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The 'Iron Lady' of Philippine distillery

How Destileria Limtuaco's Olivia Limpe-Aw brought the 164-year-old distillery out of the ashes and into the modern age.
By Devi de Veyra |

 

MASTER BLENDER. Olivia Limpe-Aw, considered as her generation’s master blender, was just a management trainee when she was tasked to handle the labor unrest in Destileria Limtuaco back in the late '80s. Photo by Jason Quibilan / Entrepreneur Philippines 

 

“It was difficult for the business, but it was the best teacher,” Olivia Limpe-Aw said of the strike in the late ’80s that crippled their family’s company, Destileria Limtuaco.

 

She was in her late 20s then and had just joined the firm as a management trainee doing the rounds of the company’s different departments when the crisis happened. Prior to the strike, Destileria Limtuaco was at its peak, with White Castle Whisky—the brainchild of Olivia’s father, Julius— riding high as the number one selling whisky in the market.

 

The crisis would strain the company’s finances, and after a few years of trying to solve the problem, Julius, stung by what he deemed as a betrayal by his own employees, decided to let the fifth of his seven daughters handle the situation. It would take five more years for the company to resolve the issue. “Working to rebuild trust and confidence in an organization is a long and arduous process requiring dialogue and patience, fairness and firmness in decision-making, sincerity and consistency in what we [labor and management] say and do.”

 

 

TURNAROUND ARTIST. Olivia Limpe-Aw mapped out a plan to rehabilitate the 164-year-old distillery, and introduced a system which ensured the plant only churned out quality products. Photo by Jason Quibilan / Entrepreneur Philippines 

 

Rehabilitating the business

Olivia would prove her mettle through the years, starting with the bleak times after the strike. The company had huge inventories, and was cash-strapped. But suddenly there was a chance to export to Taiwan, which Olivia grabbed. “There was a treaty that accorded Philippine whiskies lower duty rate versus other whiskies from all over the world, and this presented the chance to enter the Taiwan market.”

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It would herald Destileria Limtuaco’s turnaround and would give the ailing company a financial lifeline. “Once the shipment leaves, we’re already paid,” Olivia said. It also provided an opportunity to move inventories that sat in the company’s warehouse.

 

With its finances on the upswing, Olivia mapped out how to rehabilitate the family business. She introduced a system which ensured the plant churned out quality products. She also improved the look of their products, as well as the blends, while simultaneously working on new offerings. Her father was a strong believer of marketing, and Olivia drew from that experience, supporting the products with creative and strong marketing campaigns.

 

Export was a tough market to crack but Olivia wooed the buyers, realizing there was a huge market waiting to be tapped. In the beginning, buyers turned down Destileria Limtuaco’s brandies and whiskies, preferring instead to buy from traditional producers. So Olivia— considered as her generation’s master blender—went back to the drawing board to come up with a product that was unique and that could not be compared to what were already out in the foreign market.

 

She also had to make sure the product was a hit locally.  She needed the new spirits to be accepted locally, so foreign buyers would also buy. So, three years ago, she decided to go direct to the buyers by selling online.

 

 

IN FINE SPIRITS. Destileria Limtuaco filled a void in the premium Filipino concept spirits by introducing drinks such as the Manille Liqueur de Calamansi, which leverage on Philippine tropical fruits. Photo by Jason Quibilan / Entrepreneur Philippines 

 

Filling the void

Another unique opportunity helped pave the way for Destileria Limtuaco’s comeback.

 

The company filled a void in the premium Filipino concept spirits by introducing Paradise Mango Rum Liqueur in 2002, a trailblazing drink that “we believe started the movement to appreciate our Philippine tropical fruits and ingredients and to go local,” Olivia beamed.

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She added that the worldwide craft spirits trend has been going on in the last few years, finding itself right in the thick of things with the introduction of Amadeo Coffee Liqueur,  Manille Liqueurs de Calamansi and Dalandan, Very Old Captain Artisan-crafted Dark Rum, and many more, “which have brought us Filipinos pride and joy,” she said.

 

Asked about her vision for the family business, Olivia, president and CEO since 2004, responded: “My vision is for our company to be able to establish global Filipino brands that our country and we, as a people, can be proud of. And for the local market, we would like to be once again a major player in the mass market segment as we were during the peak of White Castle Whisky.”

 

*****

Devi is a freelance writer and the former Homes and Market Editor of ELLE Decoration Philippines. Follow Devi on Twitter, @burunggay.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.

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