Robertson Sy Tan had been working for the family business for 20 years when, one day, while reading Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad, he realized that he was the person being described in the book as the “poor dad.”  Tan worked very hard for the company and would often share his ideas with his boss but he often ended up not being heard. Just like the “poor dad,” he always wanted to do what is right but would always clash with his boss on how the company should be managed.

After reading the book of Kiyosaki, he thought that he had to change his focus. He wanted to build something on his own so he would not end up like the poor dad in the future. When Tan started planning for his business, he wanted to venture into something that he was already familiar with so he can increase his chances of success. At the time, the family business that he was managing used to distribute consumer products to department stores, which include automotive supplies.

He observed that the demand for car accessories was not yet fully covered. This gave him the idea of putting up a retail store that will cater to this particular market niche. In 2004, Tan put up his first Blade store in Market! Market! shopping mall in Fort Bonifacio. The concept proved to be successful that Robertson expanded immediately to six outlets during the first year.

Today, Blade Auto Center is the largest car accessories store chain in the country with a total of 50 outlets nationwide. How did Tan manage to grow his company to be the biggest in his industry? Here are the five business lessons every entrepreneur can learn from Roberston Sy Tan, founder of Blade Auto Center:

1. Develop long-term strategic vision 

People who look into the future are more likely to succeed in business than those with a short-term outlook because they are willing to make present sacrifices for the long-term. Having a vision helps you organize your priorities and manage your time and resources based on where you want your business to be in the future.  

“When we started in 2004, it was the time when the economy was really, really bad. Fort Bonifacio was one of the worst places to start your business at that time, because everybody was telling me like, ‘How can soldiers buy radios from you?’ There was no traffic there,” says Tan in an interview with this writer.

“But our vision was for the long-term. We wanted to build a chain of stores and not just a single store. So three months after our first store, we kept opening stores at a time when no one was willing to expand. Our goal was to build credibility by having presence in the market and be recognized as a market leader.”

2. Develop unique branding strategy 

Having a brand strategy is more than creating a marketing plan that would distinguish you from the competition and communicate your services to your customers. It is also about providing focus for your employees. A strong brand vision helps ensure that everyone in the company is working towards achieving the same goal.

“When we were starting the business, we had very little experience in retail and limited capital too,” he says. “It was always a huge uphill battle. I likened our difficult situation with the experience of Andres Bonifacio in history. Bonifacio was fighting against the Spaniards’ guns and canons with only itak or bolo. I used the bolo as symbol of our fight and that is how our brand name became Blade.”

“The inspiration from KKK is the reason why we wear red all the time because the color inspires us to get ready for battle. Everyone in my company wears red as their uniform and I also wear red every day.”

3. Develop comparative cost advantage

One of the benefits of expanding a business is the cost advantages brought about by economies of scale. As operations grow in size, most fixed costs spent on marketing and technology tend to fall on a per-outlet basis. Buying in bulk as a result of expansion also results in lower purchasing costs.

“When we were expanding with 13 stores, the suppliers could not ignore us anymore,” Tan says. “We were no longer a small player. Every time we order from suppliers, we buy at large quantity. We were able to haggle down the price and buy products at below wholesale prices. The savings that we get is passed on to our customers at very affordable prices.”

4. Develop customer loyalty through innovation

In order to build a strong customer following, the business must anticipate the needs of the market and be able to innovate its products and services to satisfy demand. Customers are more loyal to companies that constantly offer positive experience.

“On top of good pricing, we also provide good customer service,” Tan says. “For example, if you buy something from us and need our assistance, we can help install it in your car at the parking lot while you enjoy your movie, or your food in the restaurant inside the mall. By the time you are done with your shopping, your car is also already fixed.”

“Before, you had limited choices to go to whenever you need to get your car fixed,” he adds. “Most of the time people would experience the traffic, humidity or lack of parking spaces by going to these traditional shops. Some people would also worry that their side mirror may be stolen while the car is being fixed along the street. We have changed that by providing convenience inside the mall with uniformed service staff.”

5. Develop effective training system for employees

Investing in employee training means lower costs and higher productivity. Employees have more confidence in executing their tasks, commit less mistakes and provide better service. Providing training to employees is also a great opportunity to improve worker satisfaction and employee retention.

“Recognizing our weakness in funding when we were starting, we knew we could not hire good people,” Tan says. “So we looked at Jollibee or McDonald’s at how they built a system where employees can simply follow procedures that can cook a hamburger. You can be a cashier, you can be a store manager as long as you understand the principles and implement these procedures.”

“What we did was to create simple procedures to allow us to hire high school graduates and train them. There are two criteria that we follow. Number one is you must be able to express yourself well and number two is you must be able to follow procedure. I consider number three as a bonus, which is you must be honest.”



Henry Ong is an entrepreneur, investor, researcher and business columnist for more than 20 years. He holds double degree in accountancy and applied economics, a Registered Financial Planner (RFP) and Certified Management Consultant (CMC). Follow him on twitter @henryong888