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Entrepreneurial spirit has long run deep in Justin Uy’s veins. Having founded his first business with his brother when he was just 15 years old, he has since explored the realms of fashion jewelry, poultry and mushroom farming.
He embarked on his fourth venture selling sun-dried mango at the tender age of 19. This turned out to be the business that stuck.
“I chose mango because it’s been a delicacy in Cebu since the 1950s,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “At that time, farmers did not harvest their mango during the mango season because there was no buyer. They brought it to the retailers, but they didn’t pay them until after it was sold.”
Instead, Uy offered to buy the mango from them, assuring them he would pay them in 90 days. He borrowed the necessary materials to kick off the enterprise and the rest is history.
“That’s how we grew,” he recalls. “I started in 1978 with dried mango and, by 1986, I knew this would be my main business.”
And so Profood International Corporation was born.
The next step in the fledgling business’ growth was for Uy to head to Japan to understand the Japanese market and familiarize himself with the required international standards in terms of quality.
“At that time, my factory was still in a nipa hut [traditional thatched house on stilts] with an unpaved floor,” he explains. “It was completely different.”
With a view to exporting to additional markets, Uy went next to Europe.
“These two things really opened up my mind about how it should be done in the future,” he remembers. “So from our beginnings, we changed to a wooden factory, then changed it to where we are now.”
This year marks his 45th year in the mango business.
Cracking the Japanese market was critical to Profood’s success, according to Uy.
“Penetrating Japan is something that I’m proud of because the Japanese don’t tend to buy products from developing countries,” he says.
By first offering to pack product for Del Monte, Nestlé and Coca-Cola, he could approach the Japanese market with an established quality standard in Profood’s factory. Now, he supplies more than 40 large Japanese companies.
Add to that its success in more than 50 other countries, and Uy found himself faced with a different kind of problem.
“Now our biggest drawback is that we don’t have enough mango,” he reveals.
Uy blames the stagnation of the Philippines’ mango industry on a lack of corporate growers, which he believes is the result of the government’s program of agrarian reform.
After fighting it for more than three decades, he made the decision eight years ago to establish a factory in Cambodia where the costs of production are lower.
This expansion means that Profood can now cater to both ends of the market.
Its Philippine-produced mango caters to a 90 percent Japanese market that wants “the best quality in the world”, while its Cambodia product is of a similarly exceptional quality that caters to price-driven markets such as China and areas of the United States.
It’s been a long road, but what keeps Uy going is his commitment to the farmers who work with Profood.
“I’ve seen so many farmers be able to send their kids to college because of mango,” he says proudly.
Mango was priced at less than US$0.18 per kilo in 1982, but is now worth between US$1.79 to US$2.15 per kilogram – immense growth, largely driven by Profood, according to Uy.
In addition, the company now has factories in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.
It’s an impressive trajectory. But ever the entrepreneur, Uy is now turning his attention to a new venture – this time in the world of hospitality, following the 2015 acquisition of Jpark Island Resort and Waterpark in Lapu Lapu City.
He sees great potential in the tourism sector, thanks to the Philippines’ immense natural beauty, whereas other sectors may struggle due to high cost structures, he points out. “That’s why we’re focusing on our hotel industry.”
Next on the cards is a new US$500 million hotel project in Panglao, Bohol, where the Philippines government recently funded a new airport.
“This will be a government–private mutually beneficial arrangement. They put up an airport and so I put up a hotel to bring in the tourists and earn foreign exchange for the country,” he says.
By investing in the Philippines in this way, Uy hopes to drive the country forward. It’s an innate determination that has served him well.
As he tells the next generation of leaders working their way up through the ranks, “Never give up, not until you give it a try.”