From service crew to CEO

Wearing the uniform of the Sumuji PH crew. / PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF JEAN ALVARADO-TIU

Mary Jean Alvarado-Tiu, now in her 30s, is chief executive officer (CEO) of Sumuji Philippines, a chain of food outlets offering healthy Japanese snacks such as sandwiches and fruit-based refreshments.

The company’s name is the Japanese word for smoothie, their main product. In less than two years, Sumuji PH has grown to 18 branches nationwide, employing more than 50 individuals.

That the company continues to thrive during these challenging times owes much to Jean’s leadership and vision — traits that were planted in her when she was a working student at a popular fastfood chain.

When Jean was studying BS Marketing at the University of Makati in 2005, she took a service crew job at Jollibee to help her family.

Former fastfood crew member turned CEO Jean Alvarado-Tiu.

“I wanted to augment the allowance given by my mother… We are not a rich family. So, I also needed to earn extra to help my brothers and sisters,” Jean explained.

For many months, she worked at Jollibee Rockwell where she did tasks like cleaning tables, taking customers’ orders, serving food and manning the cash register. Her shift was six times a week, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The experience, she said, was pleasant because she learned skills such as time management, customer relations and salesmanship. “I also enjoyed the company of my workmates,” she added.

What she liked the least was the physical demands. “The hardest part was we were asked to stand for long hours, which became very tiring.”

After graduation, Jean joined the BPO industry where the salary was competitive and there were more opportunities for career growth. “I stayed there for seven years and got promoted as Team Leader and eventually became a team manager.”

The desire to continue helping her family motivated Jean to work harder. “I realized early in my professional life that an employee’s income will not be enough to support my family. I tried looking for additional opportunities,” she said.

Jean left the BPO industry and found her niche in a franchising company — rising to become its vice president for Sales and Marketing. The exposure to the foodcart business inspired Jean to leave her corporate job and venture on her own. With a handful of partners, including her husband Ricky Tiu, she founded Sumuji Philippines in 2019.

Fusion products and franchising

Milk teas were the trend at the time. Instead of going for a tried-and-tested formula, Jean and her partners opted for a new product. The result: A fruit-based beverage which Jean described as a fusion of “Japanese technology and minimalist approach to food.”

Jean Alvarado Tiu at her graduation from the University of Makati.

Aside from being a healthier alternative for consumers, Sumuji Philippines also offers an enticing proposition to potential franchises.

Jean attested, “The business is easy to manage even for new entrepreneurs.”

The company was set for a bigger expansion last year. But Covid-19 happened and the branches lined up for opening in the first half of 2020 had to be postponed. No stranger to meeting challenges head-on, Jean shifted the company’s business plans.

“We have increased our presence in different online delivery platforms, as well as increasing our presence in social media in order to reach our target audience,” she said.

The CEO has also been leading the way in strengthening their CSR through the company’s Sumuji Cares initiatives.

“We set aside a certain percentage of our revenue to give back to the community. Some of the outreach programs we’ve done in the past include mask donations during the early part of the pandemic, and donation drives for the victims of typhoons and the eruption of Taal Volcano,” Jean said.

Her service crew stint lasted only six months, but it was enough to change her life and get her on the road to ambition.

As Jean declared with pride, “Starting from the bottom gave me the experience to empathize with people. It made me a better employer and a better leader. Everything that you dream of is possible with hard work and perseverance.”

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