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ALL IN THE FAMILY

The virtues that made Sterling Group a success story

/ 05:12 AM December 02, 2021

(Last of a series)

My dad is not afraid to fail,” says Michelle Lim Gankee of Sterling Paper Group. “The greatest risk of an entrepreneur is not to take risks at all.”

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When he was in high school, Henry Lim Bon Liong started learning the stationery business firsthand from his father.

“He taught me the value of money,” Henry tells Enterprise Asia. “[And] he taught me that there are risks worth taking.”

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One such risk was education. After Henry graduated from Saint Jude Catholic School, his father asked him to study management so he could run the company one day.

“But I needed a greater challenge. I took engineering, one of the most difficult courses at the University of the Philippines. But [after earning] my degree, I realized that engineering did not teach balance sheets.”

So Henry took business courses at Ateneo de Manila and Harvard University in the United States. Today, he reads books about entrepreneurs, such as Akio Morita of Sony, Sam Walton of Walmart, Jack Ma of Alibaba.

“I learned about their trials and tribulations [in] their businesses. Most important, I learned about who they were as people [having] both weaknesses and strengths. Those lessons [are] invaluable.”

“No one is too old or too successful to learn something new,” Henry says. For instance, he had wondered what enabled China to become self-sufficient in rice production despite its large population. He researched extensively, and asked the help of the late Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping, the brains behind hybrid rice.

In 2000, Henry established SL Agritech, which came up with the country’s first hybrid rice variety, SL-8H.

“Using hybrid rice seeds, and with the help of our 200 technicians, we have seen farmers double or triple their yield,” says Michelle. “Some have become millionaires. They send their children to college, they buy homes and cars. Seeing their lives uplifted puts smiles on our faces.

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“Hybrid rice means national food security. We don’t need to import. We can even become a rice exporter like we were before.”

Amid all this, Sterling remains synonymous with notebooks and stationery. A past president of the Philippine Stationers Association, Michelle ensures that products are affordable, of good quality and safe. Today, she is an ambassador for Cyberguardians.ph, urging businesses to battle cybercrime, help eradicate poverty, promote education, inculcate positive values in the youth.

The Lim family abides by the four virtues of loyalty, obedience, patience and generosity (zhong xiao ren liang), handed down by Henry’s mother Maria, who emphasized these in her last will.

“It was my grandmother’s wish that we practice these virtues and pass them on to future generations,” says Michelle. “Big Chinese calligraphy characters are visibly framed in the ancestral house and office.”

In her lifetime, the matriarch certainly walked the talk.

“Long ago, my mother gave financial assistance to an employee for her daughter’s life-or-death operation,” recalls Henry. “This employee was very thankful for our help, which saved her daughter’s life. But years later, some workers joined the ‘welga ng bayan’ and I was surprised to see this same employee, carrying a placard outside our gate.

“My mother was sad, but she told me, ‘Don’t let one person’s actions stop you from helping others. We treat all employees as family and we should help one another. If employees are motivated, they will perform to the best of their ability.’

“Many employees sympathized with my mother,” Henry continues. “We never had any strikes since then. This experience, plus my mother’s wisdom, instilled valuable lessons [that I impart to my children and grandchildren today.]”

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada, or the e-book via Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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