Not many family-run businesses can last for three generations, and continue even beyond that. Among the few that have defied the odds is Destileria Limtuaco. Founded in 1852, it is still managed by the Lim family after 165 years. Each succeeding generation of new leaders has steered the company through upheavals, including wars and labor strikes, as well as stiffer competition.
Limtuaco – the patriarch
The company’s story started in 1817 with the birth of Lim Tua Co (林章獺 Lin Zhangnai) to a merchant family in Xiamen. Although he passed the Jinshi imperial examination in 1843, it didn’t bring him any good fortune. Seven years later, he started all over again when he came to the Philippines at age 33. He brought with him his secret family recipe for a bitter sweet Chinese medicinal wine that gave drinkers stamina. In 1852, Lim set up a distillery bearing his name, and started producing and distributing that medicinal wine in commercial quantity. It became popularly known in Filipino as sioktong, short for the Chinese name (Siok Hoc Tong 宿福堂). The drink became so popular that it still remains in production today.
As Lim’s business grew, he diversified into producing other types of spirits such as gin, anise liquor, rice wine and nipa wine. Adopting the Christian name Bonifacio Limtuaco, he married and had two children – Carlo and Andrea. Chinese traditional way of thinking dictated that only male descendants inherit the family name and business. So it was Carlo, the son, who was groomed to inherit the company. To prepare him for the role, Don Bonifacio enrolled his son at the Ateneo de Manila.
Don Bonifacio passed away in 1887 while on a trip to Xiamen. Carlo continued with his studies at the Ateneo and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1889. A few weeks after he graduated, Carlo also went to Xiamen and, like his father, met his untimely end in that city. (Unfortunately, there are no records of how both men died).
Lim Chay Seng and James Lim – true successors
With both owner and his heir dead, the company was taken over by Don Bonifacio’s cousins, who mismanaged it. It wasn’t until 1926 that a nephew, Lim Chay Seng (林再生), took over the distillery. He was already a successful textile trader then.
Even before Lim Chay Seng took over, the company was adjusting to the changes in the Filipino public’s taste in alcoholic drinks. The company’s product line between 1890 and 1919 showed that they were introducing drinks preferred by Americans, such as gin and rum. During that period, they had Limtuaco Rum and Ginebra Hagonoy and Golden Flower Gin. As sales continued to increase, Lim Chay Seng introduced White Sand Dry Gin, Don Carlos Gin, Bel Canto Dry Gin, Apollo Ginebra, Amigo Rum to the company’s product line. To meet demand, he invested and bought new machines.
As the distillery was being upgraded, Lim Chay Seng was preparing his son James (林 錦谷) to take over. James graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1924. Upon his return from the US, James met and married Juana Teh Siu Yong (戴秀容). Together, the couple had eight children, three boys (Julius, Anthony and Jerry) and five girls (Anna, Gloria, Betty, Bessie and Lilian).
James officially took over the company a year after Lim Chay Seng passed away in 1936. He in turn introduced modern management techniques to the company and moved the company’s distillery from Binondo to a new factory in Grace Park, Caloocan.
When World War II broke out in 1941, James followed the American military’s order and dumped the company’s entire inventory to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Japanese. This act of defiance caused him to be incarcerated with other Filipino leaders at Fort Santiago. He was later pardoned and released from prison as an act of mercy by the late Emperor Hirohito.
With James imprisoned, his wife Teh Siu Yong carried the burden of supporting not just their immediate family but she extended help to workers and many others. She made a name for herself in the Chinese Women’s Auxiliary that helped in war efforts first in China, then in the Philippines. The group later became the Chinese Women’s Association. With Teh’s initiative, the Women’s Home for the Aged as well as Vocational and Recreational Centers in Malinta, Bulacan were built.
After the war, James poured his energy into rebuilding the company from scratch. Again, like his father before him, he began training his son Julius to take his place. He died in 1982. Born in 1927, Julius was 19 years old when he was sent to study business management at the University of Indiana in 1946. He joined the company in 1958 as general manager of the Grace Park factory.
Julius made the effort to learn the chemistry behind distilling and manufacturing of spirits and liquors. Even though he was not a chemist, he was able to patent new formulas and create new aging processes for liquors and spirits. Under his watch, the company expanded its product line to over 30 different products. They had to open two more manufacturing plants and several warehouses all over Metro Manila in order to accommodate the increased production.
Julius and Olivia Limpe – the inheritors
Julius took over the leadership of the company when his father died in 1982. Unlike his father and grandfather though, Julius was creatively gifted as well. He painted landscapes and played the piano and harmonica by ear. He channeled his artistic talents for the company by coming up with some of its most famous marketing campaigns. The best known one was the White Castle Whiskey girl.
In 1954, Julius married lawyer Lily Cheng and together they had seven daughters; Linda, Patricia, Joyce, Natalie, Olivia, Isabel and Irene. In traditional Chinese families, this would have been viewed as a tragedy as there were no male heirs. But Julius instilled in his daughters the thinking that anything men can do, women can do better. This affirmative encouragement helped all of them grow up to be strong, confident and capable women. But since the first four daughters opted to focus on family or pursue another career, it was Olivia, the fifth daughter, who became the company’s next leader.
Olivia joined the company in 1991 as vice president of finance. It was a particularly bad time as the company was still recovering from a labor strike two years earlier. Olivia admitted in a newspaper interview that the temptation to close down the company and start again was strong. But her dad encouraged her to keep the company going. In 1999, after eight years of struggle, the company finally managed to break even.
Julius went into semi-retirement at the age of 65, after Olivia joined the company. He believed that the next set of leaders should begin learning on their own. In 2004, he turned over the company completely to Olivia and devoted his time to his art. He passed away 10 years later, in 2014.
Each generation of the Limpe family expressed their love of country in different ways. Grandfather James was imprisoned in Fort Santiago for dumping the company’s entire inventory6 into the river. Father Julius and Uncle Jerry supported the Buy Filipino movement in 1988. The distillery was included in the campaign to drive home the fact that Philippine-made products are just as good as imported ones. Aunt Betty Limpe continued grandma Teh’s efforts as head of the Filipino-Chinese Women’s Association.
Olivia, for her part, shares that her roots in nationalism began during her college years as a Business Economics student at the University of Philippines. She now promotes Philippine products abroad and hopes to succeed in making Destileria Limtuaco known around the world.