DON ROBERT'S VINTAGE BRIDAL CARS
By Maan D'Asis Pamaran. Photos by Walter Villa
This entrepreneur is cashing in on the Pinoy dream wedding
Many a bride dreams about being whisked away by her Prince Charming on a gilded pumpkin coach drawn by a team of valiant steeds. But since that's near to impossible in Manila's congested streets, she can settle for the next best thing: bridal transport from Don Robert's fleet of vintage luxury cars.
Don Robert, or Robert Bautista in real life, is a man worthy of his moniker. A 31-year-old business turk, he came for the pictorial for this article with a fedora and an honest-to-goodness swagger. "When I started my bridal car business, I was thinking of a name that would catch people's attention," he says. "I liked Don Robert because it has name recall, and since my business deals with luxury, dapat ang dating ko extravagant din [ the image I create should also be extravagant ]. My tagline is 'Precious cars for your precious moments.'"
To date, Bautista has 25 cars and several vans for hire. "Dapat kasi kung may hanapin ang client ko, mayroon ako 'nun [I need to have whatever a client is looking for]," he explains. His car collection boggles the mind. Among the vehicles are a 1947 Jaguar Mark V, a Studebaker, a stretch limo, and a 2007 BMW 530i--his most expensive car to date, costing him and a partner P7 million to acquire. And to think that he started in 2004 only with his father's BMW 316i.
"I loved cars even when I was a kid," he recalls. "I would even skip school just so I could save my baon [pocket money] and have enough money to dress up my car. I had a friend, a couturier, who asked me if he could rent the BMW. I asked my Dad's permission, and he agreed. I was paid P1,000 per trip and I just loved driving the car around."
One day, his friend asked him if he had a Mercedes Benz. "I didn't have one," he says. "All I had at the time was my own well-maintained Pajero. So what I did was to look for a Mercedes Benz in a buy-and-sell publication. I found one whose owner was willing to trade in his Benz for my Pajero." Bautista then had the Benz painted white to make it suitable for weddings.
Then he hotfooted it all over the town. "I went to Tagaytay and marketed my services to hotels, clubhouses, and resorts in the area," he recalls.
Business was good, but not good enough for Bautista. "Someone asked me if I had a vintage car," he says. "So I looked for one. Then I just kept on buying more as time went on. The business really picked up by 2005. I started joining bridal fairs, basta bigay lang ako ng bigay ng card [I just kept on giving my calling card to everybody]. And I had someone set up a website for me. I have made friends with a lot of wedding photographers and coordinators, and they are really such a big help."
His market niche, he says, is rare vintage cars: "There are a lot of them in the market. All you need to do is look for those that have been sitting in family garages. They cost about P100,000 to P150,000 and are not really in good condition. Luckily, I have a friend who is very keen on restoring old cars."
He then set out to have his company acquire a complete set of bridal cars. "We have whatever the clients are looking for, from the most expensive to the most affordable, from the oldest to the latest models," he says. "We have a lot of competition, but they usually concentrate on one type of car--kung Mercedes, Mercedes lang sila. I try to have everything that a customer would want. My stretch limo also gets used for corporate events. At one time, it was even used for the celebrity edition of the TV show Pinoy Big Brother."
Restoring the cars to tip-top shape is a real challenge to his team, but it is one that he readily accepts. "We get the cars that have really rusted over, yung akala mo wala nang pakinabang [the ones you'd think are of no use anymore]," he says. "But because of our passion, we make every effort to restore it to its original condition. We order the parts abroad if we have to, and if none are available, we fabricate the parts ourselves. The vehicles are really expensive to maintain. In fact, simply registering them with the LTO [Land Transportation Office] is very costly. But business has been really good. Because we have a big fleet, tulong tulong sila sa cost [they all help in making us meet our expenses]."
Business has been very good indeed. In fact, for last December, the only vacant day for his fleet of vehicles was the 25th, Christmas Day. Bautista says that on weekends, as many as 14 cars would be rented out, and that he even has reservations all the way to December 2010. He explains that clients who really want to use a vintage car reserve it at least eight months ahead.
Bautista says that his location in Imus, Cavite, gives his vintage car rental business an advantage. "A lot of weddings are done in Tagaytay," he explains. "So the market is there. Since I am the nearest to it, I am also the least expensive. We are also near Manila, especially Alabang, and Cavite is also my market. Another thing that makes my service distinct is that we are perhaps the only vintage car supplier willing to drive out all the way to Subic, Pampanga, or to Batangas."
The other distinction, he says, is the good service that he provides. He explains: "I personally train my drivers in defensive driving. I also instruct them to be courteous. This is important, because whenever they are on the job, they bring with them the Don Robert brand. I also instruct them to be at the pickup point one hour early. With that, we can also do some damage control in case an incident happens, like masiraan sa daan yung kotse [when a car breaks down along the way]. In that case, I would have time to replace it with another car."
He says his business has the potential for even more growth. "As a rule, Filipinos really spend so much for their weddings," he says. "Even if there's a crisis in the country, there are still a lot of couples tying the knot. It also helps that their relatives abroad are also willing to help out with the expenses. Despite everything, the wedding business is booming."
He continues: "Couples love riding in vintage cars during their wedding because it really calls attention. If you want your wedding to be unique, you also need to get a unique vehicle. Even the wedding guests like having their pictures taken with the cars."
By next year, he plans to add even more cars to his collection. "I am now looking at acquiring a 1933 convertible and a mini coupe," he says.
For entrepreneurs looking to go into niche markets like his, he gives this advice: "Competition can be really fierce. When people see that this business is OK, marami agad ang kalaban [you start getting a lot of competition]. What you need to do is to really put your heart to it and plan your next moves. Since you have already put up money for your venture, ituloy mo na. Just think of how to always differentiate yourself from the others.?"
THE EUREKA! MOMENT
For Robert Bautista, here’s how the opportunity to become a vintage car entrepreneur came knocking: “When my couturier friend kept on renting my Dad’s car, I saw the potential of this business. That is when I traded my Pajero for a Mercedes. The day I got the Mercedes, I drove it to my Dad’s office and asked him to step outside with me. He asked, ‘O, kaninong kotse yan? [Whose car is that?].’ Sabi ko, ‘Akin!’ [I told him that it was mine]. Then I told him about what I did. I was glad that he was very supportive of me.”