Joel Cruz — A perfume tycoon’s inspiring journey

Illustration by glenzkie tolo

One would think that Joel Cruz, the perfume tycoon, knew from day one that he would become the person he is today, a successful entrepreneur.

Yet that was not the case for this flamboyant gentleman who, in his youth, had wanted to pursue a number of careers except the one where he would create and sell perfumes that the Filipino mass, especially students, would lap up for their day-to-day and special-occasion use.

From giving some sophomoric thought to certain vocations, he also cut his teeth in the “viajero” buy-and-sell trade until he hit it big in garments manufacturing, the last lasting for a number of thriving years until the onset of the Asian Crisis when he met with failure that led to a low period in his life as a businessman.

Joel would soon rise back and discover his new fount of blessing in the perfume industry, one that has endured through the years from the turn of the new millennium.

While the journey had not been easy, it was, to Joel, one great experience and “worth all my sacrifices because I am now enjoying the fruits of my hard work, persistence, and my strong faith in God. I could not have taken another route to success.”

Joel and his children.

Master of his mansion
But that was a long way from when “I first wanted to be a driver,” says Joel, who received the Daily Tribune staff for an interview-cum-delicious dinner in his mansion, which stands on a lot where the Cruz family once had a simple middle-class home.

Joel has since bought three adjoining properties on which he built this mansion that juts out prominently from the center of Manila in the periphery of the university belt and the original downtown that had its heyday during the prewar and immediate postwar years.

It is a successful man’s home, alright, as a first-time visitor to this elegant abode could not help admiring the artworks that adorn the walls and the fine china figurines and collectible bric-a-brac that stand on table tops and display shelves. There is also a large swimming pool of shiny, expensive tiles, and, yes, an elevator that the master of the house had installed for the use of his mother to reach her well-appointed suite with a veranda that overlooks the family’s next-door garage, all of one lot to accommodate all their cars and service vehicles.

Of course, this is not his only home, for he has built an imposing mansion in Camp John Hay in Baguio, an equally gorgeous vacation home in Tagaytay, and several mansions in California. All these the savvy businessman Joel had transformed into revenue-earning assets.

Joel’s success story began in this home when it was just this small and it looked like the rest of the sturdy yet plain-looking houses in the neighborhood. Here, he dreamt of engaging in various professions when he would finally grow into adulthood.


Driver, priest, doctor 
When Joel was a child, his father had started a delivery service business with a truck that through the years would increase in number. As a teenager, he helped his father with paperwork, including filling in the drivers’ accomplishments and corresponding wages. When he saw that “a driver my father hired was earning a lot of money, I told him that after I finish college, I should probably work as a driver in his business.”

It was a short-lived dream as his father told him that was just for a rush trip which meant hiring someone for 24-hour work.  “It turned out he was not earning that much if he was a regular employee,” Joel recounts.

Next, Joel, who attended the University of Sto. Tomas, a Catholic educational institution, became enamored with the idea of becoming a priest. “From grade school, I would attend mass not only during Sundays but holidays of obligation as well and all other Catholic feasts.  I was so fascinated by the way priests officiated at mass I ended up memorizing their lines. Actually, from elementary to college, I was very religious. That’s how I wanted to become a priest.

But his mother had something else in mind for him. “Those days, parents would aspire for their children to pursue the usual professions and my mother already had an accountant and an engineer. My mother wanted me to become a doctor of medicine. I think she liked the idea of displaying her children’s diplomas on our living room wall, which many parents did.”

By then, the Cruz couple could send a child to medical school after having achieved a level of prosperity from their earnings in their trucking business which they later expanded to the supply of party chairs and tables.

Joel, though, dreamt of something else, even when he was already in his junior year as a psychology major at UST.

He wanted to make money and ended up traveling regularly to Bangkok and Hong Kong to buy garments and sell them in Manila for profit.

It was an early experience that furthermore allowed him to understand how business could be run smoothly. His biggest challenge was how to tell his parents that he did not want to become a doctor, and instead be a businessman.

The long and short of it is after he graduated from college, he took the courage to tell his mother he “would be happier and better off as a businessman.”

His mother, seeing how Joel had pined for a different life from what she had envisioned for him, and realizing that it was after all in a life of business that he had grown and from which he had imbibed the values of an entrepreneurial father, allowed Joel to follow his dream.

photographs courtesy of fb/aficionado

Creating his own RTW line
With his parents’ blessings, Joel then proceeded to explore the possibility of manufacturing his own clothes. “I asked myself why I should be selling other people’s products and I had yet to source my merchandise in Bangkok and Hong Kong when I can have my own apparel manufacturing firm. After all, we were rich in talent in the Philippines.

“So I started with a small shop,” he recalls, which would grow big. Initially, he had the support of a friend from his UST days, Marcelino Hernandez, a fashion designer. In time, Joel himself would manufacture his own designs and deliver them to Syvel’s in Escolta, Landmark in Makati, Rustan’s, and Robinsons. He also manufactured apparel for the world’s top clothing brands.

“I grew my business and that’s how I was able to save for bigger things.” At the start, he would drive his own delivery van, and so “my dream to become a driver came true,” he recalls laughingly.

But everything that he earned and saved would be wiped out when the Asian financial crisis reached the Philippines in 1997. “I lost everything,” he recounts. “I was back to ground zero and I left for the States hoping I could find something to do there.

“I was not happy in the United States. For one thing, I wasn’t used to doing my own thing, washing my own clothes, cleaning my own room, and cooking my own food. It was quite a shock for someone who was used to having a helper at home and my own staff in my office. So, I decided to come home to the Philippines in 1999.”

Discovering perfume
Good fortune awaited him back in the Philippines. “Right before the onset of the millennium, I started Aficionado,” he recounts. “A good friend of my father, who worked for the Philippine branch of Henkel, a German brand that manufactured Fa soap, taught me how to concoct reasonably priced perfume. It was a take-off from the expensive brands made in France and Italy.

“He explained that our production cost in the Philippines was much cheaper from labor to bottle to other inputs. What we invested in was the oil that came from Italy, which led to our producing 18 concoctions of scents and these got us started in Aficionado.  Their local versions were Polo Sport,  Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss,  Banana Republic, and Cool Water, among others.  “While they were not original, they were of equally good quality and they last for hours,” Joel explains.

“We started with a pop-up store in Ever Gotesco Grand Central which was a good location because of the human traffic of commuters who rode the metro rail system.” First, he employed his niece and a sister-in-law, “although I myself would join them and hawk the products myself, shouting at the top of my voice.”

This would lead to bigger things as they branched out to the malls, and the young people came to buy Aficionado, happy that they could smell just as good as their well-off counterparts from the exclusive schools and rich men’s villages.

Other businesses
Joel Cruz was made and the rest is history. He would move on to become an icon of modern retail. In time, he would invest in prime real estate, and soon, put up other businesses including the manufacture of alcohol which he sold to government agencies during the pandemic. “After all, we already had alcohol for our perfume business and since the malls were closed, I thought of producing alcohol which became in demand during those difficult times. I never had to let go of my employees. We tightened our belts but no one among them went hungry and jobless. God has been good to me.”

Joel’s is a success story from which would-be entrepreneurs can learn valuable lessons. He made it, lost it, and then, rose from his losses and went on to build a bigger empire which today is one big solid company that has allowed him to help many other Filipinos, and contribute to the many charitable projects of the Catholic Church.

Joel has been blessed and has taken on the role of blessing to his fellowmen. No wonder that he continues to prosper and live a happy life with his children, but that’s another fascinating story we would love to hear from him.


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