Much like leather goods that become more beautiful and elegant with age, this passion project turned thriving business enterprise has stood the test of time.
It is the dream of most women to own a proper leather handbag.
No matter the size, color, style, or brand, a leather handbag often means a woman coming into her own, financial stability, and a commitment to fashion or a posh personal style.
For it is true, a leather handbag often doesn’t come cheap. Its ability to withstand long years of wear and stress, which show on its grain and grooves in fine detail, further improving its design, is what makes a leather handbag pricey. And, thus, one of the most treasured possessions of any woman.
Much like its handbags, purses, wallets, passport folders, and other fine leather goods, Fino Leatherware has also stood the test of time. It was formally established 27 years ago by Rose Ann Bautista, an interior designer by training, and her husband, Dr. Rommel Bautista, a glaucoma specialist. Even before they set up officially, the couple had already been flirting with the business when they were still dating.
It all started when her husband had a leather briefcase crafted to jazz up his daily doctor’s outfit which consisted mostly of a plain white physician’s coat. Using the same manufacturer, Rose Ann says she then had leather gifts made for her mother’s export clients in Japan. Rose Ann and Doc Rommel then joined a bazaar in 1990, just wanting to earn extra shopping money that Christmas, and started selling leather card cases, key chains, agendas and planners.
“We sold so many products it became our largest Christmas gift that year! And all we wanted to do was earn enough money to shop for gifts!”
The big break came when a large conglomerate ordered 200 pieces of their leather planner for its corporate giveaways. “It was so huge an account. We didn’t know anything and it was so difficult to make. But after we delivered on their order, I felt we could do anything,” Rose Ann recalls; she was only 21 then.
Encouraged by the reception to their leather goods, the couple and two other partners invested about Php270,000 to set up Fino in 1992. “The funds mostly came from our own savings. Mine, for instance, were funds tucked away from gifts given by my grandfather on every occasion. This was our seed money,” says Rose Ann. Most of their initial capital went to make their initial inventory and the construction of their 10 square-meter kiosk under Koalition Zoo in Shangri-La Edsa Plaza Mall.
“In 1992, we initially registered the company as a sole proprietorship, under my name, to make the setup simple, although we were already four partners when we started. As the months progressed and we saw people picking up our limited products, we set up the corporation—Fino Leatherware Inc. (formerly FIRMA Inc.)—soon after,” Rose Ann narrates. Not long after, they were offered a space in Glorietta Mall in Makati.
‘Our years of experience, of doing the same things, and keeping true to what we represent, for 27 years now, will always be an asset for us.’
Starting in a rented space in Malabon with just two leather craft workers, Fino now makes its goods from the Bautistas’ own property in Caloocan, where they now have 150 workers, including sales staff in their 10 branches: Glorietta 3, Shangril-La Plaza, Power Plant Mall, Alabang Town Center, Eastwood Mall, Robinsons Place Manila, Mall of Asia, Podium, TriNoma, and Robinsons Magnolia.
And while many fashion retailers these days trade brick-and-mortar shops in favor of online stores, Rose Ann says “there is no rush [to go into that direction] for now,” although online retail is also being considered as an avenue for expansion. “Currently, we are more focused on doing some organization restructuring, management strategic planning, factory improvement, etc.”
One of the biggest challenges Fino had to hurdle happened in 2000-2001, as the country’s political upheavals spilled over into the economy, then soon grappled with the chilling impact of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The Philippine peso dropped to as low as 53.52 to the US dollar by the end of 2002, from just 40.43 at the beginning of 2000, while interest rates on loans hit over 15 percent by the end of 2001 from just 11 percent per annum in 2000.
“We experienced shifts and challenges, from internal and external forces,” says Rose Ann. “We closed one shop because the mall was renovated, so our performance was affected. Then the economy crashed. Customer preferences shifted, and we lost some workers to a competitor.”
Rose Ann says they didn’t think they would be able to revive their sales, but fortunately, they didn’t give up so easily. “We gave it another shot by setting a new focus and new targets. We eventually were able to pull together by re-planning,” she explains.
This consisted of studying the market more closely and shifting directions in terms of styles, processes, etc. The company also hired a public relations consultant for a few months to get more exposure for Fino and its products. “Somehow, things slowly bounced back,” Rose Ann notes. “When we think of the people behind the company, our workers most especially, this helps fuel our passion to proceed with the business and succeed.”
What keeps Fino Leatherware still at the top of its game, despite the growing number of competitors, which use social media heavily for marketing and online stores to boost sales, is the brand’s long experience in the industry and its passion for creating products.
“Our years of experience, of doing the same things, and keeping true to what we represent, for 27 years now, will always be an asset for us. Though we are priced higher, we intend to continue and be committed to strive and improve on our craft,” Rose Ann asserts. “Our commitment is to not just sell, but to create and give our customers a Fino product they can enjoy and be proud of owning. So regardless of the cut-throat and fierce market environment, we stay confident that the market will still be able to appreciate an ‘oldie’ like us.” Much like leather products that become more beautiful and elegant with age.
Fino Leatherware’s recipe for success? “You need to have the passion, of course”—to this day, the Bautistas still design the bags themselves. Rose Ann adds, “Go take risks. And timing for me played a strong part in our success story. We were able to carve our own market when we started. And you need the commitment to really pursue the business.”