Welcome Supermart’s Steven Cua
In 2010, when Welcome Supermart’s Steven “Steve” T. Cua, 53, the sixth of seven children, and his siblings decided to divide the retail family business, they did valuations of all assets. Then they divided everything in the most logical way: by drawing lots; literally, slips of paper.
Did anyone feel short-changed?
“We had been discussing this since 2000,” says Steve. “We set clear mutually acceptable conditions. The one who gets the supermarket takes in our 91-year-old mom and sister. Another gets the wholesale business. Others receive equity in cash and perennial rentals from properties. Some got part of the business while others, the capital to start a new one. Everyone got something, so we felt it was a fair deal.”
Headline-making family feuds deterred the siblings from fighting over the inherited business.
“We know friends whose family ties were destroyed because of avarice. We did not want to end up like them. So we made things easy. My mother Tan To, now 94, is proud that we did this while she is still alive.”
Welcome Supermart, built by the patriarch Benito Cua Sun Sing in 1948 near the Mabuhay Rotunda (the former Welcome Rotonda) in Quezon City, was originally called Rotonda Grocery and Cold Store. After the war, people did not have refrigerators at home so they bought cold drinks from stores.
“I kept the company’s first receipt for rentals. The place was identified as Caloocan, Rizal then,” Steve says, “they hadn’t quite pinpointed whether it was already part of Quezon City!”
“Dad couldn’t read or write, neither can Mom. But Dad wanted to lease the property, so he waited patiently outside the office of lawyer Jose Valero, who owned it. Dad was courteous but persevering. Mr. Valero eventually leased the place to him.”
“Dad wasn’t literate, so we wondered where he got his lovely signature. Only when I saw Mr. Valero’s penmanship on his 1948 fountain pen-written receipts did I realize that Dad had carefully modelled his signature after Mr. Valero’s!”
Steve has been president of the Philippine Amalgamated Supermarkets Association (PAGASA) since 1999. He takes responsibility seriously, venturing into matters many businesses would not touch, such as the use of plastic bags in supermarkets.
At a United Nations Environmental Program workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Steve agreed that retailers are active conduits between manufacturers who deal with product packaging and consumers. With the right tactics, retailers can change public mind-set regarding plastic bags and convince manufacturers to come up with environment-friendly packaging.
While many businesspeople would think this is “none of their business,” Steve thought otherwise when he witnessed plastic manufacturers and green advocates battle each other, even in Congress. So Steve came up with a plan to get the whole citizenry engaged in sustainable development.
“I thought it wise to engage the public in becoming aware of the consequences of irresponsible plastic bag disposal. People reuse plastic bags as trash bags, and recyclers find it hard to recover used bags as they are shredded at dumpsites. The idea was to get the public to return used plastic bags to retailers so they can surrender these to recyclers. Fewer plastic bags would clog our waterways, and recyclers could grow their industry and [offset] jobs which might be dislocated because of fewer plastic bags.”
PAGASA’s Position Paper (as crafted by Steve) states that if consumers do not bring used plastic bags to surrender to retailers, they will be charged a minimum of one peso for a new bag.
“This is not payment for the bag, which used to be part of supermarket costs, but it is a penalty for not being a responsible citizen of this planet. Of course, the best solution is the discipline of bringing your own reusable bag. I tell our people in the supermarket to use six words to reply to complaining customers: Bawas supot (not bawal; we shouldn’t ban plastic bags as there is really still no better substitute). Iwas baha. Iwas Ondoy.”
Steve welcomes challenges. At the Ateneo de Manila University, Steve chose the philosophy classes of the formidable Fr. Roque Ferriols, who taught in Filipino. Steve not only speaks Filipino fluently (“I grew up playing with our employees’ children”), but also remembers the legendary priest’s lectures decades after.
“Raissa Maritain, the wife of the French philosopher Jacques, once said that it is better to live even a sad life than one that is meaningless. We need to find our passion for things and purpose for living. We create our own complicated lives—we have to dress this particular way, carry this cellphone, act like we are better—when in fact the key is to always keep things simple.”
“Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter, who still lives with her father in their old house, says that a little deprivation never hurts anyone. It builds character. After the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese coped well because they have no sense of entitlement. Rich or poor, they knew that everyone needed help. No one would elbow his way to the front of the line for goods.”
Steve’s children celebrate their birthdays with orphans, and the family has visited “places most people don’t go to,” such as the Caraga region. Perspective in life is crucial to finding meaning.
As fate would have it, at the drawing of lots, Steve got Welcome Supermart. In 2013, he opened another branch in Pasay City. “Many of my batchmates are retired at age 50, and here I am, just starting out again,” Steve says.
“Most Pinoys are scared to be entrepreneurs. Of course there is always risk. We have to be creative and innovative to overcome challenges. How can we encourage the young to take risks? Students should be encouraged to be active in extracurricular activities, where they learn to work with others and lead. We may fail during projects, but results are not disastrous; they become learning points.”
Steve was active in seven organizations in college, including two varsity teams. Now he is barangay (village) kagawad. His two oldest children are now working in other companies, “but if we need them in the family business, they agree to come work with us.”
When his father died, Steve put aside his personal plans and stopped working for the National Housing Authority (upgrading slum communities, doing relocation sites-and-services) to work in the family business.
“I spot opportunities, diamonds in the rough,” Steve says, “we have lots of plans for our family business.”
Next Friday: Meet a team of family business consultants.
Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the board of directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (e-mail [email protected]). E-mail the author at [email protected]
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