Long live Lolo Benny!

Published July 10, 2021, 2:03 PM

by AA Patawaran

Entrepreneur, diplomat, family figure Bienvenido Tantoco Sr., who lived to 100, was a shining example of how to live long and happy

IN MEMORIAM Benny Tantoco Sr., portrait by Rupert Jacinto

To me the greatest gift of Lolo Benny, Bienvenido Tantoco Sr., (April 7, 1921 – July 6, 2021), to the Filipino is what he and his late wife, Glecy Rustia Tantoco, started in 1952—a window to the world, through which we can reach out and have a piece of the best of the best such a world can offer, whether Italian or French, whether Moroccan or Maltese, and even Filipino, from the regions. In a word, Rustan’s.

He had raised an army who will now carry the torch for him. And he will live forever on earth in his legacy and in our memory. These are 10 reasons why.

1. He had big dreams not only for himself but also for his family, his country, and his countrymen.

When he and his wife Glecy founded Rustan’s in 1952 in their home on San Marcelino Street in Ermita, Manila, theirs was the dream not only of growing a business, but also of sharing what they found in the world out there with their fellow Filipinos. He and Glecy, having seen much of what was possible in the world, had this desire, as their eldest daughter Nedy Tantoco, chair and CEO of the Rustan Group of Companies, puts it, “to make the Philippines a part of the global retail village.”

2. He put Philippine sainthood on the global map.

As ambassador to the Holy See from 1983 to 1986, 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. Diplomacy was a role perfect for him. He sought connections even where there were seemingly irreconcilable differences.

3. He learned work ethics early in life and he never forgot what he learned.

Although he was born in Manila, Lolo Benny grew up in Malolos, Bulacan, where at a young age his father asked him “to help watch over our fishpond.” He was deeply immersed in the goings-on of the town, the ways of gentility as well as the labors of the rural folk, learning “to deal with fishermen, big-time middlemen, and housewives who filled their baskets with fish, carried them on their heads, and sold them in the markets or on the streets.”

ALL SMILES The 96th birthday celebration of Lolo Benny

4. He was descended from a family of freedom fighters and champions of equality and human rights.

Not many know that Lolo Benny was a proud descendant of Filipino reformers, crusaders, and revolutionaries, 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 for educational reforms in the Philippines, 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.

FOUR GENERATIONS OF TANTOCOS His son Rico, his great grandson Christian, grandson Donnie, and Lolo Benny

5. He was a visionary.

“I believe it was Lola Glecy who was the merchant. She really knew her merchandise. Lolo was the business driver, the visionary,” said one of his grandsons, Anton Huang, president at Stores Specialists, Inc., in the biography An Appointment with the Vatican. “Lola knew her stuff from a merchandiser’s stand point, but Lolo really knew how to build a business. First it was Rustan’s. And then the Royal Duty Free Shop in Subic. And the third, he did it again with Shopwise. Come to think of it, Lolo was with Donnie (Tantoco, his eldest grandchild) and me when we went to Seattle. Lolo was there the first time we talked to Starbucks. It was he who said we should look into it. And he said we should go for it. And we did.”

THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING GREAT Blessing of Rustan’s Makati with Imelda Marcos (middle, in black)

6. He was grateful and, with gratitude constantly in his heart, he was a do-gooder.

With Lolo Benny at the helm, the Rustan Group of Companies donated ₱12 million in 2011to the Paco Market Redevelopment Project. It was his way of looking back with gratitude as Paco Market was only a stone’s throw away from where he and his wife built Rustan’s from the ground up. “This is where our dream of building something of significance was born. This is where a brand-new day began for us as we opened our first Rustan’s store,” he said. More than an homage to their entrepreneurial roots, the gesture, as Lolo Benny explained, was to show the vendors at Paco Market that small beginnings could lead to great things.  Needless to say, Paco Market was only one of the many projects he had undertaken “as our way of paying forward so that our fellow Filipinos would have the opportunity to have better lives while contributing to the economic development of our country.” He had received numerous honors, such as the Gawad Dangal ng Lipi ng Bulacan, the highest rank—Knight Commander—of the “Ordine della stella della Solidarieta’ Italiana,” and the title “Father of Luxury Retailing,” in recognition not only of his contributions but also his civic and philanthropic spirit.

7. He was a strong believer in the potential of women.

In his life of 100 years, not only in the support he gave his wife and the way he raised his five daughters, Lolo Benny like Rizal gave women the dignity, honor, and faith they deserved. When he and his wife founded Rustan’s in 1952, he let Glecy’s vision take the front seat, making it a point to put himself in the background, where his core competencies lay—accounting, security, logistics, legal work, among other things. Of his six children, five were women—Nedy Tantoco, Menchu Lopez, Marilen Tantoco, Merl Pineda, and Tokie Enriquez—whom he raised with opportunities equal to those he gave his only son, his namesake, Bienvenido Tantoco Jr. or Rico. In Lolo Benny, chivalry was no stuffy old tradition that, along with politeness and manners, should be tossed away into the dustbins of the past. To the last of his days, he saw to it that it never died in his son, his grandsons, and his great-grandsons.

LOVING GLECY Benny and wife Glecy

8. He was a true Renaissance man.

He was, in the words—and eyes—of his son Rico, “cultured, knowledgeable, splendidly well-rounded, and talented. He has received many honors and accolades throughout his life. But if you ask what his greatest accomplishment is, he will tell you that fatherhood is his greatest privilege and achievement in life.”

FATHER OF LUXURY RETAILING Awards night with Pnoy (third from the right)

9. He always showed up and did what he had to do.

To Lolo Benny, life was a gift that needed to be unwrapped—and immediately. He always showed up. Says his eldest grandson Donnie Tantoco, president of Rustan’s Commercial Corporation, “My Lolo told me that in life, one gets ‘50 points for showing up, 40 points for looking good, what you do is 10 points na lang.’ When I think about this lesson from Lolo, I remind myself that obedience and duty are not to a person, they are to a higher calling.’” To another grandson, Gawad Kalinga mentor Dino Tantoco Pineda, director and board member at Rustan Group of Companies, Lolo Benny was able to live long and happy because showing up or being disciplined was not something he found difficult. It was just him. “He knew his role, he knew what a husband had to be, he knew what a father had to be, he knew what a chairman had to be, he knew what an ambassador had to be, and he just made sure he was what he was supposed to be,” said Dino.

10. He lived every moment, even those moments full of challenges, with joy.

When Lolo Benny turned 100, he celebrated the day like any other day, 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 was an 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.”