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No pawnshop mentality, this one from the Lhuilliers

(Article published in the July 8, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Corporate social responsibility (CSR), like good corporate governance, is on center stage nowadays. To heighten public awareness of this corporate value, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared July 1 to 5, 2002, as Corporate Social Responsibility Week. And to provide a venue for a robust exchange of ideas on the subject, the Asian Institute of Management-Ramon V. del Rosario Sr. Center for Corporate Responsibility sponsored the first Asian Forum on Corporate Responsibility held at the Dusit Hotel in Makati City from Tuesday to Thursday last week. But despite all these initiatives, corporate social responsibility remains an undefined concept and elusive ideal.

Even its staunchest proponents opt to describe rather than define its meaning. Thus, the forum’s keynote speaker, former President Corazon C. Aquino, perhaps too conscious of how short her public tenure was compared with the more durable presence of private business, saw it as a corporation’s long-term commitment to uplift the community rather than occasional dole-outs and one-time donations.

Vicky Garchitorena, who, together with her sister Lina, had ever since been very active in social work in our parish in Gagalangin in the days of our youth and who is now managing director of Ayala Foundation Inc., took it as a responsibility that came with the territory, a duty that was concomitant with the privilege of doing business. Conference chairman Ramon del Rosario, on the other hand, placed it at the very core of corporate activity, advocating that it should be "part of what defines" a corporation or an enterprise. But he was candid enough to admit that "while corporate responsibility has been in our vocabulary for some time now, we are still at a stage where we are grappling to define it…"

The danger of a shapeless vision, however, is that its knights errant erringly go off in all directions. For this reason, Mrs. Arroyo suggested in the forum a common grail: job creation. This is what the country needs most and where the companies should focus in. how is another question, and an interesting answer, among many, seems to be the tack taken recently by Jean Henri Lhuillier, president of the P.J. Lhuillier Foundation Inc.

The P.J. Lhuillier Foundation Inc. is the corporate social responsibility arm of the P.J. Lhuillier Group of Companies, whose flagship is the P.J. Lhuillier Inc., the current holder, in the Guinness Book of Records, of the distinction of being the largest pawnshop, not just in the Philippines, but in the entire world. The foundation was established on December 28, 2000, and since then, like other eleemosynary institutions, has been giving grants to schools and making donations to churches. This year, in conjunction with the Youth Affairs Committee of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce, it sponsored a contest among the graduating students of the University of the Philippines College of Business Administration (UCPBA) designed to encourage the youth to think of setting up their own businesses after leaving school instead of trying to join the ranks of the employed.

Named "Create a Business Contest," the contest offered a prize for the most promising entrepreneurial business proposal. Of the 10 groups of UCPBA students that joined the contest, the top five, which were chosen by an initial screening panel that included Undergraduate Program director Dr. Manuel Dioquino and professor for the Entrepreneurial Course Joy Guevarra, won a cash prize of P10,000 each. The students were then required to make oral presentations to the board of judges composed of members chosen by the foundation and PCCI. Indicative of the level of interest generated by the contest and quality of the responses is the composition of the top five groups: two graduated summa cum laude, three magna cum laude and seven cum laude.

The top proposal, which won a commitment of P300,000 as equity contribution of the foundation for the venture to be established, was a feasibility study for the exclusive distribution in the country and, eventually in the region, of affordable but high-quality refill ink for ink-based printers. The second best proposal was for the establishment of a vegetable-growing business using hydroponics technology. Initially, the organizers did not contemplate a prize for the second best. But John Henri Lhuillier decided on the spot to grant the runner-up group capital in the amount of P150,000 for its intended enterprise.

The effectivity of the "Create a Business Contest," however, cannot be properly gauged by the prizes given to the winners alone. More important, though less tangible than these prizes, is the interest that the contest managed to spark in the hearts of the young graduates. Many were touched and, hopefully, not a few of them are this age’s future Toribio Teodoros.

Only time will tell how these kids, winners and other contestants alike will fare in the rough and tumble world outside their school. Capital, though essential, is not enough. They need management and marketing skills; thy need access to low-cost financing and access to cheap inputs to production. They need al the help they can get since, it is very well documented, that the path to entrepreneurial success is littered by the wrecks of those who failed to make it. it is the task of established corporations and business, of owners and well-placed executives, to give them that help.