It’s not often that you know what you’re going to do fresh out of school. Try as they might, your professors will give you all kinds of career and “real world” advice that is only partially applicable applicable to the situations you will find yourself in. Do I look for a job right away? Pursue further studies? Travel and find your calling? Start a business? Here’s a man who did all of that and found his footing and turned it all into an empire. Learn a thing or two from the man behind the French Baker, Lartizan, and Chatime PH, Johnlu Koa.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
“I was Xavier all the way then I studied Business Administration in UP.”
What is your view on the importance of school?
“I’m quite old school. I still believe theres no such thing as being self-taught; somewhere along the way, meron, but you need to know the basic skills—reading writing, arithmetic. I believe that schooling isn’t just what the book says but it’s being related to humanity, how to compete, and harmonise with your situation. School is not just exams and passing one level, it’s also about being recognised and earning a milestone and network. After finishing with one batch, you are entitled to that network who might come in handy in the future.”
“High school was all about team building— learning how to compete and how to retaliate against challenges. It set the foundations. In college, I studied business administration with a major in marketing in UP so the course, the subject, the professors, my batchmates, and the environment had a great effect on me.”
What was the plan post-graduation?
“After graduation in 1979, I wanted to pay the university back so I worked as a professor teaching business administration. A year later, I enrolled to get an MBA while teaching and opened Honey Bread, an industrial bakery and supplier. It’s not easy juggling all of that so for two years, I slept in the bakery. My office was right next to my bedroom and as long as I had a good air conditioner, I was alright. It made sense to do this because I could relate my course to my business.”
The French Baker was born
“I wasn’t interested in baking from the get-go. My parents always wanted to put up a bakery so when I finished school, I offered my parents the chance to realize a dream. My teaching was paying for my MBA and Honey Bread allowed me to start a savings fund.”
“Honey Bread was supplying bread for sale in malls and when SM North Edsa was opening, I saw an opportunity and took it. Back then, in 1989, there was less competition so I found my niche in retail baking quickly. Baking is like medicine, there are several fields so when I had made enough money, I went to Paris and it changed my life. I decided to specialize in French baking and the French Baker was born.”
“This was probably my biggest break but starting the French Baker wasn’t easy. My marketing background helped me to get the ball rolling and I worked out a strategy. I had to make the most out of what I had and do it in a way that people would find it unique, interesting, and most of all, worth buying. The product and concept of the French Baker were from Europe so at the time, there was nothing like it locally. I saw my shot and took it.”
“One of the most challenging things was growth and competition. It was difficult to set a new industry model and dealing with competitors who would adopt my model then try to outdo me. I was leading in French baking but soon enough, Korean baking brands became my new competition.
Operations were growing so there was a lot of tech involved and because people come and go, it became a problem to to have to teach and re-teach them how to do things. When I was hiring people, it was important for them to have the basic skills but the worth of their employment for me was what they spent in baking school.”
Lartizan, TFB Salon de The, Chatime, and what’s next
“In the last 26 years, we’ve accomplished much to be proud of. We’ve won awards and branched out with Lartizan and the French Baker Salon de The, a tea salon. We also won the bid for the Philippine franchising of Chatime.”
“Chatime came in at the height of the tea craze and luckily, it stayed. It was a project that I didn’t have the luxury of time to develop. I saw the brand in Taiwan and it was doing international expansion. Out of 100+ applicants to franchise from the Philippines, they chose me. I offered the opportunity to three of my nephews and we’ve been partners ever since. Our success is attributed to our steadfast and obstinate adherence to quality; we resisted all temptation for quick payback and it all paid off.”
Words of wisdom for jobseekers
“Given my own experience, I spent the first 15 years I spent my career as a formally employed person. Money was never an important part. Job content was the most interesting part. I knew I had to research and synthesize the lesson plan for students. I had to work a lot. I knew the pay off was that I would learn and it would stay with me for the rest of my life. UP paid little, but it was such an enriching environment where the calibre of people were just so worth it to have lunch with or whatever.
Look at the job content and when you enter, search for mentors, good and effective ones. Never mind their tempers. It’s not about you, but your learning.”
“Underpromise and overdeliver. That has always been my guiding principle. Instead of arriving at 8:00, show up at 7:30.No if’s or but’s just super duper all the way. With anything you do in life, come in with a banquet.”