Only a week before Rosemarie Ong, Senior Executive Vice President and COO of Wilcon Depot, spoke to The CEO Magazine, she was in Singapore attending the 2018 ASEAN Business and Investment Summit. Alongside regional leaders in business, the summit was attended by ASEAN heads of state and trade ministers.

These prestigious attendees represented the movers and shakers of the regional economy, which is expected to be the fourth largest in the world by 2030.

Rosemarie Ong Senior Executive Vice President and COO of Wilcon Depot
Rosemarie Ong, Senior Executive Vice President and COO of Wilcon Depot

The summit also hosted the 12th iteration of the ASEAN Business Awards, celebrating the achievements of leading businesses across numerous industries. For excellence in the retail industry, the Priority Integration Sector Retail Excellence Award was given to none other than Wilcon Depot.

One possible reason for the win is the decades-long success story of the home improvement retailer. Another explanation is Rosemarie’s belief that Wilcon Depot provides far more to the Philippines than a place to buy construction materials.

For Rosemarie, who’s spent more than three decades helping the retailer evolve from a single store to a nationwide chain, Wilcon Depot promotes a better way of life to its customers. “You’re building a dream of having a sustainable house,” says Rosemarie. “A house that’s sturdy, a house that will stand throughout time.

If you buy materials from Wilcon, you’re ensuring that the materials you use are good quality and functional.”

Enabling Filipinos to create and live in their dream homes is a noble goal, but one wonders if Rosemarie could’ve foreseen Wilcon’s significance when she started in 1984, when it was comprised of just two stores.

The first of those two was a 60-square-metre store in Quezon Avenue, opened in 1977 by company founder William Belo. The company saw its first big-box format store in 2003, and an offshoot (Home Essentials) was opened in 2009, catering to home DIY enthusiasts.

Today, Wilcon has 17 branches in Metro Manila alone, with another 35 in the provinces. With the transformation brought on over four decades, Wilcon’s physical expansion is the least of its changes.

Another shift in the company’s ideology occurred when Wilcon underwent an IPO two years ago, which led to the company taking home the Best IPO Award at The Asset Triple A Country Awards in 2017. But, notes Rosemarie, Wilcon had to adapt to the private-to-public transition, by prioritising open, honest communication about good ethical standards and corporate social responsibilities.

Rosemarie insists its people working as a team alongside leadership help the company to achieve its ambitions. While she helps introduce structure as a leader, for a company to evolve and grow, she encourages all departments to work together and be aligned with the larger goals and strategic direction that the leader sets. “All departments need to be intertwined with one another,” she says.

But during her journey through the ranks of Wilcon Depot, which has taken her through the sales and marketing divisions, Rosemarie’s primary focus has been on evolving the company’s message. “Building a brand is no easy task,” says Rosemarie. “You have to build personality into it.

You must be able to communicate your proposition to the market. Then you can deliver whatever’s expected of your brand, which starts from your value proposition. I was able to communicate to our customers what Wilcon stands for.

“Hardware stores used to be cluttered and disorganised, but you have to evolve and revolutionise the look of the brand. At the same time, you should revolutionise parts of the chain so that you always have a story prepared, a story to communicate.

For example, we aim to communicate that renovation is not just an aspiration, but a basic fulfilment of a common dream. Wilcon inspires everybody to build, improve, and renovate their space.”

Rosemarie Ong Senior Executive Vice President and COO of Wilcon Depot

Rosemarie has cultivated a keen insight into the retail sector throughout her career; it’s not for nothing that she won the 2018 International Women Entrepreneurial Challenge Award. She also serves as President of the Philippine Retailers Association, which recently saw her in Hanoi, connecting with Vietnamese retailers and sharing industry experience.

Through this industry-wide involvement, Rosemarie maintains a broad view of the sector, including innovations like AI, analytics, and particularly digital commerce.

“It’s having a digital presence and at the same time marrying it with the physical presence, how you connect it, how you can create a path to purchase in the physical and transform it into your digital space, without any distortion.

Wilcon’s customers are used to having the physical store, but now that retail is going digital, towards ecommerce, they want the same level of service and consideration that they’ve experienced in-store.”

But while innovation is essential to survival, it’s not the only necessity. At the core of Rosemarie’s philosophy is an understanding of the market, and a commitment of loyalty to one’s customer base.

Such convictions can be seen in one of two expressions that have informed her career, “you reap what you sow”, which speaks to her belief that the degree of success one earns is proportional only to the effort one puts in.

Over three decades, the other expression that has proven itself to her is one from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus – “there is nothing permanent except change”. “I started from a humble position,” she recalls. “I’ve reached this height in my career from which I can see how the company has grown and progressed.

“I’ve reached this height in my career from which I can see how the company has grown and progressed.”

Being one of the pillars, one of the driving forces of the company, I feel I must continue on, because people depend on my leadership, especially those that have been with us for a long time.”