Bienvenido R. Tantoco Sr. at 100: Life lessons from a centenarian | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Bienvenido Tantoco Sr. portrait by Betsy Westendorp de Brias
Bienvenido Tantoco Sr. portrait by Betsy Westendorp de Brias


An exemplary life is what Bienvenido R. Tantoco Sr. and members of his family celebrate today as he marks his 100th birthday.

As the patriarch and founder of the Rustan Group of Companies, he together with his late wife Gliceria is rightly credited with creating the luxury retail industry in this country, a legacy he has passed on to two succeeding generations of the Tantoco clan. Under his visionary leadership, Rustan’s grew from a single department store to the multifaceted conglomerate it is today.

Like few other captains of industry, however, his has also been a life of reflection on the deeper meaning and purpose of life—a side of his nature that blossomed in his later years with his appointment as the country’s ambassador to the Holy See in Rome.

This dual focus allowed him to refine a philosophy of business and life that has imprinted on the corporate culture of the Rustans Group, and which still guides his heirs in their decisions today.

Despite the present constraints posed by the quarantine and his advanced age, Tantoco is still keen to share with his fellow Filipinos the lessons he has taken to heart throughout the course of his life.

Lifestyle: You have been blessed with a long and fulfilling life. What core values helped guide you along the way?

Bienvenido R. Tantoco Sr.: Enthusiasm will bring you far, but you have to match it with persistence. From day one, my wife and I had enthusiasm. We believed in what we were doing. At first, it was she alone who thought about retail, specifically bringing in quality and first-class goods from abroad, but as soon as I saw what she was doing, I gave her my total faith and confidence. She knew what she wanted, how could I not be convinced?

Through the years, I have always been on the lookout for something new, what is relevant, what will sell. This is not just about enterprise. It is about living one’s life. One should always be relevant and useful. You become useless and that is the end for you. You refuse to do better, you refuse to adapt, and that is as good as saying goodbye.

Tantoco and eldest grandson Donnie on a visit to the Subic Duty Free warehouse, around 1993-94

What are the most important characteristics or personality traits that a young person needs to make a success of him or herself?

Faith in God is important. A young person should believe in a power bigger than anything and anyone else in the world. I grew up without questioning the faith that had been passed on to me by my parents. And time has proved them right. It has not been an easy life all the way, but in times of need and struggle, God was there with me, my family, my wife and our family, our businesses and my career as a diplomat.

Honesty is still the best policy, whether one is transacting business or dealing with one’s loved ones. No one is perfect but if there is one virtue that one cannot sacrifice, it is being truthful. You cannot lie to yourself. Your conscience will always tell you the truth, why bother to lie at all? Besides, to use an old expression, truth will set you free and that has been the case with me all my life.

You have often spoken about the pivotal role education has played in your own personal success. What are your thoughts on education now? How can we adapt it to meet changing needs?

Education remains No. 1. I worked to be able to finish college. I was lucky I had a job with the Rufinos and I was given a scholarship grant by the Fabellas of Jose Rizal University. But I knew it in my heart that education was what I needed to be able to help my family and to advance in life, and even get back what my parents lost during their difficult times.

That is why I have always emphasized education in my philanthropic activities. I have tried to help the schools that I attended in Bulacan. I have always believed in basic education because that is where everything starts. But equally important to me is the education of the educator, that is why I put a strong emphasis in empowering our public school teachers, arming them with graduate education that would give them the expertise in their respective fields.

I have lent my name to the Graduate School of Business of the Jose Rizal University, but my emphasis is the creation of professorial chairs to be able to give the students that first-class training that they can have from the best schools in the country and the region.

I am not one for memorializing myself in an edifice. I am more interested in contributing to the development of the human intellect and his practical knowledge essential to the engagement in business enterprise and fields where he will be able to contribute to society.

As I am an entrepreneur, I believe that enterprise will bring development to our country.

Retail will always flourish but we need to teach our would-be entrepreneurs the skills that they need to be able to adapt to the changing times.

Tantoco (left) on his 80th birthday at the National Shrine of Sacred Heart, 2001

You’ve often spoken of Filipino family values. What does this mean to you?

Family is No. 1. That is why to this day I find the time to be with my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren and their spouses because the only way for a family to live and survive is to talk, to share and for the elders to share their knowledge and their experiences.

At the same time, I learn from them. We are together in many new pursuits. I was with my grandsons when we had initial talks with Starbucks. And the founders chose us to do business with in the Philippines because they saw that we were a united family.

Families should stick together even as they welcome new blood because it is also the only way to grow and adapt to the changing times. Someone new in the family brings a new idea; he should be entertained, welcomed and believed for his worth.

Rustan’s remains strong and No. 1 in luxury retail because as a family, we understand what we want.

The Filipino family, any Filipino family, should first be united, and then, it should be open to changes and to adapting to the needs of the times.

We came into the scene when it was difficult to have imported goods of good quality and we brought them to the Philippines. We have since expanded to other ventures, but again, we have stood by our commitment to give only the best. High quality runs in any undertaking of the family, whether this be a golf club or a store or a coffee shop or a food outlet. We cater to the Filipino, to the consumer who wants only the best for themselves and who have high respect for themselves.

Respect is important. We as a family respect ourselves but we do not take ourselves too seriously. We have time to laugh, socialize and enjoy the good life that we espouse. But when it’s time to work, we work. Dignity of labor or management expertise runs in our blood. We work hard. Every family member works hard. There is no Tantoco who is not working.

How did you balance your business life and your spiritual life?

God is foremost. You do your duty to God and you do your duty to your family and your country.

As an ambassador, I served both God and my country.

Religion is not difficult to practice if one honestly lives it. Have faith in God no matter what. If you do wrong, ask for forgiveness and make up for your mistakes. Someone does wrong, you forgive him and give him a chance.

Honesty is No. 1. You cannot profess to believe in God and shortchange your neighbor. You promise your customers first-class goods, give them first class goods. You advertise as a first-class establishment, go first class all the way. From the façade to the backroom. From the floor to the ceiling. From combs and fans, to pendants and watches. From colognes to perfume, from shirts to bags worth P1 million.

Gliceria and Bienvenido
Tantoco, early 1980s

As far as your legacy is concerned, what role should the company play in the future of the country? What principles should it continue to live by, regardless of how situations change?

The company was at the forefront of bringing in quality goods for the discriminating Filipino. It should remain committed to bringing in only the best, even as it should also bring to the world the best that this country can offer.

Rustan’s believes in first-class service. It should continue to provide that service that, to this day, remains unmatched.

The future has many challenges and Rustan’s should be constantly aware of what people want. Who would have thought that coffee would click in a hot country? We brought in Starbucks and people love their coffee even more.

Natori is a Filipino international brand. Rustan’s should make sure that the Filipino brand takes center stage in the world of first-class retail.

The pandemic will end. Rustan’s should be ready. It was founded right after the war, went through upheavals in politics and economy, and it is still here.

We have always catered to the aspirational only because we believe that those who aspire will finally reach the top and we will be there still with them, assisting them, serving them and giving them what they want.

Rustan’s has its many social responsibility efforts. We are No. 1 in cultural development assistance as we try to broaden the cultural education of the Filipino, and with us in this worthy endeavor are international brands who see the value of working with us in our efforts. Rustan’s, especially through the Tantoco-Rustia Foundation, will remain strong in and committed to the quest for a better life for the Filipino.

What personal habits helped you achieve a long and healthy life, and how did you learn about them?

I enjoy eating but I eat moderately. I move around a lot. I used to play golf. Now I exercise.

I also believe in having a purpose in life. The mind has to be active as much as one’s body is. They ought to go together.

A healthy life is one that is not only efficient where one’s physical faculties are concerned, and not just where intellect is concerned. One has to be responsible and one has to continuously make a difference in people’s lives. He who stops being relevant has no place in this world.

Any other thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

Rustan’s is about family—the Tantoco family, its management, its employees, its clients and customers and its brand partners.

We have done our best to help our employees in these trying times. We will continue to do so. We believe in relationships and we believe in sharing.

Foremost in my mind, even at this age, is my wife Glecy. Rustan’s would not be here without Glecy. She thought about it all, she started it, and I did my best to assist her. Rustan’s became my career and I do not regret a single day.

Glecy was a dear wife and she knew her store, her people, the products that she sold. She was responsible for its becoming the No. 1 luxury retail establishment in the country. Her inspiration and her path continue to define our direction. Even our vision long after she was gone has her imprint only because she looked beyond her time. It is true that she was way far ahead in thought, word and deed. To this day, she propels us to move forward because of her example and her legacy of hard work, dedication and commitment. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to get them. No secrets there. She worked hard, period!

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