Lolo Benny, patriarch of the family behind Rustan Group of Companies, the original ‘retail therapist,’ turns 100
Today, April 7, 2021, Bienvenido Tantoco Sr., whom everybody calls Lolo Benny, turns 100. And yet, he remains wide-eyed about the world and its wonders, a reminder, especially now that circumstances make life seem so short, daunting, unsettling, and exhausting, that every moment on earth is a gift. Imagine the gift of being able to stretch that moment, triumphs and trials and all, to a century.
The son of Luis Buendia Tantoco, a farmer, fisherman, and trader in Malolos, and Carmen Fabella Rufino, a pianist and music teacher, Benny was born to a life of privilege as well as a life of struggle, as he grew up fully exposed to the plight of the community, assigned by his father in his early age to “help watch over our fishpond.”
Not many know that Lolo Benny is descended from a family of strong women, as well as strong men, many of whom took part in the KKK’s Katipunan del Norte, of which his great-granduncle Fr. Agustin Tantoco was the leader. Of the 20 Women of Malolos of 1888, who peacefully formed a movement in 1888 for educational reforms in the country, at least seven were Tantocos, including Basilia Tantoco, Lolo Benny’s great-grandaunt. No less than national hero Jose Rizal, in 1889, paid homage to these brave women for their staunch desire to educate themselves. In his life of 100 years, not only in the support he gave his wife and the way he raised his daughters, Lolo Benny like Rizal did not lose sight of the potential of women, and the dignity and honor they deserved.
Today, Lolo Benny is considered the “Father of Philippine Luxury Retail.” As his eldest daughter Nedy Tantoco, chair and CEO of Rustan Group of Companies, would venture to say, he was the original “retail therapist” of the Philippines.
When he and his wife, Gliceria Rustia Tantoco or Glecy, founded Rustan’s in 1952 in their San Marcelino home in Ermita, Manila, it was only a trove of things of interest they found in their many travels, which they started sharing with their friends and family and neighbors. Even then, before Rustan’s and the family business grew into an empire, with expansive and diversified interests in retail, real estate, food and beverages, and lifestyle, he and Glecy, traveling the world, had this desire, as Nedy puts it, “to make the Philippines a part of the global retail village.”
Outside of their personal bonds, as entrepreneurs, theirs was a match made in heaven. The product of their shared passions and desires, their life work, Rustan’s has been a reflection of that heavenly match. Benny has always made it clear, however, that it was Glecy’s vision, making it a point to put himself in the background, where his core competencies lay—accounting, security, logistics, legal work, among other things. “Even when she was long gone, he would speak of how all these started because of her,” explains Nedy. “He was with the Rufino enterprises and it was Glecy who sought to engage in a different field. She had the marketing and merchandising savvy and while they saw eye to eye and knew what they wanted, it was Glecy who had the original vision. He followed her because he believed in her. He found his north star in her.”
My father stood for constant renewal. It is what has made Rustan’s strong and it is what has kept us his family going. —Nedy Tantoco
It is clear, however, that even in his account of Rustan’s history, theirs being a legacy that generations later continue to be a symbol of good living in the country, Lolo Benny is also just being a gentleman, a virtue of his that has withstood the many dramatic changes of the last 100 years, including Glecy’s death in 1994. “With her passing on, it was as though a new Bienvenido Tantoco Sr. had emerged, one who had just achieved a second wind, a person who, through the years, had quietly possessed the traits that would make for a good executive and entrepreneur, not as a support or backup to a wife, but as a leader and himself a visionary,” recounts Nedy.
Yes, first of all, as Nedy would point out, “my father is a gentleman.” After all, he was married to a woman who has proved to be irreplaceable even after she passed 27 years ago. Of their brood of six, they have one son, Rico, Benny’s junior, the rest are women—Nedy, Menchu Lopez, Marilen Tantoco, Merl Pineda, and Tokie Enriquez. “After a woman visits him, daughter or granddaughter or granddaughter-in-law, he makes sure to check if she has arrived home safely. As soon as she reaches home, his call checking up on her is sure to come in a minute or two. For some reason, he knows when she is supposed to have reached home,” Nedy says.
In Lolo Benny, chivalry is no stuffy old tradition that, along with politeness and manners, should be tossed away into the dustbins of the past. Even now, he sees to it that it never dies among his grandsons and great-grandsons, in a family he and Glecy started that is now 87-strong and counting.
With distinctions and honors from the Sovereign Military Orders of Saint John, Rhodes, and Malta, Lolo Benny is a man who seeks connections, especially when there seem to be irreconcilable differences. He was ambassador to the Vatican from 1983 to 1986, a role he was perfect for. He was a diplomat through and through not only in his language and his deportment, but also in his vision as the resident representative of the Philippine government in the Holy See. “As ambassador, he was constantly socializing and traveling,” recalls Nedy. “It was with elegance of manners and gentlemanly grace that he did his duties, promoting the interests of the Philippine government even outside the normal office and diplomatic functions. Most important, he played the role of a consummate host, since Filipinos constantly visited the Vatican. He met with all kinds of Filipinos, the clergy, the nuns, the students, the domestic helpers, the employees of international organizations, the caregivers, entertaining them with much gusto and respect. He was also known to be generous to those who were in need. He supported their undertakings as a Filipino community and, when there was a need, he and Mrs. Tantoco welcomed them to their home.”
As ambassador to the Holy See, Lolo Benny was at the forefront of the efforts initiated by his predecessors that led to the beatification and canonization of San Lorenzo Ruiz, for which throughout his tenure he campaigned tirelessly, making known, particularly to the Vatican community, the miraculous works of the Filipino saint. By his gentlemanly manners, urbane attitude, lack of self-interest, and diplomatic knack, he was also able to smoothen what was then a less than an ideal relationship between the Philippine leaders and the papacy.
Today, Lolo Benny is spending his 100th summer in customary fashion, with verve and vim, his curiosity and enthusiasm as unbridled as when he was a young man in pursuit of his dreams. “My father stood for constant renewal. It is what has made Rustan’s strong and it is what has kept us his family going,” beams Nedy. “What many saw as the end of an empire (Glecy’s death) was the beginning of the fulfillment of his promise—his promise to his wife that, yes, we will overcome and we will continue to grow and prosper not just for ourselves but for our executives, our employees, our suppliers, our customers, and our country.”
For Lolo Benny, as it has always been according to Nedy, the best is yet to come. “He always has something to look forward to,” she says of her father. “And he is grateful to God. When you are grateful, you are hopeful and when you are hopeful, you live long.”
Video: Johndel Semilla