By Bernie Magkilat
Born, raised and schooled in Pampanga, Prudencio “Pruds” S. Garcia knows where he rightfully belongs: To his Cabalens.
Mekeni Food Corp. is a testament of a Filipino family’s faith and sense of compassion to its neighbors. This was also the same spirit that sustained the company despite the odds to become not just Pampanga’s pride, but a recognition that Filipinos are, indeed, world-class.
Mekeni, which means “come here” in the Pampangueño dialect, was started by Pruds’ teacher-parents Felix and Meding to help augment the family’s income. It was also to prepare for the five boys’ college education because a teacher’s salary then was like a missionary work.
“Our parents trained us early in life. We have to wake up at 4 in the morning to deliver our products before we go to school at 6,” recalls Pruds. The family had to slaughter a few heads of pigs a week to earn on the side.
“That was the start of the enterprising family,” says Pruds, who himself was also selling ice candy to earn a few centavos.
Pruds, who finished accounting at the University of the East cum laude and worked with the country’s top-notch accounting firm SGV, joined the Filipino workers bandwagon to Saudi Arabia. He was an auditor of a cement company in Dammam for eight years. Together with other Filipinos, they formed a group to help other OFWs in trouble. His group would sell tocino to raise funds for these OFWs and to help send money to their families back home.
Then Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991 that buried most of his town Porac. At least 70 families took shelter in their home. Food was difficult because relief efforts were hampered by impassable roads.
That sorry sight was pivotal in their father’s decision to grow the business otherwise these people will go hungry.
Their father wrote a letter to his boys abroad, reminding them of why and how his small company survived because of their community in Pampanga.
The letter left them so disturbed that Pruds packed his bags on October 1993 to go home for good. His brother in the US also heeded his father’s call.
“The real happiness is when you share a big portion of your life. If I want to be happy I have to get out of my comfort zone, go home and expand the business,” says Pruds.
With their earnings, the five boys constructed a new production facility in 1994 that went into commercial operation in December of that year.
While abroad, Pruds noted how Filipinos metamorphosed into excellence from their mediocre performance back home.
“If we apply that same environment in the Philippines, not just the high salary rate, but the spirit of teamwork to achieve a common goal of taking care of each other as family then we can succeed,” says Pruds. Mekeni taught the same values to its people. But the journey was not without obstacles. There were challenges including the FMD (foot and mouth) disease and the Asian financial crisis. When the Asian financial crisis struck in 1997, the peso fell to P47 from P26 against the US dollar.
While the brothers were all bent to close the operation, his father reminded them again of the company’s mission that the business has greater purpose beyond themselves. The father reminded them of the many Cabalens who depended on them for their daily sustenance.
“I just want to remind you how we’ve come to building this business, how come you made a decision without consulting our people,” his father’s voice still ringing in his ears.
At that time, 40 Cabalens were working with them on two shifts.
“Our father talked to our people in layman’s term because most of our workers did not even finish high school. The choice was to close or downsize and he asked them for their opinion on the company’s staggering operation,” says Pruds.
But their Cabalens said they have to fight for the company. The crisis may had ruffled some of their feathers, but not quite. Their employes agreed to shortened working hours to ensure everyone has work and earn a living.
The will of their people was so overpowering that Pruds conceded, “I lost, we have the commitment of our people and that has to be respected.”
So, they braved the storm and decided to compete for quality in a very competitive environment.
“This is the kind of attitude, the kind of people that every business organization needs. It inspires us to work day and night,” says Pruds.
Mekeni perfected its quality control systems. The environment was totally clean with no speck of dust.
The crisis taught them two lessons: Consult your people and compete for quality.
“But it was the vision of my father that reminds us to work as family,” says Pruds.
The teacher-couple Garcia taught their boys the value of looking after the welfare of other people than themselves.
What started as a backyard meat production ended up as a business with a social dimension.
STATE OF THE ART
In 2001, the first state-of-the-art Mekeni plant was erected.
“Together, we can be world-class that’s the mindset because we have the latest technology and the right people,” says Pruds.
The only thing lacking was how to bring the backyard production to the next level. This paved the way for the company’s expansion and hiring of more people. Its equipment are imported from Germany and the US.
In 2003, Mekeni had its people prepared for stiffer competition as the company became the benchmark for quality and standards among local players.
For the first time, the company bagged its first award in 2004 and thereafter. Excellence became a habit at Mekeni. Its processes has been recognized here and abroad. It is a Platinum awardee in Germany and Switzerland for quality and safety.
To become an industry leader, a start-up need not follow the majority. Instead, Mekeni pursued global certification standards and garnered recognitions here and abroad.
After winning national standards, Mekeni pursued international standards. It was certified for food safety management ISO 22000, making Mekeni the first in the Philippines and the first in Asia.
These awards strengthen the company’s push for more export.
At first, nobody would extend them loans until the Development Bank of the Philippines granted its first loan of R50 million to partly finance its R100-million plant. The company also secured additional loans totaling R300 million. Modernizing with the latest technology was expensive because the cost for refrigeration system alone was already staggering.
“DBP believed in us that we can do it,” says Pruds. One of the requirements was for Mekeni to export because the country needs dollars.
From a P5-million capitalization from their parents’ and the siblings’s savings, Mekeni is now estimated to value P800 million.
“When I was in Vietnam, I was told I can easily become a billionaire because of the very good image of Mekeni, but I don’t want to become a billionaire, that is not our objective,” says Pruds, a consistent honor student.
Instead, Pruds take these comments as opportunities for reflection on his father’s wisdom.
Already, 89 years old, his father still plays the family’s favorite past time “dama”.
“We still consult him because he is still active, and I still cannot beat him. Every time we met, we play dama,” says Pruds, whose mom passed away in 2008.
“We always go back to our story of being part of these people, the community and that we can excel together,” says Pruds.
They communicate the company’s values to its workers to be able to identify themselves in the story.
Now a trustee of GO NEGOSYO, an entrepreneurship advocacy, Pruds makes it a point to encourage OFWs to save their hard-earned income and become entrepreneurs.
“OFWs are the best people to go into entrepreneurship because they had been exposed to multinational companies’ operations,” says Pruds.
“But OFWs have the tendency to buy furniture pieces first. The first furniture I bought is my wedding ring.”
In the case of Mekeni, it continued to reinvest its income and expand its product offerings from sausage, chicharon, hotdogs, ham, bacon, among others.
Despite a thriving business, the brothers continue live simply.
For years the brothers all lived in their parents’ home even if they were all married already. They now have separate houses and live as neighbors in the same Mekeni compound.
According to Pruds, the company’s achievements are an after-effect of what is within in an organization that is run on the principle of family well-being and quality.
This principle is the reason the company is not following the trend among companies to go public.
“We have a culture to protect where we treat each other as members of the family. We focused on our core values,” he adds.
Mekeni employs more than 1,300 direct workers, excluding over 500 “promodizers”.
Employees have a sense of entitlement in the country. Everyone is looking after the welfare of each other. Operators are protective of the machines because any breakdown in production will result in losses and ultimately, jobs.
Mekeni also invites experts to discuss about family values.
Mekeni is now preparing the third generation to continue the business.
Unlike other companies, which disallow family members of existing employees to join them, Mekeni encourages family members to work with them believing that company values are easily passed on and enhanced if the workers are blood-related.
Teamwork can easily be established. Mekeni workers even formed its own fire fighting team and an emergency response team.
Mekeni now exports to the Middle East and Asia and is shipping to Australia and New Zealand and soon Japan.
“We are the first processed food company in the Philippines to be accredited by the Japanese government. Hopefully, we will be in the US by next year,” he adds. Canada is on the table, including Europe.
Mekeni has more room for expansion because its plants have the capacity to produce 100 tons a day. Its best selling product is hotdog, accounting for 60 percent of total sales.
So far, exports still account for less than 3 percent of total business. But Pruds has set an ambitious target of 60-40 share in favor of exports in two years’ time.
If the company was able to succeed in penetrating the local market, Pruds is confident it can conquer the world. Mekeni is open to possible partnerships with partners in other countries.
It is also going into the production of healthy foods, with less sodium and less fat products.
The company also makes sure they are efficient and been able to control wastage.
In 1996, there were 300 backyard meat processors in Pampanga, known as the country’s food capital. Mekeni made it to the top three after 30 years. Pruds once served as president of the Pampanga Association of Meat Processors.
To ensure sustained supply of meat, Mekeni sources its raw materials/meat from abroad, mostly from Canada and the US. At least 70 percent of its pork are imported.
Pruds shares that during peak Holiday season, competitors love to recycle stories to discredit the company’s facilities.
But Mekeni is winning in this competition because they are focused. It also helped that the Philippines is FMD and bird flue-free.
It is modernizing, including a new and more dynamic logo.
For this year, the company expects a repeat of its last year’s P1.2-billion sales performance.
“We want to challenge our partners in the industry that there is money in quality,” he says.
The five siblings have specific roles in the company, although Pruds said that job titles are not an issue among the brothers. At the end of the day, each of them gets the same salary.
Pruds does not want to be president but was designated as such. His four other brothers Angelito, Adrino, Nardo and Diosdado are all vice presidents handling specific roles in the organization.
But Pruds’ ability to be engaging and his inspiring ways represent the face of the company.
“Besides I am the most handsome among the five of us according to my wife Susan,” Pruds says in jest. Pruds considers the birth of his only child, Faith, as the greatest blessing he received from God after 23 years of marriage.
There has been no conflict among the Garcia brothers, who follow the family corporation code.
If a major decision is needed, they do it through vote. If three of the five brothers vote in the affirmative then a decision is carried but if one abstains, their father will be the tie breaker.
Every major department in the company has a representative in the company’s executive committee.
According to Pruds, one thing that kept their family relations intact is their faith in God.
“That is clear to us and we enjoy working with the community,” he adds.
According to Pruds, some family corporations failed on the third generation largely because “they forgot the founder’s mentality and family values.”
“No matter what competition you’ll face, if you work as a team and focus on the values of the founders, then the next generation will rise,” says Pruds.
This is what Pruds would love to tell his nephews to always remember their grandfather’s mentality.
“As long as that mentality is kept within, it will always be part of every commitment we make and the next generation of leaders. Respect and trust must be observed at all times,” he said.
In fact, Pruds says that what is really driving the company growth is having good relationships with others.
“Good relations translate into business. It is not actually the money, but the values within us,” says Pruds.
Pruds hopes the Mekeni values transcend and influence others, as well.
Mekeni even celebrates the successes of their employees’ children. Those graduates with honors are given company recognition.
It implements a set of policies even as it incentivizes good performance.
“Policy dictates the behavior of people,” stresses Pruds.
During Christmas when traffic becomes almost unbearable, Mekeni employees, including managers, take time to prepare food for the drivers and truck helpers so they won’t go hungry while stuck in traffic. If it is too late for them to go home at night, they are prepared with quarters to sleep on for the night.
Pruds is a consultative leader. He is not only visionary but one who can execute a vision.
“A visionary must have a vision, but without execution of that vision is pure hallucination,” says Pruds, a dog lover and trainer. He used to have 16 dogs. Now, he’s got 4.
“If I can train dogs with functions then my managers can train their people better because they are not dogs. The only thing needed is that processes are clear,” he adds.
Mekeni’s success story has been shaped by sheer sense of compassion and belongingness. They had been able to hurdle barriers and are more prepared to meet challenges.
Together with its employees, Mekeni is now well-positioned to conquer the world.