Philippine businessman Samuel Po recalls his desperate search for diapers – and the epiphany that led him to build a business empire. His wife had just given birth to their first child, but it was impossible to find diapers. He searched high and low and drove to nearby cities but found nothing. As he returned home after a fruitless search, he thought, “Maybe this is an opportunity?”
The rest is history. It’s also an incredible story of audacity and entrepreneurship as Samuel, a gentle, soft-spoken man, proceeded to build a paper products company spanning the Philippines. His life story is the stuff of legend and his exploits remarkable, rising from modest means to the summit of business success. Even more improbably, Samuel accomplished it with products he barely knew – disposable diapers. “I didn’t have formal education in sales or marketing,” Samuel says of his plunge into the diaper business. “It started out of my own personal needs.”
JS Unitrade Merchandise, the consumer products company he founded, has been providing diapers, feminine hygiene products and disposable wipes to customers across the Philippines for more than three decades. JS Unitrade Merchandise has developed a reputation for products striking the sweet spot between quality and affordability while beating foreign brands imported by behemoth competitors.
His first taste of entrepreneurship and business was much more humble, however. His father owned a general merchandise store in Iloilo City, which stocked items such as cosmetics, toiletries and seasonal items. Samuel minded the store during his spare time. “That’s where I honed my skills in sales and interacting with customers,” Samuel says. “That’s how it started.”
He moved to Manila to attend university in 1976. Money was scarce and he had to work to support his studies. As a student, Samuel trained in a martial arts studio. It provided access to donations of food – lunch most days – but due to the rough area it also meant fighting on occasion.
He graduated with a degree in electronics communications engineering in 1980 and caught the entrepreneurial bug. “I didn’t even know what kind of business I’d enter,” Samuel says. His neighbour, who was involved with electrical supplies, suggested to Samuel, “Why not enter the electrical supplies business?” Samuel knew nothing about electrical supplies, but his uncle supplied the seed money and Samuel took the plunge.
Times were tough. Customers required credit terms of 120 days and interest rates were rising. Political strife during the 1980s only aggravated matters, sending the peso plunging. But Samuel persisted, in spite of the hardships.
I didn’t have formal education in sales or marketing. It started out of my own personal needs.
Inspiration was born
Along the way, he got married and his first child was born a year later in 1989. The baby needed diapers, but Samuel and his wife couldn’t find any. What few diapers they could find were poor quality. He asked a contact he purchased electrical supplies from in Taiwan to send him diaper samples. “It was so much better than the multinational brand available in the Philippines at that time,” he says. “So I told myself, maybe this is an opportunity.”
Once again, he took the risk, even though he knew nothing about diapers. He also didn’t have any customers. Adding to the risk, the Taiwanese manufacturer demanded he take two containers of diapers. “When it arrived, I just started to wonder how I was going to sell all this product,” Samuel recalls.
He reached out to a leading supermarket chain in the Philippines, asking a friend for an introduction to the owner, and he credits good timing for its success. “Disposable diapers were scarce, so maybe it was the timing,” he says. “As I’ve always told my team, you’ve got to have the right timing. They sold like hot cakes during that time.”
His ability to sell imported diapers drew attention. Other manufacturers in Taiwan came calling, asking Samuel to import their diapers. “I ended up distributing for a lot of companies,” he says. Business boomed, though soon manufacturers in Taiwan began to re-evaluate their relationship with Samuel. Some tried to poach top talent; others tried to take over his business.
“The four manufacturers I distributed for were getting jealous of each other and they decided to find other distributors or move into the country themselves,” Samuel says. This caused his company’s revenue to drop drastically between 1996–1997, and he was left only distributing for one manufacturer from Taiwan. “This manufacturer had actually planned to take over my company, but eventually they realised that they didn’t know the market here. They assessed the business and said, ‘Oh, it’s because of you. You know the market and that’s why the product is a success’,” he shares.
This soon became a blessing in disguise. In 1997 the Asian financial crisis hit and sales everywhere crashed. The currency devaluation battered companies who were importing internationally, and had Samuel still been connected to all these different manufacturers in the Philippines he would have been hit a lot harder than he was.
Instead, he spotted an opportunity amid the shifting consumer preferences. He travelled to Malaysia in late 1997 and saw something that changed his business forever – the basic diaper. “They came up with a huge, transparent bag of diapers that had no printing, only a sticker put on it with the brand, sizes and the number of pieces. That’s it. They called it the basic diaper,” he says. “So we conceptualised the brand EQ, which means economy and quality.”
Samuel had barely started selling EQ diapers when he was hit with an unexpected lawsuit for patent infringement. A competitor sued him in late 2000 over a brand JS Unitrade had distributed for a Taiwanese company. He was out-lawyered and staring down a rival with deep pockets that had also sued other diaper companies around the region.
We conceptualised the brand EQ, which means economy and quality.
Samuel went to court with a single lawyer. “They were in full force with around 15 lawyers,” he recalls. And, surprisingly, he prevailed, though it was a six-year ordeal. “They never won at any of the stages,” he says.
JS Unitrade Merchandise has continued to flourish, in spite of setbacks. Tropical Storm Ondoy destroyed its warehouse inventory in 2009 (for which Samuel had luckily taken out insurance) and a 2014 fire eliminated production in the factory of its biggest supplier. Today, the company leads the Philippine market in baby and adult diapers, feminine hygiene products and wipes. “In all these categories, we’re number one in market share,” Samuel says proudly. “We are true and fair in dealing with our people, in dealing with our customers and in dealing our business partners.”
Samuel defines his leadership style as one that allows JS Unitrade to prosper.