Ubud, 22 April 2016 — Meet Patricia (Patsy) Alejandro Paterno, an interior designer with a passion for writing who led her four siblings to grow their first family shop into 20 thriving stores. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in 1956 in Cebu City as the oldest of five siblings, Patsy grew up in a thrifty and enterprising family.
Her father came from Luzon island and traded copra, and he met her mother in Cebu during his frequent travels around the Philippines.
Patsy’s father inspired her to be enthusiastic about learning, and to always cultivate a young mind to think about new business.
“Dad was always active in business, playing with new ideas. He was the starter, and Mom the continuer. That is how they could work together well all their lives. His passion was the sea, and building boats, although he came from the land-locked province of Nueva Ecija."
Her mother inspired her to grow up with creativity and to experiment all the time with designing and making things. Patsy felt that she had space to grow.
“Mom was industrious and would never throw things away. Almost everything was repurposed for use or selling. Scrap became toys and even Christmas decors. In our family we did not buy much, we made most of what we needed and could sell. Mom was supportive of her five children."
A passion for working
Patsy and her family moved to Manila when she was a baby. She entered the primary school of the prestigious University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman campus, where she would continue to take all her education.
“What I remember from my early school days was the passion to always work creatively with my sisters, as my mother’s workers. We made our own toys, and we sometimes joked that our home looked like a labor camp in Siberia. We didn’t have holidays, but we loved it, and we would get paid every day for the work we did."
Some days, her friends from school would join them at home to work, and they were paid also. Patsy and her sisters learned to make découpage—a craft originating in France to decorate objects with paper cut-outs—as well as wooden figurines, molds, and how to paint.
Her mother opened her first shop in 1967 when Patsy was 11 years old, selling the crafts that the family team was making.
“Our parents stimulated our creativity. We used pages of catalogs to decorate houses we made of boxes. We created our own programs and staged our shows to perform at home for our parents, dramas and choreographed dances. I even made a newspaper for the family and became the editor. I remember how I wrote about the opening of the first store."
Earning and growing
In Patsy’s family, money was something to be earned, not given.
"I would make about P1.50 for one day. Then I could buy candy from the sari-sari store (kiosk) or something from our craft store. We could not get things for free from our own store, and that is still how we do it today in our company."
Patsy’s craftwork at home continued during her high school. Friends kept coming to the store to help out, and to earn also.
At home, the family spoke English, because her mother spoke Bisaya and her father Tagalog, two of the many languages spoken in the Philippines.
In school, Patsy developed a passion for reading and writing in English, including poems. One of her concerns is about young Filipinos she meets nowadays who, even when they study in good schools, do not speak and write in good English.
“Speaking and writing a language well is like practicing your muscles. You have to keep at it, then it will grow."
Patsy also loved, and excelled in, math. During the school year, there were opportunities when students practiced teaching, and on those days she would choose to teach math.
Expanding the foundations
In 1973, Patsy entered college in UP, choosing to take up interior design, which was a new discipline at the time. In her typical fashion, she chose to take the course halftime and worked the other half in the family business.
Soon, she found that she frequently knew more about art and design than her teachers, having been immersed in her family’s craft business since she was 11 years old, with continuous ‘on the job training’ from her mother.
To broaden her horizon, she also took up journalism, French and creative writing classes.
Because of her daily work in the family store, she did not find time to join student organizations, however her discovery of one group outside college would profoundly changed her outlook on life.
This was when she met an Australian woman from Campus Crusade for Christ—an international Christian group now known as CRU—who took time to talk with her about faith.
“During my years in college, I started exploring existential questions about my life. I rediscovered my spirituality. My university was public, without a religious affiliation. At home, my mother was Catholic and my father Protestant. We used to go to two churches when I was young, and later to none. I missed that, especially going to Dad’s church."
From then on, spirituality would emerge as a powerful force in Patsy’s life and in her business.
Pioneering a new brand
After graduating from college with her degree in interior design, Patsy determined that it was time to spread her wings with a new challenge. Together with her siblings, and with the support of her father and mother, she decided to open their own store, separate from their parents’ shop.
“We challenged ourselves to establish our own store. I and my four siblings Peggy, Meldy, Robert and Tina decided to create our brand name from our first names, combining it into Pa-Pe-Mel-Ro-Ti. My father said people would not remember such a name, however we did it, and today, 40 years later, our stores are still called Papemelroti."
The first Papemelroti store opened in 1976 in the new Ali Mall in Quezon City, a part of Metro Manila. World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali flew in from the US to open the mall.
The five siblings divided their responsibilities based on their individual strengths, and Patsy became Managing Director of Papemelroti, and also of its mother company Korben Corp, named after their mother Corit and father Benny.
While their shop was located on the second floor, they soon created a name for themselves.
“My brother Robert would be painting out on the balcony and selling his work on the spot. And when customers made their purchase, my youngest sister Tina at age 7 would do the wrapping while sitting on the floor as she didn’t reach the height of the counter. Customers were intrigued by our team and by what we offered."
As they attracted more customers, they moved into a ground floor space, and that marked the start of continued growth of the business over four decades.
What is Patsy’s preferred leadership style?
"Leading from behind works best for me. I like to let our staff manage by themselves, and provide them with guidance, manuals and support. I discovered how listening, asking questions, and being responsive to our staff are my keys to success. I see it as leading by observing, getting to know them and then bringing out the best in them."
She recalls fondly how her mother loved talking with people, always engaged in conversation, and how her management team is now doing the same.
How did she and her team expand her business so successfully? What does she see as their critical success factors for their business? She attributes it to focusing on people, values, and faith.
Vision on people
First, she explains, is having a vision on people.
“Leading from behind is not just my own style—it is the way we work. We have a common value in our team, and that is to treasure the staff and artists we work with. Many of our 100 staff are single parents, with husbands away for work elsewhere. For our staff, their jobs are so important."
“The same goes for many of our suppliers, who have lifted themselves up in life by learning to produce quality work for us and thereby build better livelihoods for their families. We do a lot of giving back, by helping them create livelihood projects, so their children can go to school and build their future. We believe in what we are doing in our company, to work with people and help as many people as we can."
Growing through values
Next, she underlines the importance of expanding the business through strong values.
“My sister Peggy, who is in charge of human resources, spends a lot of time talking with our staff about values. What I mean are the values we received from our parents, like being honest, hard working, and diligent, and being careful what you prioritize in your life. To build a vision for your life."
One of the issues she touches on is about getting married. Patsy explains that she chose to build up her life before getting married, and is now living happily with her husband of 22 years, "a man with a good heart," and her son, “who is as funny as his dad.”
“My Mom and Dad were strict. We learned that happiness does not come from getting a boyfriend too early or easily. Our priority is to build a good life so that our children will benefit. And choosing the right father for your children is very important."
Expanding through faith
Finally, she comes with a surprising statement that Papemelroti’s business expands through faith and that they do not advertise.
“Our gifts are creative. We let our intuition and faith in God inspire us to think of things that we can sell to help people to have better lives. Even if we do not advertise, we get a lot of coverage from interviews on TV, radio and magazines.”
“I believe that for a business to be different, it should be an expression of yourself. That way it is unique. Our business is an expression of the values that are important to us, including our faith in God, who guides us. Visitors can tell about our family and our values by seeing our stores."
Patsy stresses that continuous improvements are always needed.
"One of the ways we get new inspirations is through travel. It gives us new ideas to update the look of our stores. For example, from our last trip to Tokyo we learned a lot about new ways of displaying, and also about creative wrapping."
Speaking of values, Patsy and her team are working hard for their products to be made with minimal impact on the environment. In fact, they started using recycled paper in 1976, when hardly anyone else in Manila had such a thought.
“We promote environmental awareness and we use recycled wood and wood from crates. Our stationery on recycled paper has been one of our most popular products for decades now. We believe that the products we sell can change lives, and can also contribute to reduce our society’s environmental impact."
What are Patsy’s biggest challenges in the business lately?
She explains it is about dealing with government services, from paying taxes to the fire department.
“Although our country is definitely moving forward with better governance, we live and work in a culture where bribes are still an accepted way of doing business. But not for us. When we face these challenges, which is pretty much all the time, we explain that our business is not only about money, it is about doing the right thing.”
“Business is an expression of our beliefs and values. So we don’t give up when faced with continuous requests for bribes to make problems ‘go away.’ And we say that in front of all our staff, to empower them too. Sometimes I tell government officers that we need to respect God even more than them, so we choose the right way. We work with God."
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia
So what are Patsy’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, to recognize your gifts.
“We all have unique gifts, and we need to study to discover them, and then put them to use in our work, and make them grow through practice. Leadership and success starts inside us, it takes work to see that and to bring it out."
Second, to work with God.
“I believe deeply that by working with God, we can discover our best vision and plan. We are ultimately spiritual beings, and we can integrate our spiritual side into our work and business. We’re not just here to make material decisions. People and planet are at stake. At Papemelroti, this is how we work, with God-given inspiration to guide us in our creativity and decisions. We work with God. I believe that everyone can discover how to do that, in their own way. Make God a partner in whatever you do."
Third, to recognize the gifts of the people around you.
“When we know our gifts and how to work with divine inspiration in our daily work, we can more easily recognize the gifts of the people we work with in our business. We discover how to truly inspire them to do their best. We bring it out of them, together."
What is coming up next for Patsy and her siblings?
As we speak in her main store and visit her upstairs office, with creativity and cats in abundance, her eyes are sparkling.
"We have started to prepare the 50th celebration of our family business Korben Corp, since my Mom and Dad started their shop in 1967. There is so much work to do. We think of it as 50 years of miracles.”
“We believe that God is really a working partner of our business. And we believe that we should feel good about being Filipino and that we should be committed to the success and prosperity of our country."
Patsy is also going beyond her management job to investing in her own art.
"Ten years ago I felt my creativity calling me to do new things, and I discovered how to make prayers into collages, which then evolved into paintings. Now people have come to appreciate and buy my paintings. I was so surprised. It’s truly a new window of opportunity for me to express myself."
It is through her art that I met Patsy, at her stall in Art in the Park, a regular public art exhibition in Manila. Her work is also displayed in her HeARTworks blog.
She explains that her painting process starts with ‘a mess’ and that as she perseveres, the design evolves in layers to produce a painting.
In a similar vein, she explains how she tells the artists who supply products to Papemelroti that their perseverance is needed to bring out creativity.
“You cannot help people who give up right away. Even if they already have the tools, a sewing machine, the materials, some do not get to doing it. Success depends on doing it and keeping at it. I remember one man who came back to us six times after revising his design, and is now a popular producer. His work sells well."
For herself, she sees no limits in the creative process. And it runs in the family.
“Even my son Joshua at 21 is already working in art, albeit more through computer design in his generation. His designs are already salable. I am happy. Our tradition is being renewed as we continue working with God."
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