UP TO SPEED! with Ms. Lita Manalastas-Watanabe
by Eleanor Palima
It is great to see amazingly driven Filipino women exploiting their strengths and pursuing their passion. Some are enjoying the rewards and sense of security from employment. Others have chosen to embrace change and to redefine themselves, becoming entrepreneurs. In either field, we see them all working hard for their continuing success.
Here, we get to hear from a remarkable Filipino woman, Ms. Lita Manalastas Watanabe, President and Representative Director of SPEED Money Transfer Japan. She chose to welcome the challenge of starting up a business in a country where women are known to be underrepresented in the boardroom and in a field where strict compliance to financial regulations is indispensable. This feat did not go unrecognized. She recently joined the list of “100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the World 2013.”
We posed a few questions.
Q: What brought you to Japan?
A. My very first trip to Japan was in 1995, when I was one of those chosen to participate in the Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan. Each of the then 5 ASEAN member countries and Japan sent 30 delegates each, headed by a national leader. All the delegates converged in Singapore, and then boarded the Japanese ship Nippon Maru, which became our home for around 2 months. We sailed from one ASEAN country to another, participating in various activities on board the ship, and in each of the countries visited, including home stays. The voyage ended in Japan and we all flew back to our home countries full of good memories and lots of friendships made. Those friendships lasted until the present. Many of the delegates even fell in love with each other during the voyage, and eventually married.
In my case, it was a love at first sight with Japan, arriving in this country during the blazing autumn colors which I have seen for the first time. And the rest is history – my decision to take up my graduate studies in Japan under a Japanese government scholarship; working as the Deputy Director for Investments at the ASEAN-Japan Centre headquartered in Tokyo; setting up and heading PNB Tokyo Branch; meeting my husband Fumio; living/working in Japan since then.
Q: Why the shift to being an entrepreneur? What did it take to reach the decision?
A. I was the head of PNB Tokyo until 2006, when the Bank moved me to Europe, to be the Area Head for Europe, Israel and Africa. I was living alone in Rome for several years, away from my family, and I asked the bank to re-assign me back, if staying inside the house as I cannot drive, my son busy with his studies, and there I was, too much time in my hands.
It was also the time when Japan implemented its Japan Payments Act, wherein not only fully licensed banks like PNB and Metrobank can do remittance business, but also non banks, provided they get the proper license from the Japanese financial regulator, the Financial Services Agency.
And so the wheels again turned, with me doing a flurry of emails, contacting a law firm in Tokyo to assist me in setting up my Japan company, flying for a one day visit in the Netherlands to present my business plan to a potential investor, and also making the same presentation to one of the richest Filipinos, for possible investment.
When the Dutch potential investor said “OK, for US$300,000 investment”, and the Filipino businessman said “I will match the amount”, and when the Dutch potential investor also confirmed that he will give his remittance system to me for free, I am in business!!!
Q. What challenges came along?
A. The documentary requirements for a remittance license in Japan were overwhelming. I was the one who worked for the full banking license of PNB Tokyo Branch, and the requirements were similar. A lot of manuals had to be prepared, and the waiting time for the license approval was nerve wracking. You do not know exactly when you will get it, but you already had to incur a lot of overhead – rent expense, some salaries for the staff who will back stop me during the license application, acquiring the necessary furniture and fixtures, the setting up of the computer system, etc.
I wanted to lease the computers, furniture, and other things that we need but I was rejected by around 6 leasing companies. I had no business track record and it was difficult for them to just agree to lease to someone with no 3-year business history. Same thing happened when I was looking for a potential office – very difficult for me to enter into a lease agreement. I was always required to have a Japanese guarantor. I could not also raise additional capital from Japanese banks. Same problem – no business track record.
I had to pray a lot, and have asked my mother to help pray that I overcome all challenges, and to get that license approval the soonest.
It was very stressful. I could not tell my husband that in case our license application with the Japanese financial regulator, the FSA, was disapproved, we will go bankrupt. I already had an office wherein I could not get out of the 3-year lease I have signed, the computers, the furniture, the telephone system, etc., were already in place. And I did not like my potential investors to sink in their funds before my license is approved/ released. Never mind my own money/ savings at risk, but not other people’s.
Q. That was tough. More so, I suppose, with the additional players in the cross border remittance business. How do you find strength?
A. I do not really believe in fortune tellers. But one time, out of curiosity, I had my fortune read. I could not forget what the fortune teller told me. She said, I could get anything I want, but I have to work hard for it. Nothing will come my way easy, but all will be achievable if I work hard for them.
And I do work very hard. Even while I was just an employee and not running my own business, I was used to working 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, not claiming any overtime pay. Probably, it was also because I enjoyed the kind of work I did, and I could see the fruits of my labor.
But prayers (lots!!!) sustain me, and the full support and confidence in me of my husband and my family.
Q. You are apparently very focused. How do you tune out distractions?
A. I love the work I do. If I find my work, as work, I will probably find a lot of distractions. But since I enjoy doing what I am doing, it is really not work. I also have a husband who understands and appreciates hard work.
Q. You recently received an award. Can you tell us more about this?
A. One afternoon during the last week of August (2013), I received a call from the Consul General (ConGen) Joy Ignacio of our Philippine Embassy in Tokyo, informing me that the Embassy is planning to submit the names of 2 nominees from Japan to the Filipina Women’s Network based in San Francisco, USA, the organizer for the search for the Global 100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the World.
I was the nominee for the “Founders & Pioneers” category, an award category which “honor Filipina women in their capacities as chief executive, president, executive director or founder of a company… that they helped start, build, or significantly grow”. The award category are for “trailblazers who have marshalled resources and applied innovative practices, processes and/or technologies in a new and groundbreaking way to address a significant business or organizational opportunity.”
Congen Ignacio and I worked very hard to beat the deadline for submission of the nomination (the next day after her call), and she stayed very late at night reviewing the lengthy documentary requirements, and finally making it.
Next came the interview by telephone, by the selection committee. I relayed to ConGen Ignacio that I had the feeling that I will make it, because during the interview, the interviewer sounded me out on whether I can be a panelist to the session “Make Me A Filipina Millionaire” if I am chosen. I made it, and I was also chosen to be one of the 3 panelists to that session.
I flew with my husband to the USA for the gala dinner and awards night held on October 26, 2013 at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. My son JC also joined.
It was a very rewarding 3-day working experience, together with the so many amazing Filipinas who flew from all over the world to be awarded the honor. I learned a lot from the various sessions organized which were held in various venues. One was held at the Google Campus in San Francisco, arranged by one of the awardees who is a Vice President at Google. Filipino food was served for the first time at Google cafeteria and it was a hit to the employees.
In the keynote speech of Ms. Cora Tellez, CEO Sterling HSA, during the awarding ceremony, I was very pleasantly surprised to be given a special mention, the only one amongst the awardees that night, and I quote:
“I am reminded of an awardee I met the other day: Ms. Isabelita Manalastas-Watanabe, who started a remittance business in Japan. She had many things going against her: she is not Japanese, she is not male, and she had to overcome a significant barrier to entry in her industry, and that is, huge capital outlays in advance of opening her business. Her story of courage, sheer determination, and a very clever way to raise capital among Filipinos in Japan is a celebration of defining success on her own terms.”
My husband and my son were the proudest of them all, that night, and I was of course, very happy.
Q. Any tips to aspiring entrepreneurs?
A. Perseverance, lots of hard work, sufficient capital, knowledge of the business you want to start, and prayers, prayers, prayers, to guide you in your decision making.
We thank Ms. Lita Manalastas Watanabe for gladly taking time out of her busy day to share with us her own struggles, challenges and successes. Indeed, it takes a lot to think through goals and to see through opportunities. And it takes a lot more to move forward and to be up to speed to stay on course.