Sunday, May 21, 2006

Legacy of '30s Filipina entrepreneur

Margie Quimpo-Espino, Inquirer

THE typical Filipina during the 1930s was a homemaker who tended the house and the kids. Rare was a woman who worked and rarer still was a woman who went into entrepreneurship.

Asuncion Quiray Abiva was one such woman.

A schoolteacher in the 1930s, Asuncion, together with husband Luis Sr., also a teacher, published reviewer manuals for civil service exams of patrolmen and junior and senior teachers under a firm called Abiva Press in 1936.

The husband and wife team were really entrepreneurs. They also started a ferry business from Manila to Subic. But they gave up on this business.

The publishing business, however, grew quickly. It started as a one-room affair on Evangelista Street in Quiapo, Manila but by 1939, moved to a bigger place on Misericordia Street (now T. Mapua).

Business was picking up when World War II broke out. And in 1942, tragedy struck when Luis Sr. died suddenly of a heart attack.

Asuncion was left to fend for her four children—Nena, Felicito, Rosario and Luis Jr.

"It was at the height of war. Amid countless checkpoints by the Japanese Army and while aboard a cargo truck provided by Ramon Magsaysay to transport our father to his final resting place in Zambales, I could see how my mother greatly grieved the loss of my father. But then and there I also sensed and learned from her inner strength and determination," wrote Nena in a tribute to Asuncion.

The matriarch opened a motor shop in her house and hired relatives to repair vehicles and trucks.

She also bought and sold old clothes at Bambang Street just to purchase a bag of rice and mongo beans for the family's next meal.

After the war Asuncion made coffee from toasted rice and bibingka and sold these along Avenida, Rizal to support her family. She also rented out some rooms in the house.

In 1945, she had some savings and rebuilt Abiva Press. She received requests for educational materials from teachers and went into the publishing of elementary and high school books.

Abiva pioneered in publishing the Oral English Skills Program which featured listening centers and language laboratories.

In 1965, it became the exclusive distributor of SRA (Science and Research Associates).

In 1969, it set up its own printing company—the Hiyas Press. It was the first press to print Christmas cards using paintings on the cover commissioned by Asuncion.

For 70 years, Abiva has remained a family-owned company. Asuncion eventually passed on the baton to her children and spent her retirement years travelling.

Recently, Asuncion's first grandson, Jorge A. Garcia took over the reigns of the publishing house. It was passed to him by Luis Jr., the youngest child of Asuncion.

Jorge grew up within the walls of the publishing house, which was within the family compound. He started "working" when he was six years old collecting trash in the office.

As he grew older, Jorge continued to be exposed in the business working in the packing section of the publishing house, preparing textbooks for delivery to various schools.

Being the eldest grandson had its perks. He was Asuncion's constant travelling companion enabling him to visit many countries at a young age.

But while Jorge practically grew up in the publishing business, he was made to work in other firms.

After getting a Marketing degree at De La Salle University in 1981, he was hired as an assistant brand manager at GF Equity, a management services company of consumer food items.

It was no surprise then that when Jorge joined Abiva in 1983, he set up the marketing department.

Jorge admits the textbook publishing business is a very tough business because of the tendency of some publishers to resort to bribery and other corrupt practices to sell the books.

He says the bribe paid out by some publishers accounts for up to 60 percent of the cost of books.

"We do not go into these kinds of dealings," Jorge states. He says what Abiva does is compete via much lower prices and better quality books. This is achieved through efficiency and an integrated operation.

There are about 80 textbook publishers in the country and Abiva is among the biggest and is the oldest.

Jorge also admits there is a dearth of textbook writers in the country as it loses its teachers to the US and other countries where they get much bigger pay.

But he says Abiva remains committed to continuing the legacy Asuncion started, and will believe that Abiva's textbook writers are "nation builders."

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