(Source: Entrepreneur Philippines | November 16, 2018)
Mr. Robert Go of Citimart shares with Entrepreneur Philippines how he started in the supermarket business, and why the business thrives inspite of the entry of big shopping malls in Batangas. Read on for an inspiring story.
More than three decades since founding Citimart, a small grocery established in 1986 that grew into a seven-store chain in Southern Luzon, the 63-year-old Go still gets to the office by eight in the morning. He also oversees price lists and attends meetings with clients and partners.
“I don’t have [any] hobbies but work. I don’t even like going on vacation, I miss work too much,” said the founder of the oldest existing supermarket chain in Batangas and Mindoro. Not a big fan of work-life balance, he instead lives by the mantra “work is life.”
Citimart started as a small grocery store in Batangas City, one of the many in the bustling port city. He opened the business after leading his parent’s merchandise shop called Formosa Commercial for more than a decade.
Founded by Chinese immigrants, Formosa Commercial sold everything from school supplies to daily essentials. Almost all of the Go children—a brood of eight—spent their free time there, as they became its honorary staff and crew.
“We were exposed to business even during our childhood years. We manned the store, we talked to suppliers, it was our school,” Go shared in Filipino.
At an early age, Go, or Aboy as he is fondly called by friends and family, knew the importance and power of trade. It was what fueled his father to seek opportunities amid the war in the 1940s, and it was what drove them to relocate from Manila to Batangas in the 1950s.
When his parents asked him to drop his engineering studies at the University of Sto. Tomas at 17 to assist in the family business, he didn’t hesitate to lend a helping hand. After all, the business had become his life, too.
Growing up, Formosa was Go’s playground. He enjoyed stocking the shelves with fresh supplies, checking the inventories but most especially, listening to the stories of the shop’s customers.
“I like hearing stories, talking to people. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed our business,” Go shared with Entrepreneur Philippines. This natural curiosity and empathy emanate even in the nooks and crannies of the business he built.
‘Extension of Batanguenos’ pantry’
Three of the seven CitiMart supermarkets can be found along Padre Burgos Street, one of the major thoroughfares in Batangas City. The whole stretch also gives access to the two shopping centers of the company, Nuciti Mall and Bay City Mall.
According to Geraldine Clemeno, CitiMart’s purchasing manager, each branch has its own market to serve, from mothers who frequent the store for their weekly grocery shopping to sari-sari store owners that want to replenish their inventory.
“For Batangueños, Citimart is an extension of their pantry,” Clemeno said.
One of the main drivers of the supermarket’s growth is its wholesale business, which entails selling to sari-sari store and neighborhood grocery owners, allowing them to buy items at lower than retail price. On top of that privilege, small business owners may also apply for a credit line from the company. It would allow them to pay for their orders in monthly installments, letting them replenish inventories without shelling out huge capital.
“It’s a big help for small business owners. We just do our own due diligence to make sure they can pay their bills. That’s it,” Go explained.
It’s a risky business practice but it also built a loyal following for CitiMart. When big businesses started to open up shopping malls in the province like SM City Batangas, most of CitiMart’s customers remained loyal. Of course, it helped that the supermarket’s prices remained friendly to consumers.
Pricing is one part of the business that, even to this day, Go still manages from time to time. The company also introduced a loyalty program for its customers in the early 2000s, way ahead of the other big supermarket and shopping mall brands.
Despite its lower margins and tough competition, the business thrived.
Today, the Citimart Group of Companies does not only have retail interests, it has businesses in the food industry, too. Felie Go, the company’s vice president, and life partner to Aboy, has been managing the family’s franchising business since the late 1990s. The Go matriarch already oversees 25 franchised stores of different restaurant brands from Pancake House to Chowking.
“If we merged all of our businesses together, we could easily be in the Top 1000 companies in the country,” Go said matter-of-factly.
That Citimart flourished even amid the threat posed by big businesses may be the very reason why its competitors want to buy it out. Go doesn’t deny that most, if not all major supermarket companies have already approached him for a potential acquisition sale.
“Well, what would I do if I sell it?” Go asked rhetorically. “Besides, the business is still growing. I’d rather continue working.”
The company has also become a family affair. Selling it may mean foregoing a potential of leaving a lasting legacy. All of Go’s four children are now part of the firm’s board of directors and are actively playing a role in the business.
It also wouldn’t hurt to continue especially when the supermarket industry is seen to grow to Php7.08 trillion by 2021 from Php4.53 trillion in 2016, according to international grocery research group IGD. By that time, the country will be the fifth largest grocery retail market in Asia.
When the 63-year-old businessman gave Entrepreneur Philippines a tour of the second mall he ever built in Batangas City—the Bay City Mall—almost all of the staff of the shopping center, from the janitor to the supermarket bagger, greeted him as he passed them. And it wasn’t even because security guards or the store managers joined him, as what is expected when an executive comes over to the ground operations of his company. They just simply knew who he was.
Apparently, Go would visit all stores so regularly that it was simply impossible not to get to know him. The charismatic executive would start conversations randomly, asking questions about the day’s sale or who was that customer who just bought a bulk of liquor. Even the most loyal customers of his supermarkets call him by his nickname, Aboy, and approach him so casually as if he was a next-door neighbor.
“I think it’s because his family’s business started small so he treated his business, even when it grew so big, like a neighborhood store,” Clemeno, who has been with the company for almost two decades now, shared with Entrepreneur Philippines. “He treats everyone the same way.”
Indeed, it seems the young child who used to man his parents’ shop in the 1960s never left. He just got himself a bigger playground and made sure to pay his good fortune forward.