MAPping the Future

Column in INQUIRER

The Jollibee Story: Lessons on Leadership

written by Mr. ERNESTO “Ato” TANMANTIONG - December 4, 2023

(First of two parts)

A jolly afternoon to you all!

Let me begin by expressing how excited and grateful I am to be accepting this award from the Management Association of the Philippines, an organization I have always respected, which, for over 70 years, has helped shape generations of managers. You have given me the honor of being in the company of strong Filipino leaders I admire.

Thank you. This award is more valuable to us as it is a recognition of the men and women that make up our Jollibee Group family across the globe; and of the countless people whom we work with each day to bring the joy of eating to customers around the world.

This year, we are celebrating our 45th year—a milestone for us, but especially for our chair, founder and brother, Dr. Tony Tan Caktiong, his wife, Grace, my siblings and brother-in-law who set up our first two small ice cream parlors back in 1975. I hope you’ll indulge me in recounting our Jollibee Foods story because everything I’ve learned about management stems from my experiences at the company.

When we opened our franchised Magnolia shops, we were only serving ice cream. But when our customers started to look for warm meals, we decided to serve sandwiches and hamburgers. Amazingly, the burgers became popular, eventually overshadowing our ice cream offering. I’ll let you in on a little secret about how we attracted customers to come by and try our burgers. We situated our grilling station in front of the store and installed the exhaust hood in such a way that the beefy aroma would blow toward the street. The burgers would smell so good that as people passed by, they were drawn in to come and eat. That insight would later become the inspiration for our “langhap-sarap” campaign, which still works today. And from that shift to burgers, Jollibee was born.

Ready to compete

Even during the early years, I felt that the values we learned from our father truly honed the way we ran the business. When we were younger, we helped out at the Chinese restaurant that he had established in Davao City. There we learned many things, including the value of discipline and hard work, as well as the value of truly listening to your customers. The most important lesson he taught us though, was that we needed to strive for excellence in whatever we pursued in our lives. He said, if you are a tailor, then the clothes need to be made impeccably and fit flawlessly. And if you’re in the restaurant business, you need to make sure that your food tastes really good. To this day, his words continue to guide us in our journey.

Like many success stories, we faced a lot of challenges along the way. One of the biggest in the early years was the entry of McDonald’s in the Philippines in 1981. At that time, we only had 12 stores. We were warned that McDonald’s tended to wipe out their local competition, so a lot of friends advised us to close the business. “You can’t compete with a global giant,” they said.

And yes, we were clearly disadvantaged in most operating areas back then, from our equipment to our processes. But we had a clear and important advantage—our food tasted better. So, instead of chickening out, we served Chickenjoy. And today, that Chickenjoy has been voted the best fried chicken not just in the Philippines but also in the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore.

In the Philippines, Jollibee is now bigger than the top two well-respected international competitors combined. And this is rare in any market where McDonald’s and KFC are present. We’re happy that this is a source of pride not only for those of us at the company, but for all Filipinos as well. It makes this award even more meaningful and exceptionally joyful as it coincides with Jollibee’s 45th anniversary.

Going global

Seeing how Jollibee has filled the hearts and plates of Filipinos, our dream grew with the earnest desire to bring our homegrown Jollibee to the world. Globalization began with the expansion of the Jollibee brand.

We first aimed to cater to the overseas Filipino community, opening in Filipino-heavy locales so we could bring them the joy of home through their Jollibee favorites. Secondly, in our ongoing crossover stage, we started catering to the mainstream non-Filipino market in each country, from which we’re starting to see great results. Today, 80 percent of the customer base in our stores in the United Kingdom are local non-Filipinos, and over 60 percent and 70 percent in Hong Kong and Singapore, respectively. In Brunei, the number goes up to 95 percent and in Vietnam, it’s almost 100 percent. The goal is to go full mainstream because we believe that Jollibee can appeal to diverse groups of people—that exceptional taste overcomes boundaries of race, age and culture.

All of these would not have been possible without the dedication of all the people who worked at Jollibee throughout the years. Without their passion, their love for the brand and country, their belief that this company is something worth sharing to the world, we would not be where we are today.

In the early days of our globalization, to ensure that our own unique brand of Jollibee happiness is authentic and consistent around the world, some of our best managers immigrated to different countries and started their new lives there so they could bring Jollibee to their fellow Filipinos. They became our ambassadors, bringing the warm service and hospitality that really make Jollibee feel like home. It is on the back of their sacrifices, dealings and insights in new countries or territories that we were able to build our store networks and create a solid presence—from hiring and training locals to embody the Jollibee culture, to ensuring that operations run smoothly.

With every country that we entered, our research and development, procurement and supply chain departments were working constantly to ensure the steady supply and localization of recipes. It would mean researching suppliers, sourcing locally available ingredients and figuring out how everything will affect the recipes in terms of taste and cost. It’s a graceful dance that needed to be done for every new country we planted the Jollibee flag on.

This is only but a small insight to the complex action happening behind the scenes of all the news articles about Jollibee popping up in country after country. Indeed, it is our people and our partners who truly make this journey, no matter how challenging, a joyful one.

And for the group, we didn’t stop with just growing the Jollibee brand internationally. We started acquiring local restaurant brands so we could penetrate the foreign markets at a faster pace. Before long, from a single brand in 1978, we have become one of the largest and fastest-growing restaurant companies in the world with 18 brands operating over 6,600 stores across 34 countries, including international brands such as The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Michelin-star Tim Ho Wan and Smashburger. In the Philippines, we also operate Burger King, Panda Express and Yoshinoya.

Our global expansion focuses on three pillar markets—Philippines, China and USA, and four categories with key lead brands within each. For chicken, we have Jollibee as the lead brand. For Chinese cuisine, it’s Tim Ho Wan. For coffee and tea, we lead with Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and for burgers, we have Smashburger.

(To be concluded)