From janitor to entrepreneur - Steve Tamayo's sojourn

Posted at 03/11/08 2:48 PM


These days, Lady Luck is probably smiling from ear to ear on businessman Sebastian "Steve" Tamayo.

Managing several outlets of his famous chain of restaurants--Tamayo’s and other businesses, including a consultancy firm, a flower shop and catering services, Steve considers himself as one of the luckiest people in the world.

But life was not all a bed of roses for this self-styled restaurant owner. He, like, many of us, had been knocked down and hit rock bottom a couple of times.

Humble beginnings

Steve was brought up by the Tamayo couple of Hagonoy, Bulacan to be a hard working lad. Coming from a middle-class family, at an early age, he was taught by his parents, particularly his mother, to help in household chores.

"I was only in grade six when I helped in the chores in the house. I mostly helped my mother in the preparation and cooking native delicacies for our small carinderia (eatery) in Bulacan then," he recalled.

Being the 11th child of a brood of 12, Steve said his father was paralyzed then so he had to help with the chores, along with his other siblings.

Along with some of his older brothers, Steve would fish at a nearby lake at night. Proceeds from the sale of any fish caught made up his allowance the next day. He promised himself that the hardships he had experienced that day would all change someday with hard work, and determination.

When he reached adolescence, Steve decided to stay with his relatives while attending Marcelo H. del Pilar High School in Malolos, Bulacan. Some of his brothers and sisters had families of their own at that time.

In exchange for the free board and lodging, he helped in the cooking and other household chores.

"I was attending school and surviving with only P5 a week," he said, noting the money came from what he earned from fishing.

To make matters worse, the Tamayo patriarch died while Steve was in second year high school. But that tragic event did not diminish the perseverance of the Bulakenyo.

After finishing high school, he immediately went to Manila to pursue a college degree, taking up Commerce, major in accounting, at the University of the East in Recto, Manila at the same time took up typing course.

While studying, he got a job as a janitor at then Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank in PAL building on Ayala Avenue, Makati.

"I was assigned at the midnight shift there. We were assigned to clean eight floors," he said, being assigned to different chores every week. He was even tasked to scrub the dirty toilet bowls, a job he was not embarrassed to admit.

"I would really make sure that the toilet bowls were cleaned," he said.

Steve also managed to land a job as a part time waiter at former Silahis Hotel-Playboy Club Manila through the help of co-bed spacer in P. Campa, Manila.

At 16, Steve was taking up Commerce and typing and maintaining two odd jobs at the same time.

His routine, which only afforded him four hours of decent sleep a day, lasted for several months until he was made a regular bus boy at the hotel and he resigned as janitor from the bank.

The Break

Steve was a natural public relations man. The ability to entertain guests was a talent innate to him.

One day, an Arab guest who became his friend, offered Steve work at his hotel in Saudi Arabia. So as soon as he graduated from college in 1981, he grabbed the opportunity and flew to the Middle Eastern country.

"In that hotel, I worked not only as a waiter but sidelined as a butler and house cleaner and a cook," Steve recounted, as his network of friends, both business and personal, steadily grew.

Only after two years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he had earned enough to build his own house. There, he also met his wife, Mila, who had been very active in the Church.

After four years in Saudi Arabia, Steve decided to move on to Kuwait where his abilities and business acumen would be fully realized.

And as he predicted, the Tamayo business empire even grew in Kuwait, where he ventured into selling T-shirts and other items to his kababayans who would be sending gifts to their relatives in the Philippines.

But his clientele was not only Filipinos but also other foreigners, who craved his famous "ube."

Tamayo also joined the choir of a Catholic Church in Kuwait and continued his religious service.

"I was high in business and at the same time I was high in God," he said, while working as manager in Mary Jane Hotel in Kuwait and became active in Church with Mila.

Steve also befriended and served as a household help for a Swiss couple staying at the penthouse of the hotel.

After three months of cleaning the penthouse, he was invited again by the Swiss couple to a party. He was now being introduced by the couple not as a helper but a family member to the guests in the party, where he rubbed elbows with sheiks.

Steve Tamayo, the Entrepreneur

When he earned enough, he resigned from work at the hotel and established his own business, SM (which stand for Steve, Mila) Fashion Wear at one of the prestigious hotel/commercial buildings at a financial district in Kuwait.

"I was very successful at that time and I felt very blessed… I considered myself as the biggest Filipino businessman in Kuwait that time," he said.

After two years, he went back to the Philippines and married Mila. He returned to Kuwait to continue his business.

In July 25, 1990, the ribbon cutting ceremony of his shop was covered by the local media in Kuwait with a Philippine ambassador doing the honors. The next day the event landed on the front pages of two big newspapers—Arab Times and Kuwait Times—with screaming headlines "Steve Tamayo, Filipino Entrepreneur."

The first 15 days of its operation, Tamayo’s business venture earned almost P1 million.

Leap of faith

In July 31, 1990, although tired, Steve called up his wife in the Philippines to share the good news—that the shop in Kuwait was doing very well.

"She was crying that time because the news in the Philippines was that there was already war in the Middle East and Kuwait," he said.

Steve called one of his brothers, who was with Mila that time, to calm her down. After the call, he and his other brothers prepared the orders for ube to be delivered the following day to their clients.

His brothers turned in around midnight, while Steve stayed up until 2 a.m. All of them stayed at the penthouse at 17th floor of the residential/commercial building.

Around 4 a.m. he was roused by noises outside the establishment. He got up and saw from the sea, countless speedboats speeding towards the shore. Not contented, Steve decided to investigate the noise and look down from his suite.

He saw on the streets just below his penthouse were several battle tanks with red flags. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait.

Fearing for their lives, Steve hurriedly woke up his brothers to leave the building.

"I knew then that it was not safe for us to stay in that building because it would be the first ones to be ransacked by the soldiers," Steve said.

He tried calling his wife on the phone inside the building but the lines were cut off by the invaders.

Steve managed to get his relatives to the Mary Jane hotel where he used to work. But he was left alone in the streets where gunfights were starting between the Kuwaiti troops and Saddam’s Red Guards.

"That time, I made a pact and prayed to God that if He will spare my life and bring me back to the Philippines alive, I will leave all my investments in Kuwait," he said, with the lingering feeling that he might get killed during the invasion.

Just as the tanks and the firefights were getting closer, Steve felt some force that made him leap into a large open trash bin.

"I was like Lito Lapid and hurriedly jumped into the bin to elude the crossfire. My ears hurt because of the volley of gunfire around me while I’m in the garbage bin," he said.

A few hours passed and when he emerged from the bin, Kuwait already surrendered to Iraq.

Under the Iraqi government, Steve and his relatives stayed for 15 days in Kuwait until Saddam, known as Butcher of Baghdad, agreed to repatriate all the foreigners on the condition that they would pass through Baghdad then to Jordan.


"I had nothing when I got home to the Philippines," he said, leaving behind his million peso investment in Kuwait.

The Tamayos were among those who left Kuwait on the first flight out of the then Iraqi-controlled country.

Steve, not losing his knack for going into business, started anew with small capital, selling fruits and other stuff in front of his wife’s beauty parlor. He also supplied the pack lunches of a private school in Manila at the same time.

Little by little, Steve got back on his feet and used his network to his advantage.

"I still had offers to be a hotel manager here and abroad. So I grabbed it and flew back to Kuwait and became a manager at the Hilton Kuwait," he said but he opted not to start a business there.

Steve eventually resigned from the hotel and just stayed in the Philippines to be part of the opening team of the Heritage Hotel in Manila. And the rest, as they say, is history.

He got his investments back through his hard work and determination, opened a restaurant which he named Tamayo's, and which now has 13 outlets.

Steve will be officially opening his newest restaurant- Ozeano Fusion Restaurant in the newly-opened Manila Ocean Park on March 31.

"I consider this (new restaurant) as my contribution to the Filipinos. This is a very good blessing from the Lord," he said.

Steve never forgets to remind his employees, whom he treats as family, to give importance to their jobs as he does to his work.

"From person who had lost it all, I have learned to love the opportunities and the blessings He has given me and this lesson I want to impart to my employees," he said.

Steve said he also owes his being a former overseas Filipino worker (OFW) to the success has right now.

"My personality has improved further and I became strong with the experiences I had during my stay abroad," he said, encouraging the thousands of OFWs to start a small business of their own.

"I consider myself one of the luckiest, blessed in the world. Considering my humble beginnings but I’m now one of the biggest companies in the Philippines," Steve said.