“When God closes a door he opens a window, but it is up to us to find that window,” and that is exactly what Congressman Jesus “Bong” Suntay, President ofCleanfuel Group of companies, did after he failed in his re-election bid during the last 2022 national elections.
According to Atty. Suntay, he sees this temporary setback as a blessing in disguise, which would allow him to make up for a lot of lost time with his wife and children who are growing up fast and concentrating on running his business.
“Ever since I went back full time in running my company, we have seen a 26 percent growth in our revenues and a 34 percent increase in the number of stations that we are able to construct. My being here has had a big impact on the business,” Suntay related in his interview with BusinessMirror.
He added that while the pandemic had affected a lot of businesses, Cleanfuel was fortunate to have not been as negatively affected compared to others.
“The pandemic prevented us from expanding the number of stations as much as we would have wanted to. This left us with a backlog on the number of stations that we had to construct. Because of that, I am now focused full time in trying to make up for lost time,” Suntay said.
Import depots, storage tanks
In addition to building more stations, Suntay said he was also busy trying to secure more import depots and larger storage tanks for their fuel importation. He is also busy constructing a second resort on Siargao island.
“The first resort we have is called the Bayud Boutique Resort and the island is really beautiful. So when I had the chance to buy another property, I did. We could not start construction because of the pandemic, then Typhoon Odette struck and it devastated the entire island. I went back to the island a couple of months ago and I believe this is the perfect time to pursue our planned development,” he said.
So far, Cleanfuel has more or less 134 stations, including those that are currently in different stages of construction. All Cleanfuel stations are company owned and operated.
He added that while he had received numerous inquiries about franchising, Cleanfuel is not entertaining any franchising proposals for now. According to Suntay, “Cleanfuel is still a relatively new brand and at the moment we are focused on growing the market first and making sure that once we decide to franchise, our franchisees would have a strong brand.”
“For me, when a company decides to franchise out, there is also an obligation to ensure that the franchisee would be making a good investment and earn from that investment. So for now, we are focused on establishing our brand and our place in the retail business. Our increasing volume and continued growth have indicated that we are reaching our goal of being one of the major players in the fuel industry.” Suntay said.
For Suntay, Luzon is the biggest market in the Philippines followed by the Visayas and Mindanao. Luzon’s economic growth, Suntay explained, could have been faster had the government continued the infrastructure program of Former President Marcos specifically in building highways and roads outside Metro Manila.
Under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, numerous diversion roads “which connect Metro Manila to outside provinces and from one province to another were built.” These new roads provide an opportunity for businesses to expand outside Metro Manila.
“The advantage of Cleanfuel is that the majority of the property that we build on is owned by Klean Land Property Ventures Corp., a sister company of Cleanfuel. So we are invested not only in the fuel business but also in the real estate business,” Suntay said, adding that every time a road is developed, the value of the property goes up.
Now, Suntay said he is ready to expand to Mindanao, specifically in Surigao province. The target for this is in the third quarter of 2023. For now, Suntay said that they are looking for properties because the plan is to build five stations so that it will be “logistically viable.”
When asked why he chose to expand in Mindanao, Suntay said many people have already entered the Visayan market. Mindanao, he said, “is a beautiful, untapped province with huge growth potential. It is just saddled with a bad reputation.”
“When you talk about Mindanao, everyone thinks that it is unsafe and war-torn. It’s not. Mindanao is big and the strife is only present in some areas, not the entire region,” Suntay explained.
Cleanfuel has come a long way since it started as a one-product fuel station. It started by selling only Auto LPG. This came about because Suntay, who is one of the largest taxi operators in the country, was looking for an alternative cheaper source of fuel because of the constantly increasing cost of fuel.
“I decided to invest in auto LPG when I realized that it was 40 percent cheaper compared to gasoline. We became very successful in selling Auto LPG in Metro Manila which made us want to expand to the provinces however there was no market for Auto LPG,” he said.
“That was when I decided to include diesel and gasoline to our product range and turn ourselves into a full-service fuel retail station, we were lucky because at that time we already had a lot of regular customers like taxi drivers, commercial vehicle drivers and the like,” Suntay added.
MORE loyal customers meant that Suntay had to invest on upgrading their services and the facility, adding that Cleanfuel became known for selling quality fuel for less and having probably the best toilet facilities when compared to other gasoline stations.
“I think we have the best toilet facilities among all the existing fuel stations. We actually became very popular on Tiktok because of that,” he said.
While he has also ventured into the healthcare business with CleanMed, Suntay said he is concentrating on fields that are related to each other, explaining that it is easier that way.
“While we are involved in fuel retail, importation, and storage, we are also developing commercial establishments, rentable spaces and eventually we want to build small community malls. This is the reason why we are investing heavily in property acquisition,” Suntay said, adding that he also has Basic Hauling, the logistics arm of Cleanfuel which provides logistical services not only for Cleanfuel but also for other companies as well.
When asked if he would consider running again for public office, Suntay said politics was something that he wanted to do when he was still young. In fact, he is still maintaining his District Office and extending whatever assistance he could in his private capacity.
“You know I went into public service because I wanted to help people in need and believed that I can develop my district and make people’s lives better. That desire to help was never lost even if I am not in office, the capacity to help is still there that is why I continue to help people who are in need. The only difference now is when you help, it is no longer seen as an obligation on my part,” he said.
For now, Suntay is reaping what he has sown in the company. He also has more time to spend with his family, a luxury he never got to enjoy when he was in public office.
“My wife and my kids are so happy because I now spend more time with them. In fact, we just came home from a vacation in Japan. We celebrated the holidays in Europe. Things that I was unable to do before because of my responsibilities to the people in my district, I can do them now,” he said.
Five years from now, Suntay said he still sees himself working and that he would have surpassed the target of 200 company-owned Cleanfuel stations.
“Hopefully, by that time, we will start offering franchising to those individuals who have always wanted to be a Cleanfuel franchisee. That is what I see happening in the future,” he said.
Image credits: Bernard Testa/BM