IF there’s one thing Steve Benitez has known all these years, it is that his coffee business would work.
True enough, his over 20-year-old coffee venture has become home to 700 direct employees, excluding farmers, social entrepreneurs and other community organizations his coffee business has helped along the way.
Steve is the youngest in a brood of five. He took up management economics in Ateneo de Manila University. He grew up in a family that was already business-inclined, running Ric’s Barbecue since 1968.
“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. In fact, I was already entrepreneurial at a young age. I befriended salesmen so I could ask for promotional toys and sell it to my classmates,” he said.
Steve is one of the Cebuano personalities instrumental in bringing the coffee experience in Cebu beyond offices and homes. He helped introduce a new way of catching up with friends, conducting business meetings, and studying over a cup of coffee that is sourced locally.
Although Bo’s Coffee competes against a number of coffee giants, Steve is confident in Bo’s own healthy growth story, one that offers a distinct Filipino experience.
Looking ahead, Steve wants his business to be more than just profit-oriented.
“I have something in my hand. Something powerful that can help change more lives,” said Steve, referring to his newfound advocacy on social entrepreneurship. He said that if Filipinos would only work together to help uplift the communities in the grassroots level, the country wouldn’t only be rejoicing in the success of a few, but an entire community.
“Any business is powerful only if you know the purpose in the first place. I know mine. Money is just a fuel, not my destination,” said Steve.
What was your first job?
I pursued law after college in Ateneo de Manila University. But I took a job on the side as a corporate card consultant at American Express. There, I was exposed to the corporate culture.
It was a short stint, though, because on my third year in law school, I took a leave to take over the family business, Ric’s Barbecue along Ramos St. My parents that time were retiring and they wanted to close the business, so I decided to run it.
What inspired you to get into business?
Drinking coffee has fueled my late-night study sessions in law school but what made me fall in love with coffee and its culture were my travels abroad.
I began traveling abroad since 1993. I liked the idea of exploring and seeing new places. In fact, I used to tell my mom when I was kid that I wanted to become a pilot.
That never happened, but the love of traveling led me to a different pathway. I spent longer hours sitting in coffee shops- enjoying my coffee, talking and meeting new friends. Coffee shops, in other countries, became a venue to close business deals, nurture relationships, and simply became just a meetup place. This then inspired me to bring the same concept to Cebu.
All I had then was the guts to start the business. I pitched it to my family and friends and everybody said it was not going to work. In fact, two months before the opening of my first coffee shop in Ayala in 1996, my two business partners backed out. I was left alone to open and run the business. Back then, going out to drink coffee wasn’t popular in Cebu but I took the risk. I priced my brewed coffee at P15 and my cappuccino at P25.
When did you realize this was what you were meant to do?
I studied the coffee industry and the business for two years. I traveled abroad to join expos. I also did a lot of market surveys and feasibility studies only to find out the Cebu market wasn’t really ready for the coffee shop concept. Cebuanos weren’t willing to pay but it was my unrelenting spirit that pushed me to still pursue the business idea. I was stubborn. Entrepreneurs are stubborn.
Until I attended a coffee expo in Singapore and I saw a lot of people drinking coffee despite the hot weather. So I thought if this worked in Singapore, which has the same weather with the Philippines, the coffee concept would work. It may take a matter of time, but I knew in my heart it would work. So I bought my first coffee machine there in Singapore at P65,000.
The first few months were a bit difficult. Sales were low but it took off during the sixth month and during the eighth month, I opened my second branch in SM City Cebu. Fast forward, I now have over 100 coffee shops spread across the country. We are aiming to hit a total of 200 branches in the next two years and, two months ago, we opened our first international outlet in Qatar.
Why did you pick this type of business or industry?
Besides my love for coffee, a new inspiration has sprung up. Looking at it as an industry, coffee is one of those that generates livelihood to farming communities. We attribute our growth to the brand’s strong positioning, being a homegrown brew. We source our coffee beans from the highland farmers in Sagada and Benguet in Mt. Province, Mt. Kitangland in Bukidnon, Mt. Apo in Davao, and Mt. Matutum in Tupi, South Cotabato. There’s much uplifting to be done in the coffee farming community to achieve self-sufficiency.
We have also transformed the way we engage in business. In 2012, we opened Bo’s outlets to become the launching pad for social entrepreneurs to market their products.
By tapping Anthill for the fabrics of our chairs and sofas, it opened Bo’s to a higher level of community involvement. We realized that the grassroots have to grow with us.
How many times did you fail before you succeeded?
Entrepreneurs need not to be afraid of failures. You have to embrace them and take each misstep as an opportunity to learn.
My Bo’s franchise in 1999 in Manila was a failure because it was done in a rushed manner. We all got excited, overwhelmed to bring the business to Manila. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. But I did not allow this experience to affect my long-term vision for Bo’s.
The experience allowed me to work harder and perfect the business system. I did not return to Manila (for business) until 2003 when the brand was all set to serve more customers.