“I am very thankful God called me to serve. I get a lot of fulfillment in what I am doing today – and the example I am allowed to share with an organization like this – the concept of servant-leadership. I never asked what’s in it for me.”
Robert Kuan’s words ring like verses from the Holy Scripture, but he was just an ordinary man who had the vision to turn things around from humble beginnings to greatness. He propelled Chowking (超群) to success as a Chinese fast-food giant serving dimsum and rice meals.
Roberto Fung Kuan (劉孝平) was born on Aug. 6, 1948, to Kuan Fong and Fung Me Wa. He was the eldest of four siblings – Helen, Joseph and Choleng. His parents were first-generation immigrants who came from Guangdong province in China. His father, Robert Fong, along with several partners, including brother-in-law Thomas Fung (an older brother of Robert’s mother), started Ling Nam Wanton Parlor (嶺南麵家 which specializes in serving noodles, congee, siopao, siomai and other dimsum offerings) on Alonzo Street in Sta. Cruz, Manila in 1950.
Kuan married Yvonne Yap on Aug. 3, 1975. They had four children: Robert Kelvin, Natalie Cherubim, Jeremy Giancarlo and Sherwin Spencer.
Kuan studied at the Manila Patriotic Elementary and Hope Christian High School. Even at an early age, he was already active in church activities. His father, however, prodded him to take up a business course rather than enter the seminary, so he enrolled at the University of the Philippines where he finished Business Administration. After graduation, he gladly accepted a job at the Makati Supermarket as a warehouse checker.
Kuan worked hard and learned as much as he could, observing the processes of retailing operations, pricing and basically everything there was to learn from the business because he felt that he would use this knowledge in the future. In 1973, after working for two years, his father gave him P10,000 and encouraged him to get a master’s degree at Asian Institute of Management. The money was all that was left of his life savings and the only legacy his father could give him.
Going back to a student’s life was a hassle, and he had to readjust. The idea of studying every night and preparing for exams was not at all appealing to him but he persisted, always mindful of his father’s dream for him. “My father never went to business schools, yet he was aware of one of the important rules – that a leader must care for his employees so that he earns their respect and loyalty.”
Barely six months after he started his MBA, Kuan’s father died of lung cancer. This made him more determined in his studies. In 1975, he earned his MBA degree. Makati Supermarket again offered him a position, this time with a salary three times his last pay. He declined and opted to work as an assistant manager for Ever Emporium.
With his MBA background, Kuan felt a yearning to test and make use of his entrepreneurial and management skills and knowledge. So, after working for only a few months, he left Ever Emporium and became manager of Ling Nam.
Ling Nam, meaning “southern part of a mountain,” refers to or stands as a symbol of Canton (now Guangdong), a province in southern China. The pioneer noodle house was owned by his mother’s family, the Fungs. Kuan adopted a more progressive approach with Ling Nam, steering it towards expansion which was the subject of his MA thesis at AIM. Eight years later, it became even more popular and opened more branches in Metro Manila.
Fr. Emeterio Barcelon, SJ, a friend and 1975 batch mate at the AIM, recalls last seeing Kuan at a China Bank (he was the Lead Independent director) event with Punla Foundation in connection with breeding local pigs and foreign feeds project.
“He treated the board of directors of Punla Foundation to a restaurant in St. Luke’s Medical Center in Global City, Taguig. He knew how to serve others, so that when he was needed, others would go to him,” Fr. Barcelon said.
He recalled how Kuan would shut his room door in the dorm to focus on his AIM studies while others had pool dunking sessions. He was very hard working, and went to SM malls to observe so often that Henry Sy thought he was spying.
But his natural ability to get along with people gained him Sy’s trust, and they became friends. Sy started accompanying him in touring SM stores. One day, he confided to Sy about his anxiety and issues about Ling Nam. The management problems and unavoidable family conflicts, typical in a family-owned business, bothered him. He agonized over whether to resign or be fired. The head of SM advised him to resign because it was the better decision to make. He followed Sy’s advise and left Ling Nam after having managed it for eight years.
Kuan had been toying with the idea of putting up his own Chinese fast-food restaurant in a novel setting, a hybrid of Western-style fast-food chain and the traditional panciteria. He envisioned it becoming a global Chinese fast-food chain.
So in 1984, he approached Tony Tan Caktiong who, at that time, had been running Jollibee for six years, and shared his vision. Tan Caktiong liked the idea and gave him the go-signal. On March 18, 1985, the first Chowking store was born, originally located at the Rotary Foundation Building in the Ayala Commercial Center in Makati. (This building no longer exists; it is currently part of where SM Department Store is located across from Park Square).
Kuan devoted himself to Chowking. He would visit the store, listen to customers’ feedback, offer seats to senior citizens and actually get involved with dirty kitchen work. He encouraged his employees to aspire for greater things. “Ten years from now, I do not want to see you working in your current jobs. I want you to rise up as supervisors or managers because I have a vision for Chowking to be all over the country.”
With this vision, Kuan set up a franchising system for Chowking which welcomed entrepreneurs to be part of the company. Five years later, Chowking bloomed with 10 branches and franchise stores. During his early years with Chowking, the visionary and good-hearted Kuan, as one priest friend recalls, would visit Cagayan de Oro together with his wife to distribute packs of noodles as gifts. Truly, he had the heart of a philanthropist.
Tulay staff Liza Lopez also remembers him well. She worked as a part-time cashier at a Chowking branch in Manila in the 1990s while still a student. She shared her few encounters with Kuan which left a mark in her mind. “Sometimes, he would hand me his parking tickets before heading upstairs to his office and other times, I would bring his lunch to his office. He was a down-to-earth and low-profile person. He greets the staff when he comes in, and if you don’t know him, you’ll never guess he’s the owner of Chowking.”
Lopez adds, “I also remember having accompanied a friend (a branch manager of Chowking) who needed Mr. Kuan’s signature on a check. We met him at a restaurant where a family event was going on. We didn’t have to wait for long because when he was told about our presence, he immediately led us to a table, signed the check, and even invited us to stay and have dinner first before we leave.”
Katherine Q. Cua, a Chowking franchise store manager, likewise said, “I have not talked to him but I happen to see him occasionally when there’s a meeting or talk. All I heard from others is that he was always kind and generous.”
Kuan sold Chowking to Jollibee in November 1999. By then, Chowking branches numbered about 155 stores, with three branches in Dubai, and three in the United States. “When I began Chowking, I never thought that one day, I would have to sell it. But it was time to let go.”
St Luke’s transformation
After cashing in 50 percent of his shares in Chowking for an estimated half a billion pesos, Kuan soon found himself getting involved with St Luke’s Medical Center, a non-stock, non-profit institution started by the Episcopal Church, of which he was an active member.
In 1989, William Padua, Cosmos Inc.’s president, also an active member of the Episcopal Church, invited Kuan to join St. Luke’s. Padua was migrating to the US with his family, so he introduced and recommended Kuan to Bill Quasha, the chairman of St Luke’s board of trustees. Quasha welcomed him to the board. Together, they began revolutionizing St. Luke’s to transform it into a world-class healthcare institution.
After Quasha passed away in 1996, Kuan took over as chair. One of the missions of St. Luke’s since its founding was to provide free services to the poor. So, with Kuan leading the St. Luke’s team, more funding was given to the construction of new church buildings and providing technical and financial support to church activities. This meant a lot to Kuan and provided him with a sense of fulfillment that is beyond financial success.
Under his stewardship, the St. Luke’s Medical Center Global City, founded on the vision of Quasha, stands proud as Kuan’s significant achievement of transforming the institution into a world-class premier hospital with state-of-the-art technology, highly-skilled doctors and specialists, and excellent health care services.
In September 2011, to the shock of everyone, Kuan stepped down as chairman. “My work here is done. A visionary leader not just looks to the future but to the present and the issues of succession.”
What else was there for a successful entrepreneur, manager and executive like Robert Kuan to do? “To be a district governor of Rotary Club.” The words like magic became a reality when he ran and became district governor of the Rotary Club of Makati for 2013-2014.
Rotary Club of Makati member Engr. Glen de Guzman shares, “Robert was the first class district governor of RI District 3830. I served under him as first class president of the Rotary Club of Fort Bonifacio Global City. He was a father to us all, always there to give help and advice. He was a just and wise leader and had a big heart. He showed his love for God and country through the many people he has helped.”
A kind family man and friend
Robert Kelvin, Kuan’s eldest son, has nothing but good memories about his dad.
“As a father, he was loving and very active in guiding and raising us. No matter how busy he was with work, he always made time to be home with the family for dinner and to spend time on the weekends together, whether it would be going to the mall or just traveling out of town. He was patient with us but we would be scared whenever he gets mad, so we would do our best to be in good behavior most of the time. He and mom taught us a ton of values, but I would say the most would be how to be better Christians and how to be better human beings: humility, perseverance, excellence, among so many others.”
Kuan was a food aficionado. He knew the best places to eat. He preferred home-cooked food, especially those served in hole-in-the-wall eateries to gourmet food in high-priced restaurants. He would also instruct the chefs on how he wanted his food cooked and share some pointers on how to make the dishes better.
Death and legacy
Kuan died last Sept. 15 at the age of 70. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2017, Kelvin said the complications were so severe that a liver transplant was no longer an option so the family opted for alternative herbal medicine, which helped prolonged his life.
Kelvin shares, “Daddy accomplished much in his life as a servant of God by being an exceptional leader and role model in the various fields he has devoted his life to – church ministry, business, medicine, education, sports, philanthropy and so much more. A passionate entrepreneur with a visionary mindset, tempered with humility and a thirst for life, people know Dad as a warm soul – strong, principled with a big heart. He led an extraordinarily remarkable life, filled with much love and great food, and had been a gifted mentor, loyal friend, devoted husband, brother, father and grandfather.”
Robert F. Kuan may have left the earth at such an early age, but he is alive in the minds and hearts of those he touched. “Have I accomplished the purpose of my existence? The more you cling to things, the more you will lose your grasp on them. Perhaps, everything is providential, so take things as they come. God willing, you will be able to achieve your goals.”