Thomas White Global Investing
Emerging Leaders

Emerging Leaders

January 2013

Alfredo M. Yao, founder, Zesto Group, the Philippines

Alfredo M. Yao is one of the most admired businessmen in the Philippines today. The two flagship companies of his sprawling Zesto Group are called Zest-O-Corporation and Zest Airways. The names couldn’t be more appropriate. After all, these are enterprises built on the foundation of Yao’s enormous enthusiasm for finding another way.

Indeed, when his new packaging technology failed to gain traction, Yao started making juice to sell the pack. Thus, one of the country’s largest beverage companies — Zest-O-Corp. — was born. Similarly, when his airline, Zest Airways, faced headwinds in a highly competitive market, Yao created an entirely new route to operate flights. Not surprisingly, therefore, 68-year-old Yao is considered an inspiring and iconic personality in the Philippines.

Popularly known as the ‘Juice King,’ the jet-setting businessman is not just the CEO of Zest-O-Corp. and Zest Airways but also the founder of a clutch of firms — Semexco Marketing, Inc., Harman Foods, Amchem Marketing, Inc., American Brands Philippines, Inc., SMI Development Corporation, and the Philippine Business Bank.

But it is orange juice that made Yao a household name in his country. The Zest-O orange drink was introduced way back in 1981. Tasty and easy on the pocket, it was an instant hit. Today, Zest-O has an entire line of products — from juices and fruit sodas to kitchen preserves and purees. The company enjoys a nearly 80% share of the ready-to-drink market in the Philippines. Zest-O’s purees are exported to the U.S., Europe, China, Australia, and other countries.

Out-of-the-box thinking is also the fuel for his most recent and ambitious venture, Zest Airways. In 2008, when Zest Airways began operations, it met stiff competition from four other local low-cost carriers on both the domestic and the international routes. Still, Yao took the route unexplored. He hit upon the idea of flying tourists from China and South Korea directly to beautiful tourist destinations in the Philippines, instead of to Manila. Explaining his decision to avoid competing with other carriers on the regular Manila routes, Yao told the China Daily that he felt flying directly to tourist destinations would ensure a niche market for the new airlines and increase tourism. In fact, the number of Zest Airway’s passengers jumped from 950,000 in 2009 to 1.4 million in 2010.

Yao’s successes in all of his business ventures until now have prompted people to call him the ‘juice magnate’ with the Midas touch. But that Midas touch hasn’t come easy to Yao. Having lost his father at 12, he grew up doing odd jobs to help his mother feed the family. As a young man, Yao was determined to start something on his own. So he invested in a small printing press and named it after his mother. In two decades, the press became reasonably successful, so much so that in 1979 Yao could afford to visit a trade exhibition in Europe. There, he came across a new technology in packaging, which used plastic and foil to make easy-to-use collapsible packs. Known as ‘doy packs,’ these were lightweight, and they could stand upright and be sealed aseptically.

Excited, Yao immediately bought a packaging machine. But back home, nobody was convinced. Juice manufacturers refused to entertain him and everybody he approached with his new idea turned him away. Never one to lose faith, Yao began making juices enthusiastically in his own kitchen and packaged them using the equipment he had just bought. His optimism was not misplaced. Zest-O orange drink was launched within the next two years and Yao never looked back. Over the years, his business diversified from printing and packaging to realty, banking, food and beverage, trading, and now aviation.

In his interactions with the media, Yao is fond of reiterating that all his actions, be it in his business or personal life, are a reflection of the lessons he learned at his mother’s lap — to work hard, to persevere, and no matter what the circumstances, to not lose heart. Clearly, it is Alfredo Yao’s affinity to meld this simple, earthy wisdom with his knack for improvising that has added the zest to his business ventures.





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