[November 15, 2006]

SPECIAL REPORT: Shattering the glass ceiling

(Business World (Philippines) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) It was her singing voice that brought her to every jukebox player back then, but it will surely be her knack for business that will propel her to her future plans.

From the confines of Philippine Tagalog music to a staunch advocate of the transport sector, that is how we know Ms. Claire dela Fuente.

The shift from show business to the transport business, she said, was an opportunity she took during the transport crisis in the 1990s. "I was shopping around for a good business in 1993 then a friend told us that the transport business is good," said Ms. dela Fuente.


She explained that there was a shortage of public transportation vehicles at that time where the commuting public waited for around two hours to get a ride. The crisis, she said, was the reason why the government encouraged people to take on the transport operation business to augment the local demand.

"Those were the 'golden years' of the transport industry. It was easy to get a franchise," said Ms. dela Fuente.

Ms. dela Fuente said she decided to go into another line of business since show business is not a very stable line of work. Even while she was still actively singing in the late 1980s, she said, she already had a mind- set that she will soon take on a business of her own.

In 1993, she then started her own bus fleet of 65 under the name King of Kings, which started out as a single proprietorship and was eventually consolidated into a corporation. Ms. dela Fuente said taking on the transport business had been particularly easy for a woman like her since she was joined by her husband and their other relatives in the business.

"It is a pretty big business because ang dami namin. The whole family was doing the business," said Ms. dela Fuente. At present, she added, her buses have already grown to 100.

The country was soon hit by the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the transport business was one of the industries affected. "That's when the transport business started to deteriorate," said Ms. dela Fuente.

It was also around this time when Ms. dela Fuente's advocacy for the transport sector grew enough for her to be chosen as the president of the Integrated Metro Bus Operators Association (IMBOA) almost five years ago.

It was not such an extraordinary feat, she said. The IMBOA had two other women presidents before her. In fact, said Ms. dela Fuente, women seem to be more active in the transport business even when most of the public transport drivers around are men. "Luckily women are more active in the transport business or at least they are more articulate than the men. At the moment, out of the four Metro Manila bus organizations, three are headed by women," she said.

But how does a woman rise at the top of the industry?

Ms. dela Fuente explained that in the transport business, the men "do the dirty work" while the women do the talking and discussing. "The women are the ones talking about the problems and try to save the business," she added.

Women are not only conveniently at the top posts of the transport sector, they are even more effective on it. Ms. dela Fuente explained that the women tend to ease up negotiations since men generally give way to the women.

"In my own opinion, yes, I think women are better in this job because men are more compassionate to women. They just give way to women when the women have tantrums. They don't have a tendency to fight it out with a woman," she said.

While Ms. dela Fuente has always been brave enough to take on challenges, she said, she still strived to be better at the industry she chose to take up.

Having entered into the transport operation without a college degree, Ms. dela Fuente had wanted to continue her studies to be better equipped to handle her business.

In 2002, her years of experience as a transport operator and as IMBOA president was credited by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines enough to earn a bachelors degree in transport management. She then proceeded to take a Masters in Business Administration at the local branch of the University of Western Australia, which she finished in two years.

"I wanted people to listen to me. How will they do that if I have a handicap," said Ms. dela Fuente.

In fact, by next year, she is again targeting to go back to school to take, this time, a Masters Degree in Development Communication.

While many people may have just pegged her as another showbiz personality experimenting on another line of work, Ms. dela Fuente proved her worth not only by studying the business but by also using whatever she already has - her show business background.

Accordingly, her being a "celebrity" has given her an edge in the industry and made her more effective in handling the IMBOA top post. "People would say that I was good because I was able to get IMBOA noticed. There was more interest and focus on it because of my celebrity status. Kung baga mas napansin yung causes namin," said Ms. dela Fuente.

Her mettle as a business woman and as an industry leader was of course tested with all the problems of the sector. The fluctuating prices of oil in the past few years, for one, have made the transport business less attractive and less profitable. Now, Ms. dela Fuente said, the industry is on a survival mode.

"We're only surviving in this industry so we're not into competition so much anymore. That's the sad part of our situation," she said.

She said, while she is enjoying her stint as head of IMBOA, handling the affairs of the metro bus group is actually tough and frustrating given all its problems and the industry's critical position in the national economy.

"Basically we're talking about livelihood here. The concern is bread and butter for most people. I am enjoying it because I'm learning a lot but it's tough, I cry sometimes," Ms. dela Fuente said.

She said, her most important learning in the industry is balancing the need of the sector's stakeholders. Even after almost five years at the IMBOA top post and Ms. dela Fuente's heart is still very much into the causes of the transport industry. She said her sentiments towards the industry has become more an advocacy now than a mere business venture.

Actually, Ms. dela Fuente is less involved in the operations of her bus business nowadays as she chose to focus on her other businesses in food and cosmetic products. She, however, still heads the IMBOA.

Apart from the transport business, the former singer said she is now dealing with various other businesses such as a skin shop and two food businesses that are still on the way. "I could not imagine myself without a business. Next to my passion in singing, I have always been business- minded," she said.

Copyright 2006 BusinessWorld (Philippines). Source: Financial Times Information Limited - Asia Intelligence Wire.

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