Romy Sia had been living in the United Kingdom with his family when he decided to return to the Philippines in the early 1990s.
After his family moved back to Manila, he noticed that his son started developing food allergies.
Having been advised by his doctor to avoid food with preservatives, Sia went to look for natural food in the supermarkets, but to his surprise, he found out that hardly anyone was selling organic products.
Sia would research relentlessly until he visited and discovered in the US that the natural food product business was a big industry.
Realizing that many people back home, who like him, also import organic products from abroad, Sia got the business idea of opening a small store to cater to this particular market.
In 1995, Sia invited his high school best friend, Christian Tan to put up their first store that he would later call Healthy Options at Shangri-La Plaza in Mandaluyong City.
The first branch of Healthy Options opened in Shangri-La Plaza in 1995
The business was so successful that it expanded to two more branches, one in Makati and another in Alabang in the following years, both of which did very well.
Sensing the impending growth of the stores, Sia, who was employed as finance director of a media company during that time, had to resign from his high paying job to focus on developing the business.
Twenty-four years after, Healthy Options is now the largest and most trusted all-natural retail store in the Philippines, specializing in premium natural food and health products in 29 store locations nationwide.
Sia also branched out into three other premium stores: Bow & Wow, the country’s first all-natural pet store; Wine Story, a high-end wine retailer, and Planet Grapes, an upscale food and wine bar.
Healthy Options expanded to Bow & Wow, a pet food and accessories store
How did Sia expand Healthy Options from a niche player into large health store chain in the market? How did he make Healthy Options as the most reliable retail store for natural food products?
Here are the five business lessons ever entrepreneur can learn from Healthy Options founder, Romy Sia:
1. Know how to be authentic
Steve Jobs used to say that if you know what you truly want to become, you must have the courage to follow your heart and not be trapped by living with other people’s thinking or affected by others’ opinion.
Being authentic in business is staying true to who you want to be and how you want your products and services benefit your customers.
“If you notice when you go to Healthy Options, you may say that many of our products are imported from the US,” Sia says. “This is because the natural product industry started there and they have strict standards of quality and labeling laws.
“So when they say its natural organic, it is really natural organic. I want to assure my customers that it’s the real and genuine stuff.
“We also work with local farmers for our organic products. We regularly visit their farms and establish our own quality assurance. We teach farmers that by being organic, they should not put antibiotic into their feeds. We have a laboratory here that checks the meat and egg and if we see traces of drugs, we reject it.”
2. Know how to listen to your customers
One way to learn about how you can improve your business is by getting feedback from your customers.
By understanding what your customers actually think about your products and services, you can use their insights to create better experience and higher retention.
“When we first started, it was just food,” he says. “We did not have supplements or health products. We only learned this from our customers because they want to have a healthier lifestyle.
“I found out that customers love supplements. You know why? They want to be healthy and live forever but they are too lazy to exercise and always eat the wrong food. They want to be healthy by taking supplements, which is good for me as a business but we still tell them to exercise.
“I position Healthy Options as a lifestyle store. I always tell the malls not to put me alongside health clinics but to places where women shop. We make our stores beautiful because it’s a lifestyle.”
Sia says he invests in recruitment and training his staff
3. Know how to hire the right employees
Hiring the right frontline employees, who will represent your company, can spell the big difference between success and failure in your business.
Frontline employees do not only create first impression to customers but they also know what your market needs as they speak to customers regularly.
“From day one, I wanted to run the company the western way, meaning hire good people, pay them well and train them,” Sia says. “I don’t hire undergraduates. All of our frontline employees, the store people, we don’t call them salesladies.
“They are not salesladies. They are all college graduate. They are either pharmacists, nutritionists, or come from some science background because when you go talk to them, they know what they are talking about. They have been trained and not the typical staff you see in the department store.”
4. Know how to inspire and reward the workforce
Employees are more productive when they feel that their contributions to the company are being properly recognized. They are more passionate about their work and are less likely to leave their jobs.
“Anybody can open a beautiful store like ours,” he says. “They can copy everything but what they cannot copy is how we treat our employees, how we train them.
“My competition is really in hiring people who are smart, who have the entrepreneurial spirit because I cannot do this all by myself. My job is to make our office fun to work in.
“The millennials need to be entertained,” he adds. “They are not government employees. The challenge of the employer is not only to provide stimulating jobs but also a stimulating environment. I need to let them see that what they are doing has also an impact to the society and to the world.”
Healthy Options now has 29 branches nationwide
5. Know to how to align market positioning with purpose
When you know what you stand for and what your customers can rely on you for, you can create a powerful positioning in the eyes of your target market.
“We help people to be healthy,” Sia says. “We teach them how to be healthy people. When people go to the doctor and they find out that they have hypertension or diabetes or something, the first place they go to visit is Healthy Options because they want to change their lifestyle. They want to be better.
“This is a special niche that we have positioned in the minds of customers and I value that. We make sure that our credibility is not diluted. This is why I always insist that our people should look healthy at all times.”
Henry Ong, RFP, is president of Business Sense Financial Advisors. Email Henry for business advice firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @henryong888