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Beginner's (Bad) Luck

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[Photo of Mango Tree]Maverick businessman Tony Tiu says luck did it for him. But the story of how he built his agribusiness empire shows that good old-fashioned perseverance, not luck, was his passport to fortune.

“You’re a liar!” How 32-year-old Tony Tiu got himself in a tight spot and called a trickster while on a trade exhibit in China kept guests at a recent Anvil Business Club forum glued to their seats.

Not many in the room knew who Tiu was until he stood up to speak in front. Minutes before he was called, the unassuming president and CEO of AgriNurture Inc. (ANI) quietly mingled with club members who arrived early at the venue.

He told guests he wanted to go into farming even as a young boy and how both school and home tried to douse that passion. “In school, we sang ‘magtanim ay ‘di biro, maghapong nakayuko.’” (Planting is no joke; you’re bent over all afternoon.) He noticed that aversion to manual labor is deeply entrenched in our culture. Farming is even equated to poverty.

It was no surprise that his parents refused when he told them he wanted to go to the University of the Philippines-Los Baños to take up agriculture. “You can’t raise a family if you’re a farmer,” they told him. Not one to go against their wishes, he took a management course at De La Salle University instead to prepare for his future as a businessman.

But his family noticed something“They said I didn’t look like a businessman, I don’t think like a businessman, and I might not be,qualified to be a businessman.”

So after working for a Philippine-based Taiwanese firm for about a year, he was sent by his folks to Australia to get a master’s degree. They wanted him to become an immigrant there with a promising corporate career. But his love for farming brought him back to the Philippines.

“In every crisis, there is an opportunity,” he said. “A lot of people wonder how I achieved all these at my age. Sometimes, this is not just about being smart; there has to be some luck.”

But luck was nowhere to be found when Tiu took part in an exhibit in China in 2001. “I thought that since I can speak fluent Mandarin and I look a lot like them, cracking the market open would be easy. I was wrong.” When he introduced coco juice to prospective buyers, they called him a liar. “They said coco juice should look like milk [and that] what I’m selling was actually water with sugar.”

He soon found himself peddling the juice to different supermarkets and restaurants. Although he made zero profits, he still pressed on. And just when sales began to trickle, SARS broke out. “Nobody goes out for lunch or dinner.” The coconut juice venture was a total failure.

Then he discovered that the Chinese love mangoes. Since these are abundant in his hometown Zambales, he thought of bringing and selling the fruit to the mainland. But he practically learned nothing from the first container he sent out. When it arrived in Hong Kong, about a quarter of the mangoes were stolen in the boat. When the container arrived at the border of China, another quarter was stolen. By the time the fruits reached the Chinese markets, most had become overripe. What remained were given away for free since they don’t look good anymore.

It was a frustrating time for Tiu. “I gave up a permanent residence status and a high-paying job in Australia for this?” Then there were complaints from his family. “They said, ‘We educated you! We gave you everything and you end up being a farmer! We told you ‘you’re not a businessman,’” he recalls.

“I said to myself, ‘SARS did all these.’ Besides, if the epidemic continues, it would be the end of the world anyway so it wouldn’t matter whether I lose everything or not.” But things turned around for him.

Big mango exporters incurred huge losses because of the SARS outbreak and couldn’t sustain their operations anymore. Just as they began to shut down one by one, Tiu was aggressively consolidating most of the buying stations and the key personnel of the other suppliers. “When SARS was over, I ended up being the top exporter.”

Today, Tiu is at the helm of the fast growing ANI. The company has subsidiaries that are mostly into farming, processing, and trading of fresh agricultural products. Their produce are on the shelves of leading supermarkets and even end up on the fillings of pies sold by a major Philippine fast-food chain.

ANI does lots of research and development and puts plenty of effort into value adding. He said a kilo of mangoes could be sold for 100 pesos (US$2.28 or 15.83 yuan). “But if you scoop the mango and have it frozen, you can actually sell it for US$5 (roughly 218 pesos or 34.76 yuan) per kilo.”

Tiu boldly steers ANI where others fear to tread. They have been exporting bananas, pineapples, and papayas for years. Now, the company is developing a new market for sampaloc [Philippine tamarind]. “I asked a lot of consultants and they all told me ‘No, that’s impossible.’ But I believe nothing is impossible so I exported seven containers.” Tamarind is often associated with Thailand, but according to him, a pound of sampaloc sells for US$2 (87.57 pesos or 13.91 yuan). His gamble paid off as American consumers “don’t want tamarind from Thailand; they only like the ones from the Philipines.”

Halfway into the presentation, Tiu revealed how he has stayed ahead in the business. “Our focus is to be always one step ahead [of the competition]. We want to do what others can not.”

print ed: 07/08


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