Business LifeSocorro Ramos: Nanay, Super Tindera, and everyone’s minister of education
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT By Jessica Zafra
Philippine Star Monday, September 22, 2008
Everybody calls her Nanay. Educators, writers, leaders of industry, the employees, suppliers, and clients of National Book Store, the readers of this paper, in which her column appears every week, and several generations of schoolchildren — the “laking-National” (raised on National). In seven decades of business, Socorro Cancio Ramos, founder and general manager of National Book Store, has won many awards and titles, but “Nanay” (Mother) is the one she likes best. In our matriarchal Filipino society it’s a term of endearment; in the highly competitive business environment it’s an honorific, or even an expression of surrender (Nanay!). It just fits.
At the NBS head office, I only have to say “Nanay” and I am immediately ushered into a small conference room lined with bookshelves. One of the managers asks me what I’d like to drink. It’s a large, bustling office with stacks of books everywhere, but it lacks the air of formal efficiency that most corporate headquarters aspire to. This one has a friendly, homey feel, kind of like a faculty lounge at a grade school: you half-expect small children to come running down the hallways. Books are crammed willy-nilly into the shelves — classics, best sellers, coloring books, art books, coffee-table books.
Five minutes later, Nanay slowly walks into the room with her arm in a sling. “Andito na pala siya, bakit hindi ako tinawag?” (Why didn’t someone call me earlier?) she gently admonishes her staff. Her granddaughter Trina Alindogan hands her a cup of hydrite — Nanay’s stomach has been acting up all day. Most people with a broken arm and a bum stomach would probably take the day off. Here we have a demonstration of one not-so-secret secret of her success: Nothing can stop her from going to work.
“It happened during the typhoon,” she sighs. “I was inspecting the warehouse when I slipped and fell.” Her arm was broken in two places. Doctors said they could surgically repair the bone, but it would take a maximum of two hours to operate, and require nine screws in her arm. She declined; she has better things to do, and the arm will heal in time. For now she signs documents with her other hand. “Pakialamera kasi!” (That’s what happens to busybodies!) she laughs. “Habit na, eh. Pag hindi ko nakita ang bodega, para akong nawawala.” (When I don’t visit the warehouse, I feel lost.)
She nods at her assistant, who presents me with three books the size of coffee tables: a thesaurus, a 2008 almanac, and a Bible Atlas. I am silently skipping with glee. “Ano ba yan?” She indicates the Bible Atlas. “Hindi ko maintindihan, tiningnan ko lang yung pictures.” (I don’t understand it; I only looked at the pictures.) Either Nanay is psychic or somebody did her research, because how could she know that at age 10, my hobbies were reading the Old Testament for accounts of wars and apocalypses, and memorizing the capitals of countries?
Which brings us to another of Nanay’s winning secrets: She makes you feel important. She’s down-to-earth and genuinely curious about people and their interests. And anyone who assumes from her ingenuous air that she’s a softie is in for a tough time. Socorro Ramos is legendary for her skills as a negotiator; she has made captains of industry squeal like little girls. Let’s not forget that the woman built National Book Store from scratch, beginning just before World War II. Today National is the undisputed market leader, with 103 branches all over the country.
Put it another way: There were other bookstores while I was growing up, but today National is the one left standing. By default, we are all “laking-National.” A former competitor, Lory Tan of Bookmark, notes: “Mrs. Ramos is a master of loss-leader pricing, and knew that if you have the scale, you should use it in every way possible — whether it meant obtaining better discounts from publishing houses, more favorable terms of payment, or pricing down (even at a loss) to neutralize competition and eventually gain market dominance for a new book line.”
Or, as Nanay herself puts it: “Magaling lang akong tumawad.” (I’m just good at haggling.) Incidentally, she has been to every one of their 103 branches. Recently she visited the newest store in Marikina, and spoke to the manager about displaying books on tables to make them more appetizing.
I ask her if she’d ever imagined that the five-square-meter stall she opened in Escolta in 1939 would become this retail giant. She shakes her head. “Mapaaral ko lang ang mga anak ko, at kumain kami ng tatlong beses isang araw, tama na. Noong Japanese time, mabuhay ka lang, okay na.” (It was enough that I could send my children to school and we could have three meals a day. During the war, it was enough to just survive.)
Two years after she opened her little bookshop, World War II broke out in the Pacific and the Japanese invaded the Philippines. All books had to be submitted to Japanese censors, who cut out any mention of America. All their stocks were mutilated. “What will we sell?”
Socorro asked her husband, Jose. The answer: Anything and everything the customers needed. They sold candy, school supplies, cigarettes. She found a maker of tsinelas (rubber slippers), bought six pairs, discovered that the Japanese wanted tsinelas, and was soon selling hundreds of pairs. National Book Store might very well have been National Tsinelas.
She found a supplier of Easterbrook fountain pens and went from door to door in the Japanese bazaars to sell them. She got yelled at a couple of times and burst into tears, but eventually made a sale. “Tell me what you need,” she told her client. He ordered 3,000 reams of typewriting paper for the Japanese military. “Hindi ako nagpahalatang di ko kaya!” (I didn’t let on that I couldn’t handle the order!) she gleefully recalls. Somehow, in the middle of a war and all its restrictions, she found the 3,000 reams of paper. Gas was strictly rationed, so she delivered the stock by karetela (horse-drawn cart).
So we have another cornerstone of Nanay’s business philosophy: Find out exactly what your customers need, and sell it to them. Know your market inside and out. Do your research.
In 1944, the young businesswoman gave birth prematurely to her twin sons, Alfredo and Benjamin. Socorro and Jose were riding home in a karetela when the horse backed up into a creek. The other passengers jumped out, but the pregnant Socorro couldn’t. Jose held on to her, letting go of the basket of “Mickey Mouse” money (hyper-inflated Japanese Occupation currency) they had earned that day. Fortunately neither of them was hurt, and the basket of money was recovered from under the horse’s belly. Soon afterwards Socorro went into labor and was taken to the Philippine General Hospital. “The hospital was full, but they found room for me in the eclampsia room,” Nanay remembers.
The twins, born at seven months, weighed 3.2 pounds each and their chances of survival were slight. She breastfed them and they gradually achieved normal weight. “We had six chickens that we raised in our window box, and the eggs that they laid fed the boys,” Nanay says.
When the Liberation began, she kept a bag of emergency supplies ready in case they had to evacuate. The bag contained baby clothes, a mosquito net, some expired antibiotics, and three cans of expired baby formula.
Just before the Americans returned to the Philippines, one of her clients unloaded an entire warehouse of whiskey. “I knew that when the Americans arrived, they would want whiskey,” she says. She couldn’t afford her client’s asking price, but he didn’t want to lose his stocks to looters. So Nanay ended up with a whole lot of whiskey, which she stored in her mother’s house. During the Liberation, Escolta was destroyed by bombs and fire. Her little bookshop and its stocks were razed to the ground, but her mother’s house was safe.
Jose and Socorro sold the whiskey in a barong-barong (shack) on the corner of Soler and Avenida. The merchandise was laid out on a ping-pong table that also served as a door every night. The American soldiers paid in dollars.That whiskey kept the Ramoses’ business going until the couple could rebuild their bookstore.
The Nanay book of business says: Be alert to opportunity, and grab it.
After the war, National Book Store reopened in a small rented space in Avenue Theatre. In Super Salesgirl, Nick Joaquin’s short biography of Socorro Ramos, he writes that “National opened in time for the first postwar school year: one of the few places in ruined Manila where you could get textbooks, notebooks, pad paper, pencils, and so forth.”
“Then Typhoon Gene struck in 1948, ripped off the roof of our store, and ruined all our stocks,” Nanay says. “We were back to zero.” The Ramoses had to start all over again. Their stratagem for dealing with adversity: Work harder. They slept just three hours a day, and spent all their waking hours at the store.
Nanay’s business rulebook says: Don’t let anything get you down. Work, work, work.
In 1955 they acquired a prime piece of property on Soler Street, the future site of their nine-story building. The bookstore was doing well, thanks to Nanay’s brilliant idea: they started producing greeting cards and postcards with Philippine views. By then, their youngest child, Cecilia, had been born and the twins were enrolled at the Ateneo. “As I tutored my boys, they would often correct my pronunciation and were eventually teaching me many things I did not know. So I felt we were all attending the Ateneo together,” Nanay said when she accepted her honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from the Ateneo de Manila in 2006.
National Book Store expanded steadily from the 1970s onwards. We all know the rest — who doesn’t have that red-and-white plastic bag in the house? (Incidentally, National now encourages shoppers to carry their reusable cloth bags instead of plastic.)
“Mrs. Ramos is the perfect entrepreneur — hands-on, steadily focused on the business, always alert for opportunities, unfailingly sensitive to market needs,” writes banker, former Minister of Education, and former chair of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, Jaime Laya. “She is conservative, opting for slow and steady expansion financed by earnings reinvestment. This allowed her to manage the company personally while her children were growing up. As soon as the children were able to play a greater role, then National began opening more branches, adding to its product line.”
Nanay’s achievements as an entrepreneur have been recognized by institutions such as the Ateneo and SGV & Co, which named her Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005. The award is “bestowed to an individual that best embodies entrepreneurial spirit, financial performance, strategic direction, community/global impact, innovation, and personal integrity/influence.” The honorary degree was given by the Ateneo “in recognition of her outstanding contribution to building literacy among the Filipinos and her total commitment to helping make education affordable, especially to those who have little in life.”
“I was born to a poor family and only completed high school,” Nanay said in her brief acceptance speech. “Unable to attend college, I only had one dream in my life, an impossible dream, to finish school and get my degree.” Although she succeeded in business without the benefit of a college degree, she always stresses the importance of education. “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,” she told Laya. “I understand their plight and know how difficult it can be because once upon a time, I was in their shoes. Books are sources of wisdom, knowledge and truth and should be priced so that persons with average and below-average income s can afford to buy.
“Gusto kong makasilbi sa mga estudyante (I want to serve the students),” she says. She remembers attending Soler Elementary School, then Arellano High School, with no baon, no money for snacks or school supplies. To save up for notebooks, she would work in a factory every summer, where she earned 50 centavos a day. “At the time, a kilo of pork cost 45 centavos, so you could actually feed a small family on that.” There isn’t a smidgen of bitterness or regret when she talks about the difficult times she and her husband (he died in 1992) went through — the scrimping, saving, and hard labor. On the contrary, she looks back with fondness on those tough times.
“The advantage of starting small,” she declares, “is that you know all the problems that can arise. You can deal with them one by one.”
I suspect that she looks forward to facing the little day-to-day crises and solving them. Beneath the child-like curiosity and sense of wonder is a steely businesswoman, a tough negotiator, a survivor. Nanay has worked every day of her life since she was five. You think she’ll let up just because the going is great?