At an early age, Josie Natori (nee Cruz) was exposed to the entrepreneurial life.
Her maternal grandmother Josefa Mendoza Almeda was a constant presence. Josie, being the eldest granddaughter, would always visit her lola in Naga City, in the Bicol Region.
“My grandmother was the most amazing woman. She was really a mentor to me,” recalled Natori when Daily Tribune visited her at the Natori and Co. factory in Pasig City. She was in town for one of her monthly business sojourns in the Philippines, this time doubling with her responsibilities in the Asian Cultural Council, of which she founded the Philippine chapter.
“I learned so much from my grandmother,” she shared. “I was there at six months old. Then, when it was summer time throughout my elementary and high school years, I would constantly visit her. We were quite close until she passed away at age 89. And my grandmother was really the most exceptional entrepreneur. I’ve run my own business for 41 years. She gave me that. She was my role model.
“First of all, she was a pharmacist, so she had drugstores. Being a businesswoman, she also had theaters, ice plants and plantations. She worked 24/7. At the same time, she had a beautiful home. She showed that you can be a businesswoman and be feminine, and be very together. She was an amazing example to me that you can be strong, you can be a good businesswoman without losing your femininity.”
Josie’s parents were her role models, too.
Like her mother, Angelita, Josie became a pianist. She was always playing in recitals, and at the age of nine, she had her first performance with an orchestra.
“Yes, my mother was a pianist,” she related. “But she never did get her degree because she was a pharmacist by profession. But she was intent that I would be a graduate of a degree in piano. In some ways, she lived vicariously through me. I used to joke that my mother tied me to a piano when I was growing up. And I ended up getting a degree in music and piano, at the same time that I got my liberal arts education in the United States.”
Her mother Angelita started out as a pharmacist back in Naga, but when the family transferred to Manila right after the war, she taught in the university until her husband, Felipe Cruz, a self-made man from Angat, Bulacan, started his own geodetic survey company.
“At that point, my father and mother helped one another in growing the family business. So, I grew up seeing them work together. She would even travel with him to meet with clients.”
What was constant in the Cruz home was the presence of the arts. “It was something that my mother saw in my grandmother, who always had beautiful things at home. Her vases would be filled with flowers, and the tablecloth and furniture were beautiful. She also dressed up and carried herself well. Like her mother, my mother lived art. Later, when my parents had attained a certain financial stability, Nanay began collecting paintings, a passion of my mother’s that my father was not aware of, and did not really care about because he grew up poor and had to fend for himself to finish college.”
Her collection would, of course, turn out to be good investments, the businesswoman in her manifesting in her acquisition of paintings by Filipino masters who would later be declared national artists.
Still, while she was a good homemaker and mother, Angelita Cruz, according to daughter Josie, “could not cook. She told my father when he was still courting her that she did not know how to cook, and she did not intend to learn how to cook,” she said.
As a child, Josie, the eldest of six children, was constantly learning a thing or two. “With my parents, there was no such thing as idle time,” she said. “I grew up playing the piano, xylophone, and marimba, or learning how to type, or write in steno, or any new skill that would be useful especially in the business world.” But just to make sure, her mother had her take cooking lessons.
After high school at Maryknoll College, Josie was sent to the United States to pursue a college degree. She went to the Manhattanville College, originally Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where the Kennedy women, the sisters of President John F. Kennedy and the wives of his brothers, graduated.
Barely two weeks after her college graduation, Josie began working on Wall Street, and thus began her professional life. After succeeding in the financial world, she got bored and went on to start her own buy-and-sell business. It was an endeavor that would bring her to the proverbial untold heights. Today, she is more than hopeful, as she told us, “The best is yet to come.”
The first 40 years of her company, she said, were meant to be the time for building just the foundations, and she is looking forward to the next 40 years of the company.
The world-class Josie Natori, who has become a model and an inspiration to countless Filipino women and men, shared her story with Daily Tribune. To be sure, it was not an easy ride.
She met challenges along the way, but she kept working hard, and the results are a worldwide empire and a name that is respected in the international lifestyle and fashion sector.
Daily Tribune (DT): How did your parents raise you?
Josie Cruz Natori (JCN): Oh, they were extremely strict. I guess it’s because I was the first child. They were just starting as parents, so they could be very strict. My brother Philip and I had our share of spankings. Our parents were really disciplinarians. All my mother had to do was just look at me, and I ran. They were really disciplinarians. It was important that we had good grades, that we were polite, obedient. And so, we grew up where, if they told you to do something, you did it. You never questioned it. And it was very important to please them.
You know, I am really grateful because they were amazing parents. At the same time, they were extremely generous. But you just knew they had high expectations. They never said anything, but you were expected to excel. And my parents were good examples. My father was a self-made man. My mother was a teacher in Chemistry. She was in the background, but she was amazing. She helped my father build and grow the business.
DT: Tell me about college life. What made you decide to go to New York, and why did you choose that school?
JCN: I am not sure if I initiated it, or it was just the thing to do. As I said, I’ve lived a very sheltered life. Several of my batchmates in high school were planning, so, actually, my father checked out the schools including Marymount in California. But it so happened that I chose to go to Manhattanville in New York. So, it was totally with my parents’ blessings. It was interesting because I had lived a straight, sheltered life. I never went out.
DT: As a college student, were you already intending to shift to another field after you finished your music course?
JCN: I never thought that I would be a professional in music. That was not my intent. I knew that I definitely wanted to finish and get a degree, have my graduation, but never as a professional. I really liked the piano for myself, but I always knew when I went to college that I wanted to be in business just like my father, my uncle. So, I majored in Economics. All the while that I was in Manhattan, I was preparing for my concert for Sta. Isabel, which recognized the credits I earned from my liberal arts classes. So, it was at the same time that I was preparing for my graduation. But I always knew I was going to be in business. So, I literally worked for two weeks on Wall Street right after I graduated.
DT: What was the first company you worked for?
JCN: Bache and Company. They hired me two weeks after I graduated. Six months after, they asked me to come to Manila to help open an office. So, at age 21, I hired 16 people. I opened an office here in Makati. We were a brokerage company, and we were assisting people with their investments. It was a great experience.
I was here for one year and a half, almost two years. It was an amazing experience. Then when I came back to New York, Merrill Lynch offered me a job in investment banking. So, I was there for six years until I decided to open my own business.
DT: Tell me the highlights of your years on Wall Street.
JCN: You know, I am very fortunate to have had the most amazing experience on Wall Street. It was 1968, and there weren’t many women then. One highlight for me was at my age, I was able to open an office as an assistant manager here with a German manager, and I learned the broker’s field, arbitrage and trading stocks that were traded both here at the Manila Stock Exchange and at the New York Stock Exchange.
It was a great experience working from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. And then, I would trade from 11 in the evening until 3 in the morning. It was really long hours at that time.
But that was part of learning. And then, later, I became an investment banker, which meant another field. I ended up being the first woman vice president at Merrill Lynch. I was in charge of corporate finance. That was really an exceptional experience for me.
DT: What did you have to contend with? What were the challenges you had to hurdle to reach that level?
JCN: I just worked hard. And I think I had an advantage having the kind of genes I had. I had no fear. I also never felt there was any limitation. Women in the States had a lot of hang-ups. And I never had that kind of hang-up.
DT: Where did you meet Ken, your future husband?
JCN: On Wall Street. He was an investment banker.
DT: What made you get tired of finance?
JCN: I learned what I wanted. It just got boring for me, and I really had no (ambition) of being president, not that I could be at that time. I figured I had learned what I wanted. And the rest I wasn’t really interested in. And I didn’t realize then, I was missing the creative side. But at the same time, it was also because I was already married to Ken. Ken and I always knew that we would have our own business, so I wanted to start a business. So, it was a question of what and who would start it. And I was the one who was bored, while he was totally happy with what he was doing. He and I looked at many, many businesses. In the end, I decided I wanted something that had to do with the Philippines. I tested different things — baskets, furniture… and that’s how it started.
DT: What was the first product that you sold? Was it lingerie immediately?
JCN: No, it was a shirt, it was a blouse. It was embroidered. And then the buyer said, “Can you make it longer into a night shirt?” By accident, I landed in the lingerie department.
DT: What were the initial challenges? It’s quite a unique department.
JCN: I guess I was in the right place at the right time. That was 41 years ago. It was a different moment in the fashion industry, and because I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about it. But I just showed them something, and they saw it had a beautiful craftsmanship. So, I just kind of listened and I learned on the job.
DT: What was that store where you first showed it?
JCN: Bloomingdale’s. They gave me the idea. But it was Sak’s Fifth Avenue that bought first. But they all became wonderful clients. You know, I think that it was just at the right moment. I had an idea, and the craftsmanship was good. That had really become the trademark of Natori.
DT: How did the Americans take to a Filipino brand? Or were they conscious it was a Filipino brand? It was probably Japanese to them.
JCN: I have to say the name Natori had been a great asset. It has a nice sound. It wasn’t my idea to name it Natori, but a buyer from Bloomingdale’s suggested that it had a nice ring. Actually, they said, it could sound Italian. I think it’s a perfect name. I don’t know if you know it, but “Natori” means the highest form of art.
DT: Oh, wow.
JCN: Anyhow, I never had any qualms about my products being “Made in the Philippines.” That, to me, is an asset, an advantage. I flaunt it. I think we have amazing quality and craftsmanship here.
DT: I’m quite amazed because people were wanting to buy something “stateside,” and here you were offering something from hometown Philippines, and it clicked.
JCN: Yes, but there was a point of differentiation. That is the design. And the craftsmanship. We made it unique and different.
DT: You were the first designer.
JCN: Oh, yes. I directed the traffic. I don’t like to call myself a designer. I’m an artist, of course, being a pianist, but I was not educated in designing or sketching. I can’t sew. But as a consumer, as a woman, I think I know what is beautiful.
DT: We’re winding up, but I need to know your management style. It has made you very successful.
JCN: Managing people is probably one of the hardest things in running a business, but you can’t have a company without people, without a good organization. So, it’s the constant challenge of having a good team, motivating them and understanding them. I would say that my approach is family. That’s how we were brought up here. I learned that from my father, being an entrepreneur. I think it’s very Filipino. Like my father, I am very hands-on. I did everything myself from the beginning, including shipping. You did what you had to do. I could do accounting and all of that. But it’s different now. People say, you do this, you do that. There wasn’t anything that I could not do where management was concerned. You need to be all-around.
DT: What we can expect from Josie Natori in 2019?
JCN: Every New Year always gives us a chance to embark on several things in terms of projects. I feel that the last 40 years of Natori is just one chapter, and 2019 to me is the beginning of another chapter. In the last five years, we’ve been transforming the company into a true lifestyle company. So, now we’re expanding into other categories. I feel that the best is yet to come. I feel that the first 40 years were just building the foundations. We’re transforming ourselves so that the company will be here for the next 40 years.