Soon after moving back to the city, the plan was for me to work as a sales agent and, at the same time, set up a new company. Having lived in Boracay the previous five years, I knew what life was like in the island. One thing I could not bring myself to accept was to have my own child study in that island. So when I decided to get married, my soon-to-be-wife agreed that we should live in the city.
Instead of starting our life in the city when we already have a child, we decided it is better to start as early as possible, so that when we finally have our own baby, by then, we would be well-settled in city life and financially stable.
I used to work with my father when he had a business distributing structural steel to retail construction and hardware stores in the Bicol Region. For six years, I travelled to Bicol. Having developed a close relationship with all our customers, I was reasonably confident that I could ease myself back. My main concern was suppliers. The amount of money involved in steel products is no joke. I needed suppliers more than customers.
A few months after I moved back to the city, and before I could get back to doing business, my father died. My plans were delayed for a few more months.
In December 2003, our new company was formed. It was time for me to start working. I started calling our old suppliers, one by one, and one by one, was turned down.
I remembered a conversation I had with Manny Yao, part owner of Island Metal Manufacturing Corporation. He called me up one time, during the time I was working with my father and he had left the company for one month and I was in charge of nearly everything. We were pulling out several truckloads of steel daily. He asked me to add up all the checks paid to us by customers that I have in our possession. Satisfied with the figure, he then said. “Do not be offended. You have to understand that this business is between your father and me. You are still young and you have yet to prove your character.”
I wished my father were still alive when I needed his help. He had died in a car accident before I lived in Boracay.
Failed by our old suppliers, all of them friends of my father, I did not put blame. They have their own reasons. Manny Yao was right. I have yet to prove my character.
Soon, I started calling up our old customers in Bicol Region. Nearly everyone I talked to seemed glad to hear that I am back. They encouraged me to visit and promised to help me.
I went to Bicol for the first time in a decade on January 2004. I sold steel products for a company owned by a friend. I remember that trip very well. I had mixed feelings. Having been gone for so long, I was excited to see old friends, I was scared of the future, and because I was married by then, there was an enormous pressure for me to earn.
The reception of the customers, in general, was warm. I was able to sell and earn a commission of half percent. Although small, it was a start. I came home from that trip having learned two valuable lessons.
First, there is no such thing as debt of gratitude. Of all the customers I visited, there were several who, if not for my father or me, would not be there anymore. Yet, two of them disappointed me the most. They were extremely good to me during their time of need, and we were always very supportive. When all I needed for them to do was to place a small order, they turned me away.
Second, there is such a thing as debt of gratitude. When I arrived at Sebastian Liao Enterprises, the owner, John, gathered some people around him. He then said that if not for my father, he would not have what he has. Next, he called up one of his suppliers and told the owner, from that point forward, anything he buys from his company will be through me.
We talked about many things, and before I left, he said. “Both our fathers are dead. If you have a problem in the future and needed someone to talk to, do what I do. I go to the cemetery and pour my heart out. I talk to my father, because I know he is listening.”
For the next few months, I travelled to Bicol once a month. One day, while in a store, I met Stewart Yao. He is not related to Manny Yao I mentioned earlier. Towards my third or fourth year working with my father, he was the one person who constantly undercuts our prices. He was a drug addict and not long after, went bankrupt. He also had the misfortune of being involved in a car accident that almost cost him his life.
He was also one of the reasons why I quit on my father and his business. At that time, he was heavily in debt. Having nearly recovered from the accident, he came to our house with a cast on his neck and begged my father to supply him with structural steel. I specifically told my father not to do that. I did not simply asked my father, I implored him not to.
He did, anyway, because he was like that, always trying to help other people.
When I found out, I had a falling out with my father. Stewart Yao was not the first, and like others before him, he soon owed us money big time.
On that fateful day when we met, I did not feel hatred. We greeted each other cordially, and then, finding out that I was working as a sales agent and earning a measly half percent, he told me he will recommend me to his supplier, and that he will waive his commission and pass it on to me.
True to his word, he did what he said he would do. Instead of earning half percent, I started to earn between 4 to 8 percent, sometimes more. Because of more competitive pricing, I was able to increase sales volume.
Some two or three months later, Stewart Yao committed suicide.
After a year in business, I needed more suppliers. I called up Sterling Steel and talked to the owner, Johnny Ong. I have never met him, nor has anyone recommended me to him. I introduced myself and soon, we were doing business. Although at the start, I had to pay in cash, he was gracious enough to extend credit without me asking.
Last year, I was talking to my brother-in-law and mentioned this to him. I said even if I am not doing business with Johnny Ong for a long time, I am thankful for what he did. My brother-in-law told me I should let him know. So I did. I called him up and said thank you.
The past few months had been trying. With all the pressures and one crisis after another, I remembered what John Liao told me several years ago. One Sunday afternoon, I went to Holy Cross Memorial Park. There, in the grave of my father and mother, I poured my heart out.
Remembering John, I called him up to say thank you for his advice.