Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Article - Breaking the glass ceiling

Breaking the glass ceiling
From content sharing with and MoneySense

By Annabella Wisniewski
Last updated 01:11pm (Mla time) 10/29/2007
(As told to Lynda C. Corpuz)

I’VE always said that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen. For me, everything’s an exposure to learn.

Both my parents have always been very enterprising. I grew up helping my mother, Honorata, in her dining and catering business. My mother encouraged me to take up hotel administration and suggested Cornell University at New York, an Ivy League recognized for its School of Hotel Administration. I was fortunate to be accepted and to be its first Filipina graduate. I also earned my postgraduate degree from the same university.

My mother thought that I should come home and join her business after graduation, but I didn’t want to. I was 23 and I wanted to thrive. I wanted to experience New York. The minute I got to New York, I got myself a job at the Waldorf Astoria.

I made up a lot of excuses not to come back but my mother didn’t believe them. She said, “If that’s what you want, then you’re on your own.” She probably expected me to say, “Okay, I’ll come back.” But I didn’t. It was not easy, but I survived.

Battling discrimination, fighting stereotypes
Since then, I worked in Hilton, Marriot, and Scotts, did international consulting for Horwath and HOSTS, and developed The Ascott (of then Scotts Holdings), the first successful luxury service apartment concept in Singapore. This made me the first Filipino and first woman on the board of directors of that company. I also helped my mother with her business.

I learned that not only are foreigners more competitive, but they’re also more exacting about standards. You have to make it on your own merits, and that makes you more professional.

Yes, there’s discrimination but I’m sure I never really felt it. I said then, “I’m not going to let anyone bring me down because I’m a Filipina. I’m going to use my uniqueness to my advantage.”

One time in San Francisco, we took over a property that was in bankruptcy. We could have evicted them but they were still running the restaurant. They were behind in payments. One of the partners of that property disliked me. That time, discrimination issues were really hot.

“That Annabella, I don’t like her already,” he badmouthed. He followed me to the garage. I stopped short and said, “Okay, you want to go on? Just remember, I’m female. I’m Asian. You want to go on? You want to harass me some more? It’s going to be big. Be my guest.” I outsmarted him.

And there’s the glass ceiling. Women in my industry then were mostly relegated to executive housekeepers or director of sales, PR, or marketing. They will never be managers unless they own a substantial chunk of the company. I figured, “I have to prove that I’m better. Gender doesn’t matter. Nationality doesn’t matter.”

It was never smooth sailing climbing to the top especially in the US corporate world. It all boils down to dollar and cents. They can be ruthless. When I was the general manager in a hotel, the management company did things that I didn’t think were correct. I quit to protect the mother company. They threatened me. It was an old boys’ club.

Another time, when we were going through takeover procedures, the previous owner came to my office and threatened me. He was implying that he was an Italian, so goes the mafia. “So what do you want to do? I hope you also heard of the ‘Asian mafia.’ We can also be ruthless, you know.” Two days before that, there was a shootout with the Vietnamese mafia. Of course I had nothing to do with that. I just used that to bluff him.

Coming home
Despite a career abroad, nothing beats the comforts of home. So my husband, Tom, and I came home here in 1968, initially for a few days and to help my mother expand the business. But that stay turned into 11 years, which was cut only when Martial Law was declared. For the following years in the US, we put up our own company, took over properties, and turned them from red to black. But we came back again, this time for good, because I like life here better. I belong here. I can influence people and have greater impact.

I was here already when the Asian financial crisis hit. Nothing deters me, even a crisis like that. There were niches that opened up during the crisis. I started with a three-man office: my secretary, my driver, and I, and we did all the work. But our consulting firm Raintree Partners, Inc. grew pretty rapidly from what we started with in 1998.

We were into development planning but there were no developers. So I had to find a business that will provide us daily income. Then we bagged the deal to establish FoodParks at The Enterprise in Makati. That’s a good business because people have to eat, crisis or not. From then on, we got into corporate food serving. Now we have four FoodParks. And within FoodParks, we opened our own outlets, which are now about 20, apart from independent outlets M CafĂ© and Chelsea. We also formed the management company to develop and position Discovery Suites. We’re also managing Discovery Country Suites Tagaytay and Discovery Shores. Now, we’re planning two major hotels. We’re now in processing an island resort in Albay and opening a retail and entertainment mall in Legaspi. We’re also renovating a boutique hotel over there.

Fulfilling roles
Now, I really act more of a CEO. I don’t micro manage but I think I’m approachable. My primary goal now is to develop second and third levels of key managers and handle the strategic planning for the company’s growth.

I also mentor very much. Our general managers are all males right now, but we have very competent female managers. Probably, in many ways, I’m motherly to my employees – they call me Mother Superior, by the way. I think that we’re a company with a heart. We’re organized. We have standards and goals. We have objectives and plans that we have to go by. But we have a lot of flexibility.

And despite what I achieved, being a wife and a mother are my greatest pride and the most important roles in life. What use is it if you have the career and all the money in the world if you’re a failure as a wife and a mother? Above all else, it should always be family first. And my family is always first to me.

From the September-October 2007 issue of MoneySense, the country’s first and only personal finance magazine. Visit for more.
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