Thursday, April 23, 2009


James Concepcion

HIS name is James, like filmdom’s suave agent for the British Secret Service coded 007.

But the suave James in today’s cover story has a more realistic and immediate mission: To make the Philippines the prime tourist hub for the Chinese market, starting from the former British colony, Hong Kong.

“It’s more of an advocacy on my part to bring tourism to a higher level. We have the facilities and the resources all over the country. We just need to tap the right market,” said young entrepreneur James Puyat Concepcion, when we caught up with him one rainy night in his private den, a Mediterranean-African themed two-floor restaurant called Ziggurat in the heart of Makati City.

James—or Jimmy to close friends and colleagues—is also the main man behind Days Hotel, the chain of international hotels that his late father started 10 years ago. Recently, James bagged a much-coveted deal to bring Hong Kong Air Lines to Philippines shores.

Tourism royale

James emphasized that his dream is to make the Philippines a haven for tourists and everything seems to be falling into the right place. He got the hotels strategically located in key cities in the provinces. Now, he has the planes to bring them in.

He is no neophyte in the industry. If we’re going to dissect James’s many lives in the corporate arena, his hands will be the type that holds lots of high-tech gadgets to help him fulfill his missions.

From the skies, James’s “earthly” ventures cover food, resort-hotels, condotels, car rental, vacation clubs, real estate, property development and publishing, among others.

Being a hands-on manager in Ziggurat, he literally holds lots of pots and pans and shianse. “I plan the menu. When the restaurant was just starting, I cooked the food and taught my assistant chefs. I eat here a lot to test the quality and enjoy the food,” he said.

As a gourmet chef, he emphasized he started with simple dishes like Japanese, Korean and Thai. His fascination with Mediterranean and African cuisine started while he was studying in Boston. His classmates were of diverse nationalities and James made friends with them, as close as invading their kitchen and visiting their favorite eating places.

Since 2001, he has been president and CEO of VCI Holidays. He revealed that from being a vacation ownership start-up company, he turned it into a successful venture. It is touted to be the largest of its kind in the Philippines.

James is also behind a new company selling discount cards that cover 2,000 business establishments here and in Hong Kong. He called it Your E-Card, which benefits foreign and local tourists. “Say if you’re in Cebu, you’ll feel like you’re a Cebuano because of the discount privileges you can avail,” he explained.

Since 2003, as big boss of Days Hotel Philippines Inc., he was able to make it one of the largest international hotel chains in the country. It has branches in the cities of Tagaytay, Batangas, Mactan-Cebu, Iloilo and Palayan in Nueva Ecija. James revealed that new branches will open in Baguio City and Boracay.

James has also taken over managing the pioneering family business, Virra Mall. His parents started it and made it the first mall to offer the most affordable clothes and electronic products. A new V Mall was opened in Sucat, Parañaque, near the airport. He said, “We have plans of building and franchising more throughout the country.”

Away from the corporate arena, James loves to write, not the greatest Filipino novel but magazine features that people will love to read and reread. He also takes photographs. The businessman in him would catch up with his newfound passions.

In 2002, when he took over a small magazine called Stopover, he re-branded and remarketed it as a monthly glossy focusing on lifestyle, travel and success profiles. It was recognized the Best Travel Magazine by several consumer choice awards. It was even endorsed by several Asean ambassadors for international circulation and franchising of the brand. Stopover has a younger sister magazine, JetSet, which covers the finer things of travel and everything associated with it like jewelry, clothing, among others.

With the entry of his newest baby, Hong Kong Air Lines, he has to limit his time for the magazines. Now, both will come out only with special editions.

The world of fish balls is not enough

Despite these “day jobs,” James is a fulfilled, happy, married man, with three kids. He is armed with a business economics degree from the University of the Philippines-Diliman, which he completed in three years. He also finished an MS management degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Being a Concepcion—the former Trade secretary is an uncle—it’s just but expected for young James to venture into business. While still in college at the State University, his first foray involved fish balls.

“I got the idea from the roving fish ball vendors near the dorms and campus buildings. I learned that a vendor earns about P2,000 a day. That’s a lot of money in the 1990s. So I started my own food stalls, about five of them. It was a hit so eventually I built a fish-ball factory. I love experimenting and cooking. I also started concocting new products like scallop, crab and lobster balls.”

Though well-educated and backed up by a legacy that is both Puyat and Concepcion, he intimated that he learned the ins, outs, ups and downs of running a business the hard way.

Like any other businessman, he had suffered losses. “The fish ball business was doing well so I decided it won’t need my full attention. I was summoned by my parents to handle our family condominium business. It took most of my time. Behind my back, there were lots of irregularities happening in the fish-ball factory. I woke up one day, I found out I was losing lots of resources and money. I had no choice but to close it down.”

While still in college at the UP, he experienced having no money. The worse thing was, he needed to go home amid a thunderstorm. “I was part of a car pool going to-and-fro Makati, where I lived. Because of the storm, my companions left ahead of me. My baon was enough for food and essentials. I had to buy a book so there wasn’t enough money left for a taxi or even bus fares. I walked all the way from the campus to Philcoa then I had to ride four different buses to get to Makati, for free.”

That early, the teenaged James was already a fast thinker, a trait that he would maximize later to survive and succeed in the real world. But how did he get home that day? Why four buses?

He narrated: “The moment the conductors come to collect my fare, I’d asked if the bus is going to Fairview or Caloocan, always the opposite direction to Makati. I fancied an American accent. They thought I was a balikbayan lost in the way. The bus conductor would drop me off in the nearest bus stop upon learning I’m ‘on the wrong bus.’ Then I would take another bus and do the same. That’s why I took four buses until I reached Makati.”

The fourth bus he took passed by just in front of a prominent subdivision’s main gate, from which he walked all the way home. It was easy for him to be mistaken as someone who grew up in colder regions in the planet because of his fair complexion.

But that’s not the worse. One time, he recalled there was a major traffic jam. He can’t remember if there was a coup d’ etat or a major political rally but nothing was on EDSA, which was suddenly transformed into the world’s longest parking lot. From the UP campus, the exasperated James took off his shirt and jogged all the way to his home in Makati City.

The sky that loves him

Nowadays, James says he can function well in the day even with about five hours of sleep. “I’ve learned my lessons well. I know I have to be in touch with my assistants. I have to know the details. If I need to decide on something very important, my partners and my deputies can call me even if it’s 2 in the morning. That’s how focused I am these days.”

There’s a slight problem when he’s abroad with his family. His phone would ring at an ungodly hour, depending upon what country he’s at. The caller, obviously on a different time zone, will always be surprised that James is on the other side of the globe. That’s why on the bed, his wife assures that he is on the side nearest to the landline phone, especially when they are in a hotel room.

But all the hard work has paid off. James’s new baby is growing fast and healthy as he expects it to be. As of press time, Hong Kong Air Lines has already fulfilled its maiden flight from Chep Lak Kok in Hong Kong to Clark Air Base in Pampanga.

It has daily flights, seven days a week. From Chep Lak Kok, James said it takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes only and vice versa. The Hong Kong to Clark route is being serviced with six brand-new 737-800 planes. Each plane has 156 seats plus 8 in the business class. Every month, another plane is being added and three new destinations launched. The airline is now known as the fastest growing in Hong Kong.

James proudly endorsed, “The pilots are experienced and recruited from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina and Canada. I even heard many passengers commenting that they are very good looking, too. The stewardesses are beautiful Chinese women and they are all recruited from top airlines. Soon, we will be hiring Filipinas of the same caliber.”

Based on recent data, the World Tourism Organization still considers China as the biggest market in Asia. Before going to Europe and the United States, the Chinese tourists prefer visiting their Asian neighbors.

According to WTO, five years ago the outbound tourist market reached 20.2 million, with more than 11 million Chinese going to various Asian countries. The WTO projects China’s outbound market to be one of the largest by 2020 with 130 million tourists.

For those going to the Philippines, it was President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself who affirmed the influx of Chinese tourists. Speaking before students and academicians at the Nanchang University in China’s Jiangxi province in October last year, she pointed out, “The number of Chinese tourists that came to the Philippines in 2005 is almost three times the number in 2004. A very rapid increase indeed. But it’s a very small percentage compared to Chinese tourists going to the rest of the world, just a hundred thousand from 30,000 the year before. This year, hopefully we can have 300,000. We would like to have more and more of people-to-people exchange. Filipinos very frequently come to China, I hope the Chinese go very frequently to the Philippines.”

Specifically, in the same speech, she also advertised Cebu and Bohol, citing the world-class beaches comparable or better than the famed Boracay.

Before the end of this year, James projects Hong Kong Air Lines will have direct flights to Cebu, Kalibo and Davao.

On a high with his new venture, we asked James what business philosophy he follows. He said it’s hardly called a philosophy. He explained that because the Concepcions like shopping, they built Virra Mall. Personally, he likes cooking, he started Ziggurat. He enjoys writing and taking pictures, he ventured into publishing Stopover and Jetset magazines.

“I like traveling, now I have Hong Kong Air Lines. I learned it all from my father. He told me that to be able to succeed in business, I should earn from what I enjoy doing. So I decided to earn from my hobbies, from the things I am comfortable with. It’s as simple as doing what you like. Everything else follows.”

James, the name is James. Enter Carly Simon singing, “Nobody does it better. . . .” Bring on the vodka martini.

James the gourmet quipped, “Shaken or stirred, there are 30 kinds of martinis including James Bond’s favorite, available only in Ziggurat.”

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