Former OFW finds his niche as techno-preneur


(First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer Sunday Biz, October 2, 2011, page B2-3)

by Myrna Rodriguez Co

Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), especially those working as engineers, technicians and skilled workers, are among the best candidates for entrepreneurship of the innovative type.

In the first place, OFWs manifest their enterprising, risk-taking and hardworking ways by the very act of leaving the comfort of home to try out their luck in a foreign country and a strange culture with no assurance of success.

If they get employed in multinationals, Pinoy engineers and technicians, already skilled at the outset, will likely get their teeth ground on higher technology and applications.  They are likely to use cutting-edge tools, equipment and processes.

When they come back here and get re-assimilated, many would be eager to transfer the technology they picked up abroad.

Combine a daring, risk-taking disposition with technical education and experience, blend in business acumen and finally whip in the big bucks earned abroad and we have in an OFW a “recipe” for successful techno-preneurship.

OFW stint

Gamaliel “Jimmy” Itao, president of Industrial Controls Corporation (ICC) is one such techno-preneur.  ICC is the first programmable logic control (PLC) systems house in the Philippines, specializing in factory automation and instrumentation projects.

Jimmy finished electrical engineering at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City and passed the Professional Electrical Engineer (PEE) board exam in 1982. As a young engineer, he handled training courses in Factory Automation at the UP Institute for Small-Scale Industries (UP ISSI), after taking specialized studies in UP ISSI and Japan.

Jimmy was happy enough teaching production managers, engineers and technicians to apply automation to modernize local industries when overseas work opportunity beckoned in 1984.

“I was starting a family then; I had a young daughter and I wanted a bigger family and so I thought of looking for greener pastures. Besides as an engineer, I wanted to practice proactively what I have been teaching for years.”

Jimmy worked as an instrumentation engineer at Honeywell Saudi Petrochemical Corporation in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.  His wife, the former Girlie Caluya, followed shortly to work as a nurse at the general hospital in Taif, also in Saudi Arabia.

Jubail and Taif were 1000 miles apart.  The couple saw each other only once in their four-year stay and their exchange of communication focused very much on the month-old daughter they left behind in the Philippines.

Saudi Arabia was a totally different country with an Arab and Islamic culture.  It was a vast expanse of sand and desert where one seldom saw green.

“You can’t practice your Christian religion there.  You can’t seek comfort from social drinking.  Nor from female companionship,” Jimmy smiles ruefully as he recalls.

He whiled the time away writing letters and waiting for return mails.  “Remember, this was the time of snail mail.  Cell phones were years away.  So were Internet connections.  YM, Facebook, Skype—all these were unheard of.”

Despite the hardship, adjustments and long separation, Jimmy never regretted his stint as an OFW.  “A trade off,” he calls it.  Being away from the family strengthened him psychologically and spiritually.  “Absence enhances the love that binds.  You realize how important family is,” he quips.

He finds it hard to quantify the benefits from his experience of working in the Middle East.  His employer Honeywell was a conglomerate of seven plants which processed black gold into ethylene products for industrial uses.  His work assignments in Honeywell involved highly technical work.  Starting as an instrumentation technician, he later got involved in more technical aspects of operation, enabling him to hone his craft as a hands-on electrical engineer.

Starting the business

When he came back to the Philippines in 1987, Jimmy went back to teaching factory automation at the UP ISSI. This time around, he taught with more confidence, having acquired solid industrial practice.

Meanwhile, several companies sought him out as an automation and instrumentation consultant.  The engagements gave him a glimpse of the world outside employment.

When he finally decided to strike it out on his own, he did not need too big a start-up capital, Jimmy remembers.  He began with P32,000 and two staff:  a partner and himself.

He was living then in Sikatuna Bliss in Quezon City.  In the same building, he found a vacant unit on the fourth floor which became ICC’s first office.  The 55-sq.m space was unimpressive.

“So unimpressive that when a Japanese representative of a firm interested to subcontract work to us visited, he never got in touch with us again after seeing our office which we very reluctantly showed him, on his insistence.”

The Technology Business Incubation (TBI)  project of the University of the Philippines and the Department of Science and Technology  was heaven-sent for Jimmy and his company.  The TBI nurtured and “incubated” small, technology-based companies with lower-than-market lease rates;  common facilities like conference rooms, a trunkline and state-of-the art equipment; industrial counseling from UP ISSI and DOST; and market exposure via DOST exhibits.  “Having a UP address alone gave our company prestige,” Jimmy thinks.

Like in most TBIs, a lessee-company is expected to “graduate” after a three-year incubation.  By the time Jimmy’s ICC graduated in 2000, he was ready to relocate to a commercial area and start being a fully independent techno-preneur.

Two units of office space on the 9th floor of Mega Plaza Building at Ortigas Center, Pasig City have been ICC’s headquarters for the past 11 years.  It has also a small branch office  at the UP ISSI Building in Diliman, Quezon City.

ICC’s range of factory automation and instrumentation services includes: free product selection and specification, turnkey projects on industrial automation and instrumentation systems and systems integration; commissioning and startup; maintenance contracting, troubleshooting and repair and in-house training.  Among its clients are San Miguel Corporation, Universal Robina Corporation, Alaska Corporation, and Wyeth Philippines, to name a few.

ICC is a distributor of many product lines such as programmable logic controller, programmable terminal, frequency inverter, PLC networking, control components sensors, switches, relays, timers, counters, and  power supply.

The brands ICC carries are well-known:  Omron, Siemens, Ametex, Yaskawa, Mitsubishi, IDTECH, Hakko, Intellution.

Testimonial to the growth and market credibility the company has risen to: ICC has spun off its training activities in 2005 to form another company, Mechatronics Technologies Corporation (MTC) which is now a Tesda-accredited training and assessment center for the professional upgrading of OFWs in the electromechanical  engineering field. This is required  for them to renew their Owwa  cards as well as to qualify for promotion in their employment abroad.

Meanwhile, ICC has kept its ties with UP ISSI in the joint conduct of training programs on Scada and productivity systems like Kaizen, total maintenance management, and Just in Time.

In 15 years, not only has ICC graduated from being a company in need of incubation, it has also made the transition from small to medium level of enterprise, having breached the 200-employee size. ICC recently celebrated its 22nd anniversary and is enjoying steady growth in product sales and contracts in engineering and maintenance projects.

Start small, think big, work hard, pray harder

Jimmy agrees that OFWs in the engineering field have strong potential to make it as entrepreneurs.  In the Original Equipment Manufacturers Association of the Philippines (OEMAP) where he belongs and once served as president, he reckons that about half of the members have OFW background.

His advice to OFWs who aspire to technopreneurship “Start small, think big, work hard!”

Small is a good way to begin, he says, because it gives you a lot of room to grow. And there’s less risk.

Opportunities in the industry are limitless, so watch out for them, he adds.  This is how one grows.

He warns against resting on one’s laurels. “Rather, continue to work hard.”

Study what the industry needs, he advises OFWs looking for their niche.  “Use your base competence.  Look for a partner if you are afraid to risk your resources.”

Above all, seek help from the Almighty Lord, Jimmy concludes. “As He said  ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.’”

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