From vegetable vendor to Bicol’s salon magnate

Don Kevin Hapal
From vegetable vendor to Bicol’s salon magnate
While walking through a flooded market in Manila, a young Yco Tan decided that he was going to change his life. And he did.

Yco Tan can still remember it clearly: the day he decided that he deserved a better life.

He was only 17. The eldest boy in a Filipino-Chinese family, he had been his family’s breadwinner for as long as he could remember. 

Yco was walking through a flooded market that day carrying a basketful of tomatoes. He had been doing the same thing almost every day for the last 10 years, but his heart seemed to carry the weight of the rainclouds that particular day.

The Tan family got by on the meager income from their stall in the local market where they sold tomatoes and onions. Every morning, Yco manned the stall then went to school at 5 pm. After school at 10 pm, he would go to Divisoria to find anything else he could sell.

He wouldn’t call himself business-minded then. “Business-pilit (forced)” would have been more apt, he said.

On that fateful rainy day, the 17-year-old Yco trudged towards the delivery truck with his basket. He waded through floating trash and rotten vegetables, and just before he reached the end of the road, he saw two rats swimming beside him, as if they were racing him to dry ground.

“Is this really all my life can be?” he recalled asking himself. “There must be a better plan for me,” he said, while crying.

The rough way up

From that point on, Yco was willing to jump at any chance to get a better lease on life.

That opportunity came when a friend invited him to apply at an agency looking for Filipinos who want to work in Saudi Arabia. 

Since Yco was only 19 years old at the time, they had to rig his application to make it appear that he was 21, the minimum age requirement for applicants. It was a common practice among OFWs back in the day, he shared. 

Luck was in his favor, as Yco’s application passed. His friend, however, didn’t make the cut.

In 1984, 19-year-old Yco, along with 35 other Filipinos, flew to Saudi Arabia to work.  

Yco Tan with his co-workers in Sarawat Superstore, Jeddah, KSA. Photo courtesy of Yco Tan

Yco started working as a warehouse man for a department store, earning SR850 every month – barely equivalent to P5,000 at the time – a high salary for someone his age back in Manila. Young as he was, however, Yco had big dreams and “clamping cans” in a warehouse wasn’t going to be his life.  

The young Yco had his eyes set for a promotion, even though he knew he didn’t have a strong chance, since the company rarely gave managerial positions to Filipinos. “The biggest challenge is still discrimination. At work, everybody knows that it’s the Filipinos who do most of the job. But when it comes to promotions, the last people they’d consider are Filipinos,” he said. 

This reality didn’t stop him from chasing his dream. When his supervisors noticed his dedication, Yco was promoted to work on the shop floor in just two years.

MANAGER. Because of his dedication, Yco Tan was given a managerial position just a few years after he started working. Photo courtesy of Yco Tan

His dream didn’t stop there, either. He eventually worked his way to becoming junior manager, and then an assistant manager.

Yco couldn’t get a higher promotion than that since the position of store manager required a college degree. After he insisted on it, Yco’s company offered to send him to school in exchange for years of service in the company. Yco took the offer and went to study marketing and management at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. After 3 years of studies, he went back to Saudi, finally as a store manager – a feat that no other Filipino in their company had ever achieved.

As manager, Yco led a staff of 175 people from 16 different countries. Having to work his way from the bottom up worked to his advantage: Yco knew the company better than anyone. Overall, he’d stayed with his employer for 18 years.

With his remittances, he sent his siblings to college. One became an engineer, another an accountant, and the youngest, a physical therapist.

Kung hindi ako umalis, siguro kahit isa sa amin ay hindi makakapag-college (If I didn’t leave, perhaps none of us would have been able to get a college degree),” he said.

While in Saudi, Yco met his wife, Elizabeth, a nurse at a private clinic in Jeddah. They have 3 kids: Joshua, Eryka, and Matthew. 


Having to fly from one branch to another eventually took a toll on Yco’s health. He was diagnosed with chronic sinusitis. In  2002, he decided to return to the Philippines. 

Yco, who had met success in Saudi, suddenly had to start from scratch again and build a new career in the Philippines.

He and his wife first tried their luck with a sewing business, manufacturing uniforms for the Philippine National Police (PNP). It didn’t work out well because of late payments.

In the early 2000s, beauty parlors were popping out fast all over the country and Yco partnered with his sister-in-law to start one. Their relationship turned sour and the Tans decided to open one in Bicol themselves. 

Yco had always thought big. He wanted his salon to be nothing less than great – a business mentality that, he said, is rare in the provinces. He needed a sizeable capital for the venture so Yco applied for a livelihood loan from LandBank. He got a P300,000-loan. 

The Tans opened their first salon, EveGate, in Tabaco City, Albay, which quickly became a hit among Albay’s middle class. They paid their loan immediately and opened other branches in the region.

Yco soon ventured into other businesses, all in the beauty and wellness industry and under the banner of the Tanvera Corporation. They opened Salon de Estudyante, a hair salon for the masses; Fresh Up Nail and Body Spa; and Spalon, a high-end salon and spa. 

As of writing, the Tans have a total of 16 salons, spread all over the Bicol region. Their 17th branch is set to open this year.

They branched into the distribution business through Adams Housing Salon Supply which distributes salon supplies, formula, and equipment in Albay; and also the Evegate Technical Development Training Academy, a TESDA-accredited school for aspiring beauty and hair technicians.

Team effort

TAN FAMILY. Yco Tan with wife Elizabeth and their 3 children receive an award.

Yco said his secret to success is the cooperation of his whole family in running the business. “It’s a team effort,” he said.

Because of his experience, Yco is in charge of the overall management of their business while Elizabeth takes care of training their employees. Son Joshua handles human resource and marketing.

Government agencies have recognized the family’s efforts. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) Region V honored Yco and his family with the Model OFW Family of the Year Award for 2012, while the Department of Labor and Employment gave their company the Outstanding Achievement in Entrepreneurship Award.

They also received the 2012 Outstanding Non-Agri-based Entrepreneur Award and the Gawad Entrepreneur Bagong Bayani Award from the LandBank of the Philippines.

Giving back

The Tans’ success goes beyond awards. With their businesses, they are able to give at least 250 people regular income, including  persons with disabilities (PWDs). 

Yco said the decision to hire PWDs was influenced by their house help who was a deaf mute.

“So everytime na nagtetraining si misis, nakikita namin siya na parang very attentive. Interesado siya. And when my wife asked her kung gusto niyang matuto, sabi niya very much willing daw siya,” Yco shared. After this, the Tans made sure to hire at least one PWD for every salon and give PWDs scholarship to their school. 

(Because once, I had a helper who was deaf and mute. And everytime my wife was training, we saw that she was very attentive. She was interested. And when my asked her if she wanted to learn, she said yes.)

In partnership with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the Tans also give free massage and physical therapy training to different communities in Bicol, automatically hiring the top 5 students of their classes. 

Their salons are also required to organize at least two outreach programs every year. They usually go to remote communities to provide free haircuts, manicure, pedicure, and massages. 

The Tans have also hired capable senior citizens in their salons who are tasked to provide “motherly care” to their staff. Working in a beauty salon, Yco said, can be an empowering experience and will give the elderly a chance to be productive again and to feel good about themselves.

“If we hire them, they become busy, earn money, and at the same time, become more beautiful. They get a reason and the means to dress up again and look good,” he shared in Filipino. 

The former OFW is the co-chairman of the UN’s Joint Migration and Development Initiative (JDMI) in Bicol, leading programs aimed to help families left behind by OFWs.

Advice to OFWs 

Having come far from selling vegetables at the local market, Yco has a lot of wisdom to share to OFWs pining for success.

First, he said, is to plan for their homecoming and business early. “I don’t want them to make the same mistake I did where I only thought about doing business when I’m already back,” he said. 

“Habang nasa abroad ka palang, pagaralan mo na ng mabuti. Kailangan you come home prepared. You do a project study. You do a business plan. Lumapit ka sa gobyerno kasi government has so many things na ibinibigay like free training. May mga loan pa sila,” added.  

(While you’re still abroad, study it carefully. You have to come home prepared – make a project study, business plan. Reach out to the government because they provide a lot like free training and loans.) 

This will help the OFW make calculated decisions and make sure that their hard-earned savings won’t go to waste.

Yco also said that OFWs need to learn to trust the government more. “Before, galit ako sa gobyerno. Feeling ko kinukuhanan lang nila ako (Before, I was mad at the government. I felt like they’re just getting money from me). But I realized that we can actually help each other, like when I got my livelihood loan from LandBank,” he shared. 

The OFW’s family must also realize that each member has a role to play in the success of the family. In his case, he shared that he couldn’t have been where he is now if not for his wife. “Habang si mister ay nasa abroad, si misis sa Pilipinas ay maaaring magnegosyo na (While the husband is abroad, his wife in the Philippines can start a business),” Yco said. 

Yco also said that an OFW and his or her family must choose a business that they are really passionate about. This would help make any task seem easy. “Kung ‘yung ginagawa mo ay ‘yung gusto ng puso mo, napakaikli ng 24 hours sa ‘yo (If you’re doing what your heart really wants, 24 hours would be too short for you),” he said. 

As for Yco, he just keeps on moving forward. Just as he did when he was young, when he waded through the murky flood to reach his destination, he knows that challenges will keep on coming as he strives to reach his goals.  –

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Don Kevin Hapal

Don Kevin Hapal is Rappler’s Head of Data and Innovation. He started at Rappler as a digital communications specialist, then went on to lead Rappler’s Balikbayan section for overseas Filipinos. He was introduced to data journalism while writing and researching about social media, disinformation, and propaganda.