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Amando S. San Juan builds an automotive empire with a ‘Baby’ by his side

He was the gasoline, the accelerator – always pushing, pushing (to go forward) to achieve his dreams and ideas. I was the brake and the clutch (that slowed him down). He had the guts and I offered the prayers

Carmen “Baby” San Juan

Long before networking became a popular strategy for getting things done and achieving specific goals, Amando S. San Juan – Amang to family, friends and employees – has relied on it to grow his business.

Amang San Juan and wife Baby (center) are the pillars of the Esjay Auto Group (EAG) that now boasts one of the country’s multi-brand companies.

San Juan, now chair and chief executive officer of the Esjay Auto Group (EAG), parlayed the friendships and connections he made as a paid employee to start an enterprise that began in his hometown of Baliuag in Bulacan, and now counts several car dealerships in northeast Luzon.

Esjay (the name comes from the first letters of San Juan), or EAG, at present, carries the Japanese, Korean and Chinese brands Nissan, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Hyundai, Fuso, Hyundai Trucks and Buses, Foton, Changan, Chery and Jetour.

Also under the EAG umbrella are: the Santa Monica Insurance Agency, Inc., Carman Holdings, Inc. and First United Finance & Leasing Corporation – companies that complement and support the auto dealership business.

San Juan’s serendipitous journey from employee to entrepreneur required an instinct for spotting good opportunities, a good understanding of the market he was targeting and a boldness of spirit that drove him to plunge into new ventures.

The eldest of six siblings, San Juan had to find employment at the age of 17 after the passing of his father. With the help of an uncle who was an undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture (DA), San Juan landed his first job as a gardener of what is now the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center.

Paid P4 a day at the Center, which opened in 1954 as part of the Quezon Memorial Park, San Juan traveled from Baliuag to Quezon City every work day and became an expert, he said, on the propagation of the bougainvillea. In the afternoon, after finishing his job at the center, San Juan would take the 30-minute bus trip to Manila to pursue his Accounting studies at the University of the East. His dinner would be half of what he packed for lunch when he left Baliuag.

Despite the difficulty, he persevered and got his degree but did not take the board examination to become a Certified Public Accountant.

He would eventually move from the park to an office job at the DA as messenger/typist. “I learned to type fast (the no-looking at the keys way) in high school,” he said. It was one of the skills the old secondary school curriculum taught students.

With the change in administration, however, San Juan’s uncle was replaced by an appointee of the new government.

He would not be idle for long. Another uncle found him a job in the logging company of the late congressman Rafael C. Aquino, Sr. Although Aquino represented Sorsogon (1969-1972), his family had a logging business in Agusan.

San Juan would become a valued employee, rising to the rank of assistant to the president (Aquino), that he would be dubbed the panganay na anak (eldest child) of the congressman.

His hard work and frugality would make him enough money to venture on his first business, a Mobil gasoline station in his hometown. The business would evolve into a one-stop shop for car owners as he responded to the needs of his clientele. Soon, the gas station would offer tire vulcanizing and auto repair services.

A cafeteria would be added to the mix later. Another gas station, also in Baliuag, would also open. He called the diversified business the Santa Monica Enterprises, in honor of his mother who sustained her brood of six as a single parent by running a dried fish store.

Through his job at Aquino’s logging company and occasional visits to his boss’ office at the House of Representatives, San Juan expanded his network of friends. The network would enable him to go into car dealerships, one of the country’s pioneers in the business – first of the German brand Volkswagen, a short-lived partnership with the American brand Ford, until a golf buddy provided the connections for him to start selling the major Japanese brand Nissan.

One of the pioneer car dealerships in the country

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Some time during his entrepreneurial journey, San Juan would meet Carmen “Baby” Pineda. She was training to be a Philippine Air Lines (PAL) stewardess on a flight to Butuan City where San Juan was a passenger. He was on his way to the Aquino logging office in Agusan.

Their family histories were similar. The eldest of six children, she dropped out of her Psychology studies at the University of the Philippines when she was in second year after her father passed. She applied for the PAL job to help the family manage financially after his passing.

Soon, the trainee found herself the object of the Bulakenyo’s determined pursuit. He would wait for her flight from whatever destination to land at the Manila airport. The determination paid off. She abandoned dreams of a high-flying job to settle in Baliuag where she helped manage the family gas station as cashier.

Baby would briefly work as a member of the Manila Hotel’s public relations team to augment the family income as the business continued to grow.

Eventually, the birthing pains would be over and Esjay Auto Group (EAG) would continue on its path to expansion, tracing a path from Baliuag to Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, then Santiago, Isabela and finally to the top of Luzon – Tuguegarao, Cagayan.

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Baby said the path the business had taken was one San Juan knew so well. As he grew his business, he would drive by himself to those places that had now become part of the enterprise to check out the lay of the land, so to speak – assess market possibilities, connect with potential partners and clients and see what the company could offer.

Baby would prove to be an invaluable partner in this entrepreneurial journey. She uses an analogy of their partnership that gives a nod to their business, “He was the gasoline, the accelerator – always pushing, pushing (to go forward) to achieve his dreams and ideas. I was the brake and the clutch (that slowed him down).”

Baby said she would always raise one question when he came up with new plans, “Kaya ba natin ‘yan?” (Can we handle it?) A woman of deep faith, she would pray for the success of his new ventures. “He had the guts and I offered the prayers,” she said. As a popular Filipino expression goes, “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.” (God has mercy but people have to do the work.)

San Juan had always believed in lakas ng loob (guts), that good fortune smiled on the bold and daring. “No guts, no glory,” he would repeat to himself as he ventured on yet another new enterprise.

When the country, together with the rest of Asia, was hit by a severe financial crisis in 1997, he launched the First United Finance and Leasing Corporation. Banks were holding off on extending car loans because of the crisis but EAG had to move its inventory so it opened its own financing company.

But his boldest move was to open a sprawling dealership on an almost one-hectare property along Commonwealth Avenue, Quezon City, when the area was still very much undeveloped, with wide grassy stretches and primarily occupied by informal settlers that have relocated from other parts of Metro Manila.

San Juan saw a strong potential in the area before other enterprises discovered its promise. Today, of course, Commonwealth is a bustling part of Quezon City, host of several subdivisions, businesses and government offices.

The complex San Juan put up on Commonwealth, which is now EAG’s main office, does not only have showrooms for its main brands but also provides space for a call center company (it used to be occupied by the American IBM call center until it moved to the University of the Philippines Technology Hub).

Marking its 50th year, EAG’s survival for the decades ahead seems assured as all four San Juan children – Lyn, Dennis, Arlene and Leo – are closely involved in the business, although San Juan remains hands-on in daily operations. The company is also benefiting from the loyalty of its employees, many having worked there for, at least 10 years, which it treats as members of one big family.

As the company looks forward to the future, it is preserving and strengthening the things that made it grow and strong through the years, particularly its staff. EAG has just started the Amang Cares Foundation that will further support employees through scholarship grants for their children.