My Money Story: Onésimus barong Tagalog

Posted at 03/16/09 2:57 PM

There’s a big difference between who I am now compared to when I was younger. I’ve always been a highly driven person. Through this innate drive, I excelled in school, finished college in three-and-a-half years with honors (AB Economics from the University of the Philippines-Diliman). Like most people, I was determined to become rich, live in a big house, drive a luxurious car, travel around the world, and be able to afford anything that I wished. I really wanted to live the high life.

Ironically, as I slowly began to realize my ambitions, I also began to perceive that being wealthy was just an illusion.

Seeking for meaning

On my last semester at UP, I came to a point of personal crisis where I had to face squarely the haunting question: “What is the meaning of life?” I took this painful experience so bad, which got me more into a searching mode.

I vividly remember that one UP Ikot ride where I found myself praying that whoever is the first God who would reveal Himself to me He’s the One I would accept. “Kahit hindi ikaw ang Diyos na kinamulatan ko – kahit Buddhist, kahit Hindu – kahit sino, ikaw ang paniniwalaan ko. Because You’re the one who heard my prayer and cared enough to meet me at my lowest point.” And if there was no God around who would introduce himself to me, I was well prepared and mentally conditioned to make the decision to become an atheist.

Little did I know that God had all things mapped out for my conversion all along. On my last semester, I had this classmate who was a devout Christian. One thing led to another – she shared with me her life, her spiritual ups and downs, the testimony of her walk with Lord.

That was the start of my renewal.

Realizing dreams

After finishing college, I put up my own company in 1985. I went into garments – the same business my parents put up in the 70’s that fed all eight of us children. Though I was tempted to try my hand on something else, it was difficult to deviate from it because it was the environment I grew up in.

It didn’t take long for me to apply what my parents indirectly and directly taught me, like how my mother haggled in Divisoria to bag the best prices of various supplies. I was in high school when I was asked to man the cash register, help compute the payroll, assist the master cutter, prepare receipts, and give the right clothes to the right customer. Those lessons learned from hands-on experiences proved handy when the time came for me to run my own business.

My parents, who first started a necktie shop then expanded into men’s formal wear, supported me. My first samples were sewn in their shop. I later became a supplier to Rustan’s and SM for their own clothing brands. And when I began receiving purchase orders worth hundreds of thousands, that’s when I knew I was earning. Whatever personal savings I had, I plowed them back to business.

Serving Him

While attending to my business, I remained active in church ministry, which I found more fulfilling. In 1987, I stopped the business to go full-time, and this went on until 1990. I was a volunteer worker for the church, serving as counselor and writer. At first, I was okay since I had six-figure savings back then. But my savings eventually ran out not so much from personal consumption as from engaging in constant giving to those the Lord would lead me to help. I then entered what I would call as a “wilderness experience” when I had nothing but my faith in Him.

In the church, I met a very special girl, whom the Lord revealed to me was to become my wife. Mi-an came from a well-to-do family. On top of that, she was earning her own good money, working as an international flight stewardess. Me? I was at a low point in my life. I was broke. I had nothing but this invisible faith and His equally invisible promises for my life. But both of us knew something no one else knew: we were called to be in the business and the next major step was for us to get married April 1991. Because of this, Mi-an couldn’t see me staying full time in church, although she herself was a committed member also. We sought our pastor’s counsel and he confirmed God was indeed calling me back into business.

Actually, I was in denial. Being out of circulation for four years, there were lots of changes in the market that I might not be able to cope with. But God’s calling was clear. He pulled me out of the business for a while to prepare me for something bigger.

Coming back

I stepped out of the full time ministry, with my pastor’s blessings, and registered Onésimus as a corporation in 1991. That was one of the worst times to start a business because of the Gulf War. There were many grim projections about skyrocketing oil prices and exchange rates. Still, Mi-an and I agreed to get it started while attending to our wedding preparations.

That time, I was managing one of my parents’ shops, where we had three rundown sewing machines and three tailors, and that’s where we made our first samples. I re-introduced myself to the different department stores, we sampled our products, and they liked our barongs and coats.
Before our wedding, we already got an offer to be a consignor at Robinsons Galleria where we were entrusted with our own space. Prior to that, SM accepted us as a supplier for their men’s line. Then Landmark committed to us a 30-sq.m. space, but here, we spent for the renovation. All the cash gifts we got from our wedding, amounting to over P100,000 were spent on the business. I thought to myself, “If I don’t succeed here, I don’t know where to hide from my in-laws.” Fearful thoughts crossed my mind, but not enough to stop me. The certainty that God had called us as a couple was greater.

And why offer barong? Having grown up in a tailorshop, I had a keen observation of the barong tagalog as being part of our culture. As such, I could not understand why such an important part of our culture and daily life should be relegated only to the Filipiniana section of department stores. I wanted to elevate the barong to be on a par with Western clothing. We were the first signature brand name in the Philippine market to offer such choice – suits and barongs – in one place, in different styles, consistently available throughout the year, and at affordable prices.

Remaining committed

Onésimus was born in the spirit, but it is also derived from a Greek word which means “useful” or “profitable”. Thus, you will see in our packaging this statement: “You’re now holding a very special piece of apparel, meticulously handcrafted by men and women who have spent many years of their lives perfecting men’s formal wear. For them, it’s worth it, so long as they keep up to their principle, ‘useful elegance.’”

I believe human resource is more important than capital. Capital will come and go but it’s the people who keep the business. Managing people is also like rearing up children the proper way. We don’t do anyone any favor by condoning a wrongdoing. Yet, balance it by always maintaining trust, honesty, and respect. Keep an open-door communication, even when your number of employees multiplies.

We’re more aggressive now in marketing and packaging, both of which prove to be costly. Our brand has been gaining momentum in terms of market acceptance and customer loyalty. We’ve been growing at over 30% in the previous years. There was a back-to-back year where we grew by 50% – all these through God’s grace.

Now, whenever we get to save some amount from our business, we prefer to invest in real estate. But mostly, we plow them back to the business, as we constantly shell out millions for store renovations alone in order to maintain a crisp, fresh look; security deposits and necessary bonds; and of course, ever-improving product lines.

With all these responsibilities, I can’t see myself retiring young and living it up. My conscience cannot seem to allow me to turn my back on people who depend on our business for their livelihood. It’s good to continue working for a cause, and this I believe is why I became a Christian entrepreneur.

This article is from is MoneySense, the country’s first and only personal finance magazine. You can read more financial tips and stories at www.moneysense.com.ph.