Turning crisis into opportunity
Rosemarie Rafael is chair and CEO of Airspeed Group of Companies, a provider of end-to-end logistics service to business-to-business clients. She is also president of the Women Business Council of the Philippines. In this interview, she shares about resiliency and how she has turned crises into opportunities.
Q: You started your career in sales. Can you share with us some tough experiences you will never forget and how it has benefited you through the years?
I did not want to be in sales when I started but realized that to be able to get to where I wanted to be, I needed to go through a sales career. It was tough in the beginning as I had to do a lot of adjustments and mindset changes. But I was able to do it by thinking that I was not there to sell anything to anyone but to just continue to help clients with their problems and be a solution provider. Being on the ground and having a feel of what was needed helped me a lot to care genuinely. It became a habit and part of my DNA. Discipline is an important factor.
Q: Please share your interesting story about how you were serendipitously “led” to the logistics industry.
I was in the airline industry as a passenger sales agent right after college. I took it to heart and learned the ins and outs of the travel industry. One morning, I was on the phone with a client who was sending workers to the Middle East when my boss motioned me to go to our weekly sales meeting. I said that I would finish the transaction on the phone. It took me another 10 minutes to finish the call and I knocked on the [sales room] door. Another salesperson opened the door and my boss said, “you are not needed in the room.” That really broke me as I thought I was working hard and I had asked for permission to finish my call. I went back to my desk crying and the phone rang. The person on the other line asked me if I was interested to be interviewed by the largest air freight company in the Philippines at that time as a salesperson. Of course, I said yes as the caller caught me at my most vulnerable moment. I was accepted as sales executive and promoted to sales manager after a year.
I was in my comfort zone and I was pushed to get out of it due to circumstances that were not expected. But I believe that God brings you to a position where you are being prepared to do more.
Q: You opened your business in the same year that Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, when there was economic instability. What made you decide it was the right time?
There is really no good or bad time but more of God’s divine timing and appointment. I was in a good place but felt like my values were no longer aligned with what was happening where I was. I talked to my British boss then and said that I would like to leave and set up my small company. He asked, why would I like to be a small fish in a big pond? I responded that I would rather be a small fish in a big pond as it has so much room for me to grow in. That company was the number No.1 IATA (International Air Transport Association) agent in ranking for many years. But five years after I left, they became No.2 because the company I had set up, Airspeed became the No.1 IATA agent that year!
Q: How has your background in international studies worked for you in your business?
Having a degree in international studies was not enough for me to run and manage the business. But it gave me the discipline and basic work ethics that I have used all throughout my career.
I took up short courses to help me in areas that would strengthen my ability to manage a business, such as finance and management courses. I took up Management Development Program in AIM (Asian Institute of Management) where I was one of the top 10 percent in class. This was where I learned finance and accounting that helped me better understand my business. I read a lot and I like to learn things that I am not familiar with. Sometimes, we stay away from topics or issues that we are not comfortable with (like numbers) but I learned how to embrace them; it gives me a broader perspective. I don’t have to be an expert there but I focus on our core: logistics and distribution. There are areas that can affect our core and I also work on those to help me get the big picture.
Q: How is Airspeed differentiated from other peers?
Airspeed is known for the kind of people we have. We are a company of integrity and this is not to be compromised even in the hardest of times. We prioritize our people and stakeholders and we believe that if we have happy people, we will have happy and satisfied customers. We are committed to our promise of making it happen and [finding] ways to work out a situation for our clients.
I believe that working with our clients is not just based on transaction alone but on trust and it takes time to do this. We are one of the few service providers with end-to-end and complete supply chain solutions from international import and export forwarding to customs clearance, for both air and sea, to warehousing to cross dock to domestic nationwide distribution by air sea and land to e-fulfillment solutions, cross border clearance and last-mile delivery. We have established different business units to handle each one and recently came up with APDEC (Amazing Philippines Digital Economy Corp.), which has platforms such as Speedgifts for our overseas Filipinos who would like to give gifts to their loved ones and friends in the Philippines during important dates such as Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries.
The other platform is KH-PH.com, which showcases the products of the Philippines per region in coordination with different institutions (both private and government) that will help micro, small and medium enterprises access markets through our logistics platform, Pinaspeed.com. This is a project that I am taking on to help our economy and our country in whatever way we can. I believe that logistics is an important component, especially in our country when the challenge is delivering to 7,100 islands. Last-mile delivery can be considered as the most difficult and expensive part of the supply chain.
Q: You have been laser-focused on the business to business (B2B) marketing area, expanding from your core to its adjacencies. What made you enter the business-to-consumer (B2C) category as well?
I believe that to be able to future-proof our business, we need to be in the B2C or even C2C space as well. We saw the need and we acted on it. The approach is modified as we do not have retail stores. This has been proven during the start of pandemic when our core clients who are the retailers closed for many months or even more than a year. We had to be agile and make decisions fast enough to adjust. We were able to reach out to companies who are into essentials and shipped out more of pharmaceutical and other health-related products.
There were more individual customers who wanted to ship out items nationwide and internationally who did not know where to go as most retail outlets then were closed. We were able to reach out to them by being visible. One example was in my village where Viber groups were created and questions asked on shipping, to which I responded. My house became like a drop-off center in the village.
We came up with PUDO (pick up and drop off) kiosks. We came up with an arrangement with MHLhuillier and SM markets for this type of service since they have many locations nationwide that would make Airspeed more visible without having to set up retail stores. This is a need that we saw and we are fulfilling it through modified solutions.
Rafael will speak at the 6th Entrep Summit on Feb. 21, where leadership and entrepreneurship, transition from family to professional management, and preparing the next generation will be discussed. Register early at www.day8.org
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