December 1, 2018
Samuel Po is a very soft-spoken man. He speaks barely above a whisper, but in a rounded, musical voice, with a very slight hint of his Ilonggo accent. He is a property magnate today, known as the developer of the Marco Polo Ortigas, an up start five-star hotel that has dared to challenge the mighty Edsa Shangri-La on its home turf. How he arrived here is a very unusual story. At Asian Dragon, we look for the unusual in every story, but what we found here surprised even us.
To begin with, Samuel Po is not your typical Ateneo-La Salle-UP graduate with a fancy MBA. Neither is he your predictable rags-to-riches story, starting with a wheelbarrow or hawking wares on the street. This guy has lived a truly interesting life, from action movie-style street fighting, to torrid nightclubbing, balancing media, police, and gangsters, to courtroom drama. After a turbulent start, he made his fortune in, of all things, diapers. Now, he is living his dream, as the proprietor of a world-class hotel. Let’s follow his footsteps.
Samuel grew up in lloilo, and still goes back regularly. He says it was a nice place, growing up, and still is. Life was slower back then, but full of happy moments. Everyone knew each other. His parents ran a bazaar store on Calle Real (formerly J.M. Basa), the main street of the city. The family also had business in Roxas City, and young Samuel would take the train with his father to go there. It was a four-hour trip, on wooden seats, which about 15 stops each way.
Samuel would likely have stayed in Iloilo, but in 1975, he decided to go to Manila to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering (ECE), then a new course. He took a summer class at the University of Santo Tomas, but couldn’t afford the tuition for the regular course, so he ended up enrolling at Feati University in Santa Cruz. At that time, Feati (originally the Far Eastern Aeronautics School) was still concentrated on training pilots, and was ranked low in the academic scale. It was, therefore, cheap. There were only five or six Chinoys enrolled there, besides Samuel, despite its location next to China town.
He knew no one, had no friends, and, as he says, he was a probinsyano from a very conservative and timid family, unprepared for the rough and tumble of the big city. He lived with his uncle in Caloocan. He commuted to Santa Cruz on class days, and on non-class days, he helped out at his uncle’s factory, which made plastic bags. He sometimes had to deliver goods to the North Harbor in Tondo, where the street kids would try to open the doors of his delivery van to grab what they could, and dart off into the crowd.
Feeling alone and defenseless, Samuel enrolled at a kungfu martial arts athletic association in Santa Cruz, five minutes walk from Feati. The experience of learning to defend himself helped build self-confidence.
He had a budget of about P30 a month, a little over a peso a day. The commute from Caloocan to Santa Cruz cost 35 centavos each way, leaving him just 30 centavos for food on most days. At that time a, Coca Cola cost 30 centavos, and the student meal at the cafeteria cost P2. 50.
When asked, “So, how did you eat?” he answered, “Good question”. He would have breakfast at home, usually leftovers from dinner. He would also typically have dinner at home, so that left lunch. When-ever he could, he would save some of his breakfast and bring it with him for lunch. Sometimes, he would be able to eat lunch at the martial arts gym, which was sustained by contributions from community, some of which where in the form of food.
Being part of the gym, however, meant that he had to fight on its behalf, when needed. The streets were sporadically violent, and always chaotic. While there were few organized street gangs, there was enough petty crime and random confrontations between hotheads, such as road rage, on a daily basis. For example, they had run-ins with the street urchin spotters who stood as lookouts for the illegal street vendors, watching for police, but also looking for trouble.
Eventually, Samuel got skilled at brawling, and he and brad from the gym joined a contest, on a TV show called Karate Arnis Pilipino, hosted by Roland Dantes, They won P100, a small fortune for them, along with cans Milo and rubbing alcohol from the sponsors.
Samuel finished college in 1980, but unfortunately, the ECE Board examinations for that year were cancelled, due to leak. s As it turned out, he never took the exam, and never earned a license. Instead, he started his first business.
His Father had called for him to return yo Iloilo to help out with the family business, and perhaps put up a plastic bag factory, but his mind was made up, to strike out on his own. He told his father that the stage of lloilo was too small for what he wanted to do.
His uncle asked him,·”How will you do business, you have no money?” Samuel replied that he would seek employment, and save up until he had enough to start a business. The uncle, after some thought, decided instead to give him some capital – although he had to work to collect it. The capital was around P50,000 (maybe the equivalent of about P 1 million today), but it was in the form of promissory notes and post-dated checks from various customers. Samuel would have to go and collect the money.
Samuel was shocked, but grateful at his uncle’s largesse. The uncle warned him, though: this would be the first, and the last. If the business worked out, he could keep the money, no need to repay. But if he lost the money, he would have to make do on his own. Fair enough Samuel’s father had helped the uncle start his business, so it was, in a way, a payback.
He earned his first P10,000 with this capital, but in an unexpected way. A relative, this time on his mother’s side, in Iloilo, told him that someone they knew was looking for a replacement motor for their rice mill. This was a huge, low-speed electric motor, about the size of a Ford Fiera. After a lot of research, he found one, the last unit available, at ABB in Sucat, for P50,000. He used some of the money to reserve the motor, and sold it to the buyer for P60,000
He still didn’t know what business to enter. One night, while walking home in Caloocan, someone called him from behind. He didn’t know the man, but the man knew him; they were neighbors, two houses away, on University Avenue. The man, whose family was in the machine shop business, asked what he was doing, and Sammy replied that he was looking for work. The man offered him an opportunity to help him wholesale t-shirts that he was printing. This did not work out, but then his new friend suggested that they go into the wholesale electrical supply business. Samuel said he didn’t know everything about it, but the fellow expressed confidence that he could easily learn, having studied electronics. The guy’s family owned one of the pioneering stores in electrical supply in Caloocan and promised to help Samuel Learn the business.
Samuel agreed, although he had misgiving about how easy it would be to sell this kind of product. Growing up in Iloilo, he had helped tend the family’s bazaar store, and he knew what the profitable items were, which is what we now call fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). He dreamed of selling a product that popular, that every family would need, and buy regularly.
He Also dreamed of one day of being in a hotel business. When he was young, his father would take him on his twice-a-year buying trips to Divisoria and Juan Luna, and they would stay at the Peace Hotel, then a rickety wooden structure. In fact, the Soler Bridge, down the street, was still wooden at that time.
Eventually, Samuel’s father decide that Peace Hotel was too much of a fire hazard, and elected to stay at the First Hotel, a new place on Ongpin Street, near the corner of Salazar, across from President restaurant, which was then still a Chinese movie theater, and also at the Fortune Hotel. Samuel was dazzled by the relative luxury of these modest.
One of the friends he would barrow money from was a well-to-do family, who owned a supermarket and a fabric store. This fellow would lend Samuel money interest-free, and Samuel always paid him back. The fabrics retails business, in particular, was awash in cash, because in those days, the ready-to-wear (RTW) clothes market was undeveloped, so many people had their clothes made.
The family also owned also owned the notorious Impierno nightclub, which had a branch on Mabini, in Ermita, and another on Libertad, in Pasay. At one point, the family decided to divide up the businesses. The friend of Samuel ended up with the nightclubs, while the other siblings took over the retail businesses. The nightclub business had also been lucrative, and had cash assets in the millions, a fortune in early 1980s. However, by the time he took over, it was no longer making money, in fact it was sinking.
Samuel volunteered to help out by managing the club. He owed the owner deep debt of gratitude for lending him money, interest-free for all those years, so he volunteered to do it with no salary. In the end, he ended up running the club for seven years, and made it profitable again. He still ran the electrical supply business from 8 am to 3 pm, and by 6 pm, he was at one of the club’s branches.
“I Learned a lot, especially on how to deal with people,” he says of this experience. This understatement revolves around the three-cornered tightrope that he had to walk, as a nightclub manager; between the police, the gangsters, and the politicians and media.
” I was able to operate smoothly, base on this principles: the gangsters are afraid of the police. The police are afraid of the media and politicians. The media are afraid of the gangsters.”