Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An afternoon with an icon

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned my excitement to be granted a sit-down interview with one of Davao City's icons. She was responsible for bringing home the "Waling-waling" and making it synonymous to Davao. Last February, she was named one of GoNegosyo's 13 Filipina Entrepreneurs of 2013. Know more of this inspiring lady who seems to have a Mida’s touch, founder of the Puentespina Orchids and Tropical Plants, Inc. and the Waling-waling lady herself – Charita P. Puentespina.

Chari Puentespina holds GoNegosyo's 50 Inspiring Stories of Agri Entrepreneurs book where she was featured
At the mention of her name, one would instantly think of the stunning purplish blooms of the famous Waling-waling (now named as the country’s second national flower) that she helped save from extinction in the 1980s. Her passion to “bring home” Vanda Sanderiana back to the Davao after seeing it in one of her trips in Bangkok made her a household name to orchid lovers here and abroad. 

Unknown to many, Mrs. Puentespina or Chari to her family and close associates, did not have academic training in agriculture. She worked as a telephone operator for the Philippine Long Distance and Telephone Company in the late 50s while taking up secretarial course in Ateneo de Davao. She furthered her education with a degree in Commerce also from Ateneo after giving birth to her fourth child in the late 60s. She then became very hands-on with the family’s flourishing drilling and irrigation business Hydrock Wells in the 60s and 70s that she would often times drive their jeep and deliver huge metal pipes and tubes to the site (talk about girl power). Their biggest clients then were the banana plantations around Davao region. While her husband, Roberto Sr. was busy with the marketing and technical side of the business, Chari was handling the books and finances while raising their five children.

Despite her busy schedule as president of her company, chairperson of the Cacao Industry Development Association of Mindanao (CIDAMi) board and council president of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines Davao City, Mrs. Puentespina took time to sit for this interview and share the lessons she learned as a business leader.

Q: You didn’t take up an agriculture-related course and you were juggling a lot of responsibilities then, how did you get into orchids?
A: I have always loved plants, I was fortunate to enjoy nature when I was growing up. In 1974, I was diagnosed with a heart condition. As much as I was enjoying what I was doing with the business, I had no choice but to become a housewife because of my health. One of our neighbors in Obrero had beautiful orchids in their home. They gave me some and that’s how it all started. I began growing and propagating Vandas and Denrobiums that I bought overseas then I sell it to the local market. In 1977, I began selling flowers to Manila. In one of my buying trips to Bangkok, I saw the Vanda Sanderiana (Waling-waling) on display. I was bent on bringing it back to Davao where it was originally discovered. So I took a short course in UP Los Banos on how to grow them in the laboratory and I succeeded with my experiments.

Q: You have become very successful in growing orchids and developing Malagos Garden Resort to become one of Davao City’s landmarks, how did you get into cacao?
A: I was able to buy a farm in Malagos that already has cacao trees planted. In 2007, Mars International through the international trader Armajaro came to Davao to look for cacao beans. I was asked to consolidate my harvest and that of other small farmers in the Malagos-Calinan area, ferment them and ship it to Armajaro. That was in 2008. I also went into a cooperation with Mars International to put up the Mars Cocoa Development Center (MCDC) in my farm where the technology in cacao is piloted and applied. It is a training center where farmers can learn the proper way of producing cacao – from planting quality seedlings, to maintenance (pruning, fertilizing) down to harvest and fermentation.
With her latest passion - cacao
Q: So Davao really has very good potential in cacao production?
A: Yes! We have a long history in cacao production. We have been educating the public that local and international demand is steadily increasing but on the other hand, production is declining. The chocolate industry is alarmed that unless actions are done now to ensure sustainable production, the shortage may reach to at least a million tons by the year 2020. That is why we formed CIDAMi to meet this challenge by encouraging more people to venture into cacao farming and looking at programs that can benefit Mindanao cacao stakeholders.
From orchids and cut flowers, she now makes her own pure dark chocolate liqueur - Malagos Cacao
Q: You were recently awarded one of the inspiring Filipina Entrepreneurs for 2013. Why do you think you are successful in your field?
A: If there is an opportunity and I see that it will not only be favourable to me but will also help other people, I am willing to take the challenge. I define success not only as an accomplishment for yourself but more importantly, for a greater number of individuals. If I am able to help others improve their lives then I become successful. I am not afraid to do the dirty job because I enjoy being a part of creating something that holds a lot of promise for the future.

Q: To whom do you attribute your success?
A: My family has always been my support system. When I was just starting as an orchid grower, they gave me the moral support to pursue my passion. Cooperation within the family is very important; they will be the first people with whom you share your victories and defeats with, that is why I always put them first. You may be very successful in your career but when your domestic life is in shambles you cannot enjoy the fruits of your hard work. Also, my parents taught me the value of hard work. There is no quick way to reaching the top. And of course, the Lord who is my source of strength and wisdom in all my endeavors.

Q: All your five children are involved in the Puentespina Group, was this a conscious effort on your part that they take over?
A: No, my husband and I never forced our children but it was expected that at least one of them will be hands-on. When they were in college, we allowed them to take up the courses they want. My children were exposed to the business and helped in their own way. Rex, my fourth child when he was studying in Manila, for example used to pick-up the cut flowers at the airport which were flown in from Davao and deliver these to our clients in Manila. (Rex now heads all their Manila operations – LDC). Those small things became their training and foundation. I am just blessed to have kids who have the desire to continue what me and their Tatay started.
Mother and child tandem: Chari and fourth child Rex go over the packaging lay-outs for their Malagos Cacao
Q: You always referred to yourself as a farmer. Being in the agriculture sector, what have been some of your learning?
A: As I said during my interview for the GoNegosyo book, there is always money in agriculture for as long as you are willing to give your time and attention to it. We are fortunate that Mindanao has a vast area ideal for agriculture. We have good water, fertile land and not so much affected by extreme heat or rain. As Mindanaoans, we must learn to use this to our advantage. Farming or agriculture is a very rewarding industry. What farmers need, is financing assistance especially the small ones. Unfortunately, it takes a long and difficult process to get the financial help that a farmer needs or is very limited. I hope that the government can continue to improve its services and programs so that we can encourage competitiveness of our produce and see ideas translate into reality.

Q: The government is encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs, any business lessons you want to impart?
A: I notice that a lot of young entrepreneurs want to make it big right away. Do not be afraid to start small because there is always room to grow and expand eventually. Getting into business is not easy, especially when you are starting - be ready for the challenge to do almost everything yourself. There may be times when you will be tempted to give up but if you work hard and give your best, you are up to a good start. Never procrastinate, strike while the iron is hot as they say.

Continue to learn and develop a thirst for new knowledge. In fact, I took up a short course in strategic marketing just last year at AIM. I was the oldest in the class; most of my classmates were young professionals. But that experience taught me new things which helped me as a business person. I’m actually contemplating on taking another short course this year! And I am in the process of learning to master using my iPad! (laughs)

Q: In closing, what do you want to be the legacy of Charita Puentespina
A. (pauses) I want to look back and see people succeed because of the knowledge I shared with them. If I can, I want to be an inspiration to others to get up, do their work and do it well. I want my name to be associated with business integrity. Nowadays, competition is stiff. In my years as an agri-entrepreneur, I learned that once you are true to your words you will gain respect and friends which will always be among your biggest assets.

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