“Everything is a blessing from God, including our family business,” says Chevrolet Philippines’ co-founder Selene Lee Yu, 55, “The timing was always just right. Whatever we needed, God would provide.”
When General Motors (GM) in the United States filed for bankruptcy in the late 2000s, its Philippine subsidiary realized that it needed local expertise.
By that time, Selene and sister Sherry Yu-Gue, 50, together with cousin Richard L. Lee and (non-family) professional Alberto B. Arcilla, 51, had already worked for decades in their family-owned car businesses, Universal Motors and Volvo.
In early 2009, GM met with Selene, Sherry, and Alberto; in April, the latter submitted their proposal; in May, they were off to Bangkok, Thailand, to pitch to the international executives.
“I always carry a particular [piece of] luggage, which had all the reports,” says Selene. “At the hotel, I tried the usual combination, but the luggage wouldn’t open! I sat on the bed and prayed to God, and somehow, it came to me that I should set the middle digit to the number 1. I did, and the luggage opened. Right then and there, I knew that we were going to get the business.”
“What I know is that the Lord provides what we need to learn,” says Alberto. “We did a good song-and-dance and the executives were engaged. We were so confident that we were high-fiving each other on the way back. We were on a high until we saw other competitors checking into the hotel. We had thought that we were the only candidates, but apparently, there were others. Hubris! We were brought down to earth then. We were chosen at the end, but the Lord does speak to us at every major turning point.”
With the blessing of GM Southeast Asia, Chevrolet Philippines: The Covenant Car Company Inc. (TCCCI) was born two months later, in July, and assumed full business operations for Chevrolet in October 2009.
The team wanted former Central Bank Governor Jose Cuisia, Jr. to be board chair. “He is prayerful, and would lead us on the right path,” says Selene. “But we were hesitant because he was employed in an insurance firm at that time, so he might not be able to chair the board of any other company.”
“Believe it or not, I read in the paper that he was retiring that same day from the firm!” says Alberto. “So the way was open for him. Great timing! God works through ordinary events.”
“We don’t believe in coincidence,” says Selene. “Instead we say it is ‘divicidence’: divine coincidence.”
Li Seng Giap and his wife, Tang Ho, the grandparents of Selene and Sherry, had business interests in hemp and properties in the postwar era.
They divided shares among all 13 children, including the women.
In many traditional Chinese businesses, women would not get any share, since they were deemed the responsibility of their husbands upon marriage.
In large families, the elder ones would often claim the lion’s share of the inheritance. By this logic, youngest daughters suffered the most.
“Our grandmother fought for the rights and the share of the younger ones,” says Sherry. “She and our grandfather were visionaries.”
In 1954, the couple’s fourth son, Anthony Lee, a graduate of Columbia University, decided to go into the automotive business, and with the help of his siblings, he set up Universal Motors Corp. (UMC).
UMC pioneered in the assembly and distribution of commercial vehicles in the country, starting with Mercedes-Benz and branching into Nissan and recently, BAIC.
Anthony was a hands-on leader, and like most patriarchs, he knew all the details of the business.
“When I was young, my mother wanted to buy a Mercedes,” says Alberto. “When we visited the store, Anthony himself, not the sales employee, came down the stairs to entertain us. My mother was impressed by that, and years later, when she discovered that I would be working with the Lee family, she was very happy.”
Business grew under Anthony, and flourished even more under his son Richard, now in his 60s.
Selene’s mother, Valeriana, was Richard’s younger sister.
Selene, who went to the Wharton Business School, says she never thought she would end up working in the family business.
But she did in 1991.
She returned home when her elder sister, who was working in sales and marketing for UMC, passed away.
Sherry started working in audit and then went to finance a few years after.
By that time, many family members were already shareholder-owners, and a number of them were working as executives.
As one of the youngest then, Selene is thankful that Richard, with his calm and wise demeanor, acted as the bridge between the older (uncles and aunts) and the younger (cousins) generations.
“Richard has a generous heart,” says Alberto, “he cares for all parties. He goes for win-win.”
In 1994, Richard, Selene and Sherry met Alberto, a lawyer from another group who was consolidating a deal for Volvo. Working together in the luxury car market, they discovered that they share the same values and perspectives, so when divicidence called, they created their own company, TCCCI.
“This is our chance to do things right at the start,” says Selene. “We already had decades of experience in the car business, for which we are thankful.”
But they wanted to walk the talk. “We place God at the center of our culture,” says Selene. “We do everything for His glory.”
Serving God means following the law, and this includes paying all the proper taxes. Many businesses, whether family or non-family, say they do not want to pay proper taxes because of government corruption.
They point to alleged scandals that have shocked the nation. If taxes will truly be used for the benefit of the people, then they will pay—but not if taxes go to the crooks.
But we render to God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Selene quotes from Matthew 17:27, where Jesus instructs Peter to catch a tilapia, take the drachma coin from its mouth, and pay it as tax in the temple.
In Jesus’ time, the temple was far from clean, which was why the Lord grew angry at the moneychangers. But Jesus paid taxes anyway, and now, Covenant Car Company does the same.
“Wherever the taxes go, that is the government’s responsibility,” says Sherry.
“By the standards we live by, we pay the proper taxes,” says Selene. “We do what is right.”
(To be continued next week)
Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the board of directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.) E-mail the author at email@example.com.
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