Don’t be scared to make mistakes – Jollibee founder

Aya Lowe

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World Entrepreneur winner Tony Tan Caktiong shares, 'Be quick to recognize mistakes and learn from them as fast as you can'

HAMBURGER KING. Jollibee Food Corp founder Tony Tan Caktiong shares how he made his way to the top. Photo by Katherine Visconti

MANILA, Philippines – Tony Tan Caktiong’s entrepreneurial story is a heartwarming one of perseverance, humility, Filipino pride and a big, red jolly bee.

Caktiong is considered the visionary behind every child’s fast food craving, Jollibee. The food giant is part and parcel of the Philippine economy that Jollibee Food Corp’s P6 billion annual purchase of chicken from farmers in various parts of the country creates sources of income and livelihood.

But what is the secret behind the success of the the 2004 World Entrepreneur awardee? According to the man behind the bee, it’s his eternal optimism.

“In one of our early planning sessions, my vision was to create the largest food company in the world. That was when we had 5 stores. Some people thought I was overly optimistic,” Caktiong said in his speech at the APEC SME Summit on January 20.

While he hasn’t quite yet achieved that dream, he has come along way.

Click here for live blog of the APEC SME Summit where various entrepreneurs from Asia spoke. 
Click here for a replay of the APEC SME Summit speeches.
Click to read: 7 Lessons for entrepreneurs from Asia’s best

Jollibee Food Corp. is a rare example of a homegrown chain that has managed to maintain its leadership position against the onslaught of multinational giants — especially Macdonalds — in a country that loves American franchises. The food services group has joined the ranks of Asia’s most admired companies and among the top 10 Philippine companies. 

It’s a mindset 

Caktiong spoke about the early days of Jollibee, when it was founded in 1975 and the key decisions they made that made them a food giant now.  

“Those early days were not easy. We faced many challenges and took many risks. In taking these risks there were times we lost money due to the mistake we made. But during those challenges I continued to have high hopes and optimism that anything is possible.”

I think I pick up this belief from my mom. Our role is to do what we can as best we can and don’t worry about the outcome. The outcome will take care of itself. This belief has allowed me to sleep well at night. It gives me new hope everyday,” said Caktiong.

Speaking at the summit, Caktiong outlined over and over again the importance of mindset and optimism in making a business succeed. 

“Innovation starts in our minds. Our mindsets determine what we’re able to accomplish. The story of Jollibee Food Corp is a story of finding opportunity amidst difficult times,” said Caktiong.

Born into a poor family which migrated from southeastern China to the Philippines in search of opportunity, Caktiong became involved in the food and beverage Industry at an early age. His family ran a restaurant which sustained the family and put him through college.

At the age of 22, Caktiong saw a franchising opportunity with Magnolia Dairy Ice cream and opened two ice cream parlors in Cubao.

To differentiate themselves from the other ice cream parlors, they decided to offer customers more than they expected: bigger scoops
 of ice cream and cleaner ice cream parlors. Customer flocked to their store.

When they found out that people were craving something hot, they started introducing hamburgers. Soon enough, hamburgers were outselling the ice cream.

In 1978, they decided to shift to hamburgers.

FOOD GIANT. Jollibee is the biggest buyer of chicken in the Philippines. Photo by AFP

The big shift 

“It was not an easy change. Just as Jollibee started growing, we found out that the world’s biggest hamburger chain [MacDonald’s] was about to enter the Philippines. Many friends told me to sell out.

“The mindset was, ‘How could a small Filipino company with only 5 stores take on a big multinational company in a business they practically invented?’ This was a moment of truth for us. A moment that directly tested my hope and ambition.

“If I had no hope, I would have sold out the business right then and I would not be standing in front you of today, I might just be flipping burgers for you-know-who,” said Caktiong, referring to McDonalds.

They continued to open up restaurants one at a time. They never let go of their leadership position. Chicken Joy remains their most popular product. They pursued expansion, both organically by increasing their existing businesses’ store network, and by gobbling up other brands and retail food chains.  

With Jollibee as their core brand, the food giant now has a total of 8 brands in their portfolio. As of September 30, 2012, it is operating a total of 2,040 stores in the Philippines: Jollibee 765, Chowking 383, Greenwich 201, Red Ribbon 209, Mang Inasal 457 and Burger King 25.

In foreign operations, the group had 541 stores: In China, Yonghe King 288, Hong Zhuang Yuan 52, San Pin Wang 39; in the US, Jollibee 27, Red Ribbon 32, Chowking 18, Chow Fun 3; in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Jollibee 60 and Chowking 22, for a total of 2,581 stores worldwide.

In the first 9 months of 2012, it earned P2.47 billion, up 20.4% from the same period in 2011.

Big mistakes

As someone who’s had their fair share of failures along with successes, Caktiong has learnt to take it as part and parcel of following your passion and dream.

“When it comes to education, the only school I can learn from is the school-of-hard knocks. And I’m still learning today,” said Caktiong. Failing is just an experience or a learning. If you can pick up some learning’s then it’s worth it. It’s like paying tuition fee,” he joked in an interview with Rappler.

Caktiong said the brands that they started but failed to grow included Mary’s Chicken and Copenhagen ice cream. Lots of research went into these brands but the products that were eventually launched were far from what was originally tested.

“We thought that (barbeque chicken product) was our best product. We did a lot of work on it. But it didn’t do very well. Do I call it a major mistake? Maybe not a major mistake but it’s a failure we have in our history,” Caktiong said.

Caktiong concludes that the main thing is to dream, dream big and not be afraid of it.

“Dreams are free. Why limit what you are aspiring for? But dreaming is not enough. One needs to put in enough energy and input. If you dream big and put your dreams into action you will indefinitely make mistakes.

“But don’t be scared to make mistakes. Just be quick to recognize them and learn from them as fast as you can. Learn from each mistake and it will not be a waste of time,” said Caktiong. –





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