Sunday, October 18, 2009
From super salesgirl to Entrepreneur of the Year
By Karen B. Bitagun
Ask any Filipino to name a bookstore and, more often than not, National Book Store will be the first name that will come up. It is the first place many head to when they need to buy a book. When Socorro Ramos started the business in 1942 with her husband, Jose, she did not have the slightest idea that their small retail store—named after a cash register—would become the country’s largest and most successful bookstore chain, serving generation after generation of Filipinos. Sixty-three years later, National Book Store’s 73 branches, from Vigan to Davao, is a testament to Ramos’s entrepreneurial spirit.
In honor of her achievements, Ramos was named Entrepreneur of the Year Philippines for 2004. Ramos, who also bagged the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award, bested six other finalists in the annual search spearheaded by the SGV Foundation in partnership with the Asian Institute of Management, Department of Trade and Industry, Bankers’ Association of the Philippines, and Philippine Business for Social Progress. Launched in 2003, the Entrepreneur of the Year Philippines program is part of the wider search for the World Entrepreneur of the Year established in 1986 by global professional services firm Ernst & Young to honor the achievements of outstanding entrepreneurs. As the Philippine awardee for 2004, Ramos represented the country last May at the World Entrepreneur of the Year awarding in Monte Carlo, Monaco. She joined the most successful entrepreneurs from 32 other countries at the prestigious event.
“You know,” she relates in Filipino in an interview with Philippine Business, “I never expected to win because I am already old. I’m already 82! Besides, my co-finalists were all equally deserving. They all finished college and had master’s degrees and even Ph.D.’s. More importantly, they were all very successful in what they do and they were all very good English-speakers. As for me, I unfortunately finished high school only. I did not hear the first time they called my name. I did not realize I won until the people from SGV in my table were screaming, ‘Mrs. Ramos! They’re calling you!’ That’s the only time I realized I won! Wow. It was really exciting especially because it was really a surprise.”
Ramos emphasizes that the business was not an overnight success but the product of hard work, frugality, sacrifice, and passion. Hard work meant being not only the owner but also the cashier, purchaser, saleslady, janitor, and helper, all at the same time. “I could never just sit behind the counter and watch the store. In the beginning, we could not afford the extra help, so I mopped the floor, carried books from the warehouse to the store, and made sure that displays were always clean and organized. I am still the same way today, except maybe I don’t carry books anymore,” says Ramos. “I am very frugal and I try not to spend needlessly because I know how hard it is to earn money.”
Fondly referred to by her staff and employees as “Nanay Coring,” Ramos has maintained a low profile as the company’s general manager. In fact, she prefers to be called a “salesgirl” instead of “general manager” or other weighty titles. “I am fond of selling,” reveals Ramos with a smile. Not having had any formal business education, her skill in selling is something she harnessed and perfected through experience. This passion brings out the best in her, from convincing customers to buy their goods to passing on that same passion to her more than 3,000 employees. Up to now, Ramos goes on surprise visits to the different National Book Store branches to get a first-hand feel of the needs of customers and be an on-the-job saleslady just like the old days.
Books and More
Over the years, other bookstores and school supplies stores have broken into the market, but none have come close to dislodging National Book Store from its dominant position. The company secured this position by branding itself as a store with marked-down prices. “I think that’s our edge. For example, by reprinting hardbound reference books into newsprint, they become 70% cheaper than the original price,” explains Ramos. Because it is the market leader, National Book Store enjoys the advantage of being able to clinch deals with foreign publishers to reprint these publishers’ books in the Philippines via National Book Store’s publishing arm.
Realizing that demand for books is highly seasonal, the company had to figure out a way to make monthly sales steadier. This paved the way for the transformation of National Book Store into a one-stop shop that retails school and office supplies, greeting cards, postcards, toys, and other gift and novelty items. To beef up revenues, the stores also started providing bookbinding, gift wrapping, lamination, color stamp printing, and photocopying services.
Managing National Book Store is a family occupation. Ramos’s twin sons, Alfred and Benjamin, and her only daughter, Cecilia Ramos-Licauco, started helping out in the business at a very young age. Eventually, they managed a number of National Book Store branches. Alfred is currently president of National Book Store Inc., Benjamin handles the printing side of the business, while Cecilia takes charge of purchasing. Cecilia coined the company’s successful brands—the Best Buy label of school and office supplies and the Laking National loyalty card. Today, Cecilia’s children, Cito and Trina Alindogan, are on top of the company’s information technology and human resources requirements, respectively.
“I did not force my children to join me and my husband in the business. It was their personal choice. I actually wanted them to find their own careers, but they chose to join maybe because of the influence of their environment,” recounts Ramos. Today, her children and grandchildren are not only holding the fort but also striking out into new business territory. Alfred’s son Anton manages Tower Records and Music One, while his daughter Xandra handles Crossing’s Department Store. Benjamin is busy with his Atlas Publishing. His wife, Virgie, owns Gift Gate, and with their son Ivan, they manage the Tokyo Tokyo food chain. Meanwhile, Cecilia’s son Gabby manages the operations of Powerbooks.
The management team of National Book Store aims to have 100 branches in 10 years. There is also a plan to expand abroad. “But of course, the name would not be transformed into ‘International’ Book Store,” quips Ramos. “We will still retain the National Book Store trademark.” When this comes to pass, the company will certainly become a source of pride for every Filipino.
When asked about what she wants to be remembered by, Socorro Ramos humbly answers, “More important than remembering me, I want people to remember National Book Store. I want Filipinos to remember that National Book Store has always been there and will always be there to provide them books and supplies at low prices. I understand their plight and know how difficult it can be because once upon a time, I was in their shoes.”