Sardines will always be part of the Pinoy life. If you need proof of this, check out the shelves of your nearby supermarket, or even the neighbourhood convenience stores or sari-sari stores. The sheer affordability and perhaps also the versatility of this canned food can make an ordinary family get by.
Many Filipino sardine brands have become favorites over the years, and one of these is Mega Sardines. The company's president and ceo, William Tiu-Lim shared with us that, although he made his fortune in fishing, the family business that he grew up with was totally different - department stores. When he was growing up, they had one in Rizal Avenue.
As a young man, he also remembers visiting his future wife who was from Palawan and whose family was into big-time fishing. His future father-in-law had several fishing vessels but these were all old and over-used from decades in the business. He was inspired to go into fishing and convinced himself that even with old vessels, he could make his fishing business thrive.
But, as William himself said, it was all easier said than done. It took him ten years to stabilize his new business, constructing newer vessels in the Navotas ship yard starting in 1972. He embraced the business and braced himself for the long haul - he shunned the lighter boats and started with a big boat with steel haul, his own carrier. But while his wife's family had 20 boats, he had one carrier, one light boat and one skip boat that he brought to better fishing grounds in Masbate and Quezon.
In a span of ten years, he slowly added to his fleet because he realized that with very limited vessels, one cannot rotate the boats, becoming prey to maintenance problems. Still, he found it a constant struggle, remembering that at the end of every year, his books never had a positive balance. In 1992, he moved to another fishing ground in Zamboanga, but here he had to contend with the marginal fishermen in the area who had a field day scooping out his fishes from his nets into their bancas before he could haul in the nets.
In Zamboanga, they would catch tons of tamban which they sold to several canners for sardine-making. Supply of the tamban was not a problem. In fact, they always had bountiful harvests but the law of supply and demand ruled. Because of over-supply, the price of tamban kept dipping until William decided to go into canning himself rather than give away his catch at rock-bottom price. This was the start of Mega Sardines.
He went into canning with the idea of giving himself an edge over his competitors - his fish was going to be fresher. He delivered his stocks to supermarkets but they did not seem to move. Even with fresher fish, he was up against big manufacturers with known brands and established distribution systems. The challenge was to let the buying public know about his new brand, and the answer was advertising.
He needed a celebrity endorser, one that could call attention to his brand. That was the time of Muro Ami, the hit local movie production that starred Cesar Montano and dealt with deep sea fishing, the perfect vehicle for his sardines. The famous actor became his official endorser, the face of Mega Sardines. In this new phase of the business, he improved on his product, hiring a new canning manager and researching well into the canning business and how to achieve a consistent quality for Mega Sardines. At that time, he had a difficult time getting the requisite certification that other more established brands secured to attest to his quality. He travelled to the US and to Europe to learn more about the right fishing methods because at that time he already had his eye on export. Some of his competitors were already venturing into export, but not yet on a full container load, and this became his immediate goal. If he can export on a full container load, he would be the first in the Philippines to do it.
Maybe because he has an eye unlike most of us who are not in the business, he noted that it took an hour- and- a- half to drain the fishes, which accounts for some measure of staleness. He found the answer in the fish pump which could fill up 1,000 banyeras in 15 minutes, with the fish still alive.
In the fishing business, there is quick turn- around of one's capital. In one or two days, your fish is delivered and paid for but with the canning business, your capital "sleeps" for months. But the system for the canning business has been laid out carefully, the potential is greater, and with keen advertising, the brand is now well-known. There was no turning back now; the challenge was to give customers a better product. From the fish pump, William graduated to the vacuum pump. The very core of his business was the freshness of the fish, and even when the fish has been vacuumed into a sterile tank, there is no human contact which can lower the temperature of the fish. All the aspects of production have been automated with precision, because timing and the perfect temperature and salinity are vital to his operations. From catching to canning, it should not take them more than 12 hours to ensure the freshness and quality of the fish before it is steamed inside the can.
Now Mega Sardines is exported to over thirty countries, and the brand is 15 years old. He continues to innovate his packaging, using cans with pull-up tabs and easy-to-open pouches which the DOST helped him develop. There are long off-seasons in fishing, so he has also ventured into other products like the Oh My Ulam brand for instance, and canned vegetables like mushrooms, corn and peas so he can still maximize his warehousing, distribution and sales staff. No resources wasted.
William has been fishing for 40 years, and he proudly says that Mega is now certified as the no.1 sardine brand in the Philippines. His big warehouse in Zamboanga is open to the public, he says, so they can see how his canning operations have evolved into the most modern and efficient in the country.
Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.
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