Building on her past experience as a journalist, Gokongwei-Pe, president and chief operating officer of Robinsons Retail Holdings, Inc, took on her family business with gusto and helped cement its position as the second-largest multi-format retailer in the Philippines. The energetic lady shares more with Tina Arceo-Dumlao.
While in college pursuing an Economics degree at the University of the Philippines, Robina Y Gokongwei-Pe used to get her adrenaline rush from writing sports stories and meeting publication deadlines. She enjoyed meeting and interviewing people for her campus newspaper, the Philippine Collegian.
Although the eldest child of taipan John Robinson Gokongwei knew that a life-long career in journalism was not in the cards, she went on to pursue a degree in journalism when she left the Philippines to continue her studies at New York University.
Her path was laid out for her by her father when she was just a pre-schooler — and that path eventually led to her heading Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc, the second-largest multi-format retailer in the Philippines and the retail arm of the sprawling Gokongwei group of companies. The group is among the largest conglomerates in the Philippines with holdings in banking, manufacturing and real estate development.
Gokongwei-Pe, whose first name was derived from her father’s second name, shared that as early as five years old, her father told her that she would have to eventually help out in the family business, of which retail would provide a firm foundation.
“My father told me when I was five that I would need to help in the family business, so I did not look anywhere else,” said 53-year-old Gokongwei-Pe, chief operating officer of Robinsons Retail.
Thus, when she got back to the Philippines after graduating from NYU, she immediately joined the retail group as wished for by her father.
“After I graduated from university in the 1980s, my father assigned me to our retail business, which was then just a single Robinsons Department Store in Manila.
“I started out as a receiving clerk in our warehouse,” shared Gokongwei-Pe.
“Our systems were so outmoded that when the deliveries came in, I had to count each piece one by one, whether they were 200 pieces of underwear or 200 sets of drinking glasses. If I didn’t count correctly, I had to pay for them. Luckily, I counted everything correctly,” she added.
Gokongwei-Pe’s responsibilities increased as the operations grew until she was eventually put in charge of the retail group that was spun off into a separate unit and listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange.
But as she went up the ranks, she also took a detour back into journalism after her father bought into the Manila Times, one of the Philippines’ oldest newspapers.
Given her passion for journalism, she was put in charge of the paper but it was in retail where she found herself again after the family sold the shares in the newspaper following a high-profile run-in with a former President of the Philippines.
Since then she devoted her energy mainly on the retail business and it has served the company well.
The Robinsons Retail Group has some 35 years of retail experience in the growing industry, giving it a keen understanding of Philippine consumers and this has allowed it to command market-leading positions across all of its business segments.
Robinsons Retail today operates:
• Supermarkets — Robinsons Supermarket, Robinsons Easymart and Robinsons Selections;
• Department stores — Robinsons Department Store:
• Do-it-Yourself stores — Handyman Do it Best, True Value, Howards Storage World, A.M. Builders’ Depot;
• Convenience stores — Ministop;
• Drugstores — Southstar Drug, Manson Drug; and
• Specialty stores — Toys ‘R’ Us, Robinsons Appliances, Daiso Japan, Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Shiseido, Benefit.
A subsidiary — Robinsons Gourmet Food & Beverage Inc — has recently expanded to become a supplier of Costa Coffee beans and operations of Costa Coffee shops in the Philippines.
Being the daughter of the owner, it would have been easy for Gokongwei-Pe to throw her weight around and slack off as she was assured of a position in the company; but she was quick to say this was never the Gokongwei way.
On the contrary, she would have earned her parents’ ire if she did not put in an honest day’s work, just like everybody else in the Gokongwei group.
Her parents, she shared, have always stressed the importance of hard work and teamwork.
“There are no kings and queens here,” said Gokongwei-Pe, crediting the staff members for helping Robinsons Retail grow more than 30 years to where it is now.
She noted: “Retail is not as glamorous as people think it is. Like a duck swimming in a pond, it looks serene from the surface, but it has to paddle furiously underneath to stay ahead.”
So it is in retail where much of the work is done behind the beautiful storefronts and displays.
“The reality is that a lot of complex work is done at the backend before you get that beautiful product on the floor. That it is a glamorous industry is, I think, the most common misconception about the retail industry,” said Gokongwei-Pe.
“Convincing customers that it is a beautiful product when they think it is not is another challenge.”
She shared that it can be quite hard to accept that the product you thought people would like turned out to be a dud — and it happened from time to time. “But then the feeling is offset by that fulfilment that one gets from seeing lines at the cash registers or seeing somebody with a product bought from the Robinsons chain,” she added.
There have been inevitable missteps, wrong moves, missed opportunities and bitter lessons learnt along the long and winding road to Robinsons Retail’s current standing, but Gokongwei-Pe said that she has always been guided by her father’s words: “One must simply learn from mistakes — and when they happen, just pick yourself up, dust yourself and try again.”
Gokongwei-Pe, commenting on her father’s maxim, said: “It is better than not having attempted to do anything at all.”
From her mother, she learnt to not “be pompous”, as there is nothing like it to turn off employees, colleagues, customers, partners and shareholders.
This is why Gokongwei-Pe and the rest of her siblings are not the type to live in an ivory tower or the corner office isolated from the rest of humanity. On the contrary, they are right in the thick of things and not afraid to get their hands dirtied, sometimes literally.
This trait has allowed Gokongwei-Pe to feel the pulse of the market, which has then helped Robinsons Retail continue posting stellar profit numbers to the delight of local and foreign investors.
In the nine months to September 2014, Robinsons Retail posted a 33.3% increase in net income to Php2.3 billion from Php1.8 billion in the same period the previous year, driven by increased income from operations and higher interest income.
Consolidated net sales during the period swelled by 19.1% from Php47.2 billion to Php56.2 billion; this was attributed to the sales contribution of the 276 new stores, including newly acquired businesses, as well as higher than expected same-store sales.
As at last September, Robinsons Retail has 1,258 stores across all formats, up from 982 stores the previous year; and it expanded its total gross floor area year-on-year by 19.9%.
Gokongwei-Pe believes that growth will remain on an uptrend despite this year being the start of the integration of the 10 member-economies of the Association of South-east Asian Nations into a single market.
Expansion of its current networks and the creation of new retail formats to meet the demand from a young and growing population with greater purchasing power than in years past are on the cards.
“I believe that our group thrives on competition and so we are ready. Ultimately, competition is good for the Filipino consumer,” said Gokongwei-Pe.
“The reality is that a lot of complex work is done at the backend before you get that beautiful product on the fl oor. That it is a glamorous industry is, I think, the most common misconception about the retail industry.”
Gokongwei- Pe has always been guided by her father’s words: “One must simply learn from mistakes — and when they happen, just pick yourself up, dust yourself and try again.”