, marshmallows, canned goods, and spaghetti. My younger brother Waiman and I wanted to start our own thing. Since we were already distributing consumer goods, convenience stores made sense.
S: How hard is it to compete with the big national players?
M: The big players have the scale and the brand, but being small has its advantages. We can take more risks experimenting with new things to offer customers. For instance, our soft-serve ice cream has a loyal following because we were able to choose the creamiest formula. The big chains can’t move as fast since everything needs to be approved by headquarters in Manila. We can also price at par or sometimes lower than national players because we have supermarket and distribution affiliates.
S: Do you plan to go nationwide?
M: We’ll concentrate on Negros rather than spread ourselves too thin. Positive cash flow trumps aggressive expansion. There’s a lot of growth just outside Bacolod, even national supermarket chains are giving them. The convenience store is now like the sari-sari store. People live farther away so it’s too expensive to go all the way to the supermarket just to buy a bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste.
S: What makes doing business difficult in Bacolod?
M: First, the cost of electricity. Last year, I was in Vietnam at the factory of the Liwayway Group that makes Oishi snacks. The factory manager is the brother-in-law of someone here in Bacolod. We found out electricity there only costs P5/kwh. Bacolod is now around P12/kwh, more expensive than Manila. When we started in 2004, it was around P6-7/kwh. The seventh largest solar power plant in Southeast Asia is in Cadiz, but why is our power still so expensive?
Second, Bacolod’s growth is much slower compared to Cebu or Iloilo because we’re too dependent on sugar. Sugar is very seasonal. During off-milling season, the economy grinds to a halt. Sugar is a commodity, so it’s very sensitive to international price movements. Tariff barriers won’t protect us anymore. Even candy manufacturers in Manila are lobbying for imported sugar, which is cheaper than ours. We’ve been talking about diversifying Bacolod’s mono-crop economy since the 1980s. We need to be less laid-back, be more driven like Iloilo people. There were a lot of great inasal restaurants that were put up first in Bacolod, but it took someone from Iloilo to turn chicken inasal into a massive national brand.
S: What do you wish the local government units would focus on during this Year of the Earth Pig?
M: Find a way to lower the cost of electricity. Help solve the problem of illegal tapping because system loss often makes up 30 precent of people’s electric bills. I also dream of a bridge that will connect Bacolod and Iloilo as this will really lower logistics costs, and the savings can be reinvested to further boost growth. Finally, I wish the city and provincial governments would work more closely together. If ASEAN can unite, why can’t we? Negros and Metro Bacolod are so small in comparison. We miss a lot of opportunities because we don’t move as one. For example, in tourism, Bacolod promotes the Masskara Festival but does not mention the beaches around Negros. Bacolod and Negros need to think bigger. We should realize by now that we’re not competing against each other, we’re competing with national and global players.*
*End of interview
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