Samie Lim: Revolutionized appliance marketing at 25

In Photo: Samie and Carrie Lim at the Abenson Appliance Revolution

TODAY Samie Lim is hailed as the “Father of Philippine Franchising.” But at age 25, he was just newly wed and about to embark on the first of many steps in his mission to change the face of the Philippine appliance retail industry.

In 1975, in the thick of the martial-law period, Lim was given the reins of the Abenson Group of Cos. started by his brother, Wilson Lim.

At age 25 and as a fresh graduate from the Ateneo de Manila, Samie was idealistic and harbored aspirations to enter the political scene. However, he decided early on that it was in business and not in politics where he would someday make a name for himself. The path was laid open for him, after family arrangements led him to spearhead the Abenson appliance retail company his brother started.

“I graduated in 1972, as cum laude in Ateneo. I was supposed to be hired by Citibank for an executive development program. But my brother got married that year and, before he went on his honeymoon, he asked if I could just take over for a while. I stayed on and when he came back, he was happy with what I did. He convinced me to continue leading the company,” Lim said in a recent interview.

But, instead of simply coasting along on the family business, Lim expanded the initial branch in Unimart Greenhills to make it the largest appliance network in the country in just five years.

“In five years, we made Abenson the largest appliance company in the country. We took over those that had been in the business for 10 years, 20 years, because our company was built by very dynamic people,” Lim said.

Through a combination of innovative marketing and talent development within the company, Abenson appliance branches sprouted in the Araneta-Cubao area and in Harrison Plaza.

More branches soon spread outside of shopping centers.

Developing human resources was a key factor in Abenson’s success, Lim said, and stemmed from an earlier management-training program he developed as a student leader in Ateneo.

The program consisted of hands-on training in corporate management after two weeks of classroom instruction, allowing students both theoretical and practical learning.

“The only training programs at that time required students to make coffee or use the Xerox copy machine, but we were different. [In our program] the students were able to apply and learn about business. I daresay Abenson during that time started student empowerment,” Lim said.

In much the same way, Abenson nurtured its employees to learn about the business and encourage them to start their own branch via franchising, eventually leading to Abenson’s becoming the largest appliance network beginning in the late-1970s.

“The motivation was really to get people to work with us and become our branch managers, and eventually to start their own appliance store in their province. That’s when we franchised the Abenson name or formed joint ventures with them,” he said.

“That’s how we were able to get topnotch people who were not just there to get a salary or a job, but be with us on a long-term basis,” Lim added.

Innovative marketing strategies also became a feature of the company’s operations.

In 1973, a year after martial law was declared, only a handful of newspapers were still allowed to operate and, with Abenson having a meager budget for advertising, the businessman entered into a comarketing agreement with a newspaper, both to boost the newspaper’s circulation and expand the appliance company’s presence among consumers.

“I offered them a small appliance every day and a big appliance every weekend to raffle off to anybody who read the newspaper, clipped a coupon and sent it to the newspaper.  The circulation became stronger and also helped us,” Lim said.

From there, Abenson expanded its reach to the North, putting up a warehouse to service the appliance dealers in that area.

Having grown Abenson, Lim later on moved to the family’s original appliance retail business, Automatic Centre, founded by his father,  “Appliance King” Benito Lim.

It was while managing Automatic Centre, the “supermarket for appliances,” that Lim founded his own legacy in the form of the Blims Fine Furniture, thus incorporating an “end-to-end” approach in house design.

“In 1977, when I was 28, I was seconded back to the mother company in Automatic Appliance Centre. In five years, we made it again No. 1 in the market, because we were able to incorporate furniture. We had a new big division where Blims came in, so that’s when the dream became a reality,” Lim mused.

Heading Blims allowed Lim to acquire the distribution of other furniture brands, which later on enabled it to evolve into the Blims Lifestyle Group.

The Lifestyle Group, now headed by his son, Sam Frederick Lim, has the following brands: Blims Fine Furniture, La-Z-Boy, Celinni, Sogo Home and Office Furniture, and the French luxury furniture brand Gautier.

Born at home with the help of a midwife into a middle-class entrepreneurial family in Tondo, Manila, right after the war, Lim had to walk to nearby school, then take public transportation when he went to San Beda, and finally got an old car when he was granted a scholarship at the Ateneo de Manila University.

He narrated: “I was very reserved and shy. When I got into high school, I had to take courses in Dale Carnegie, on ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People,’ before I ran for vice president of the student council. From there, I became VP of most of the major national student organizations, which made me decide that I will run for VP of the country, in the future. I worked hard on it, even resorted to ‘sleep learning’ [listening to tape lessons in my sleep] and graduated valedictorian, and one of the ‘Most Outstanding Bedan of the Year’ awardee, with more than 20 medals.”

“But the declaration of martial law crushed my dream, and I moved to Plan B—to be a gentleman for others. I used my talent of bringing people together to help build organizations that built fragmented sectoral business sectors into an industry that helped build the nation. It started with the appliance industry, then the furniture industry, then the office-machine industry, the modern retail-trade industry, the franchise industry, the tourism industry and now working on the education sector.”

Lim said two of his most important accomplishments were “the fact I was given the opportunity to serve as undersecretary of the Department of Trade and Industry, and the fact I became the president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), where I harnessed the bayanihan spirit of the private and public sectors to finally achieve a 7-percent growth in GDP.”

“I left the presidency of PCCI with a lasting monument—the PCCI headquarters in McKinley, which I solicited from the visionary Dr. Andrew Tan. My latest achievement is coming up with a template for quantum leap in tourism. Through the PCCI, we were able to double the international tourist arrival with the 5 As supply chain. With the new template of the 8 As [arrival, access, accomodation, attraction, activities, academic-industry linkage, advertising and assurance of safety], under the new administration, I believe we can achieve 20 million international tourist arrivals in the next 10 years, earning foreign exchange of $30 billion, employing at least 20 million people in the tourism/hospitality business all over the country.

“But the greatest joy is the fact that I have made a difference in the lives of millions of Filipinos with the annual celebration of Mother’s Day in the Philippines,” Lim said.

Now over 60 years old—a “senior citizen” in the businessman’s own words—Lim said the strategy today to thrive in a rapidly changing world marked by technology is the one they’ve always stuck to, even when he was 25: “It’s really dynamism and hard work.”

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Catherine Pillas is a graduate of Ateneo De Manila University, major in European Studies - International Relations, with minor degrees in History and English. She's been a beat reporter for 3 years now, covering the Senate beat briefly before being designated as the trade and industry reporter for BusinessMirror.