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Alfred Yao: The Juice King of the Philippines

Published May 09, 2023

EVEN with a great idea, thorough research, and hours and hours of hard work, one rule still applies: nothing is certain in life and business. No one can unfailingly know if one will fail or succeed in life, how investors will receive a startup idea, or whether a company will survive past the one-year mark. So, with all the uncertainties that come with life, how can one increase the odds of, well, beating the odds?

Determination is a key attribute sought after by recruiters of graduates, and for many, it can be more important than sheer intelligence as this attribute we often refer to as 'drive' is what gets things done, what makes things happen, and what pushes one to constantly look for better ways of doing things.

Alfredo Yao is one of the most admired businessmen in the Philippines. The two flagship companies of his sprawling Zesto Group are the Zest-O-Corp. and Zest-Airways, now Air Asia Zest—enterprises built on the foundation of Yao's enormous enthusiasm for finding another way. His other core business is RC Cola, another turnaround story worth discussing in a separate column.

Fred's story is yet another rags-to-riches tale of a self-made businessman who rose from poverty through hard work and determination. I first met Fred about two decades ago when he invited me to drop by his two-story office in Manila to discuss a townhouse project. It was aptly called Villa Soledad in honor of his mother.

Yao, the eldest of six children, became a breadwinner at an early age after his father died when he was only 12. Being penniless, he started to work to help the family because his mother's earnings as a sidewalk vendor could not support their needs. He would accompany his mother to Chinese gambling dens to sell.

Undeterred by the hardships that lay ahead and through the help of a relative, he was able to finish his elementary and high school education. However, he was unable to complete his college education at the Mapua Institute of Technology due to financial problems. He then worked hard and did odd jobs, such as working in a warehouse of a packaging company.

As he worked hard, driven by sheer grit and determination, he found a glimmer of hope as he learned the art of printing cellophane wrappers for candies and biscuits through his cousin who worked at a printing press, and with that knowledge, he set out to establish his own printing press business. And so Solemar Commercial Press was born, named after his beloved mother.

For over two decades, Yao poured his heart and soul into growing his business. He persevered through the highs and the lows, never once losing sight of his vision, hence the Solemar Commercial Press' 20 years of success.

In 1979, while touring Europe, Yao came to discover the packaging format called 'Doypack' in one of the exhibits. It was then the latest European packaging technology. Eager to share this innovative solution with local juice manufacturers in the Philippines, Yao bought the machine and tried to market the idea of using the Doypack format to local juice manufacturers in the Philippines as he returned home with a vision of transforming the industry, but while he has never been one to shy away from innovation, others were not as keen as nobody seemed interested.

Never one to lose faith, Yao started concocting recipes making juices enthusiastically in his own kitchen, and packaged them using the equipment he had just bought, and his optimism was not misplaced. Zest-O orange drink was launched within the next two years. It became a hit with moms who saw the practicality of putting the light but tightly packed orange drinks in their kid's lunch boxes, while children loved that their chilled fruit drinks stayed cold and fresh till snack time.

Zest-O is now a household name, with countless families enjoying its refreshing juice drinks and numerous flavors for years. The brand's popularity has grown to such an extent that it has commanded up to 80 percent of the country's market share for fruit juices.

Seeing its growth, it later expanded to China, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Singapore, the U.S., and Europe, which contributed to the promotion of Philippine-made products worldwide. With its success, it has, in a way, provided a boost to local farmers and their communities as it helped revitalize the fruit-growing industry in the provinces, particularly the Philippines' native orange variety called "dalandan."

As for the unique and innovative doypacks Yao brought to the country, these are now being recycled by local cottage industries into handbags and exported to other countries.

Popularly known as the "Juice King," he is not just the CEO of Zest-O Corp. but also the founder of a clutch of firms – Philippine Business Bank, Asiawide Refreshments Corp. (franchise of RC Cola), Summit Hotel and Resorts Specialists, Semexco Marketing, among others.

Never one to back down

When asked about his secret to success, Yao said, "…hard work, perseverance and foresight, plus having the right people working with me to develop and sustain the business, are key elements to my success."

See, despite the challenges he faced early on in life, Yao refused to be defined by the circumstances he was given and instead focused on the choices he had and picked what would move him and his family forward — persevere, take a chance, and seek support from the right people. He has shown that success is not determined by external factors and that although our future may be impacted by the things one could not possibly have control over, its course would still be heavily influenced by the choices we make and the actions we take.

To close, as Geoffrey Gaberino, 1984 Olympic gold medalist, once said, "The real contest is always between what you've done and what you're capable of doing. You measure yourself against yourself and nobody else." With this, as we navigate the twists and turns of our journeys, I hope that the young and the bold take inspiration from Yao's legacy — a testament to how choice, not circumstances, determines success or what happens next.