Silliman Sy is the Chief Operating Officer at Ever Bilena Cosmetics, Inc., the leading local cosmetics company in the Philippines. Silliman talks about the life lessons he has picked up in his 36 years in the beauty business (having joined Ever Bilena in 1986) and his role in supporting the corporation’s growth and expansion over the last almost four decades as the man behind the scenes.
Growing up in a poor family, the values of dedication and hard work have been strongly instilled in Silliman, which he took with him as he pursued his college education as a working student. He would work handling storage and logistics tasks at an industrial company in the morning and took up night classes at the National College of Business and Arts, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Accountancy in 1983.
Silliman joined SGV as an auditor immediately after completing his degree and passed the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) board exam in the same year. He recalls that his salary at the time was only Php 1,400 per month and thus dreamt of working abroad where his fellow junior auditors were earning four times as much for the same job function.
However, colleagues working in SGV Australia later returned and discouraged him from pursuing the same position. “Mabobobo ka, (you will be become stupid)” they advised him, as there was no room for strategic thinking and self-amelioration with the kind of clerical, repetitive daily ledger entry exercises, regardless of the high pay.
Hence, Silliman prepared his own life roadmap and aimed to secure a Master’s Degree from top local universities, an educational requirement for him to qualify for a management trainee position which was part of his career pathing objectives to become a controller (comparable to Finance Directors and CFO’s) in the future.
But as the saying goes, “Life doesn’t always go according to plan,” and Silliman would instead be part of then a very small startup company founded by his brother Dioceldo Sy.
Joining Ever Bilena
Much like the culture of the Filipino-Chinese youth of his generation, asking permission and receiving the blessing of his parents to proceed with his life and career plans was important to Silliman.
Silliman quips, “unlike nowadays when it’s the children’s preferences that’s prioritized and accommodated; during my time, obedience to parents was the rule of thumb.” Silliman’s international ambitions were discarded upon consulting his mother, Cely, for her approval.
“Study and study, but no money!” Silliman recalls his mother saying. He reiterated to her that he needed higher education for better opportunities in Australia. To which his mom responded in instruction, “go help your brother.” She urged him to try it, even for just one year.
Early Years with Ever Bilena
Silliman’s official resignation from SGV was dated January 1, 1986. He started working for Ever Bilena abruptly on the next day. As someone with self-initiative, Silliman says adjusting to his new workplace was not difficult. He simply went down to business and looked for ways where he could contribute to the company’s then business processes by applying the best practices he learned from his previous works.
Simple improvements like ensuring a packing list were included for every order packed for better operational efficiency were one of the many initial process corrections that Silliman incorporated to the startup company.
Ever Bilena was then only a lean team of 14 with a labandera (laundry woman), kusinera (cook), his sister Miami who handled all the paperwork, a driver, three beauty consultants, five factory workers to fill and repack the brand’s existing product portfolio, and a few helpers.
Habituating to his new office happened pretty naturally for Silliman too, as he shares humorously, “we used to live in Blumentritt, and one room in our house served as Ever Bilena’s headquarters and inventory storage space. The size of the office is equivalent a department head’s office room now.” Upon waking up in the morning, he basically just had to walk to the next room to start work.
Silliman describes his and his brother, Dioceldo’s roles as merely “internal and external,” respectively. Silliman handled everything “internal”—the packing, order processing, logistics, accounting, plus other new business development, while Dioceldo personally took care of 90% of the business revenue, marketing, and sourcing of products for sale.
Life was challenging, but not so complicated during that time. Silliman says product development did not require significant innovation, and customers and trade partners were easily pleased with whatever color cosmetics they had to offer for as long as the price was right! There was no such thing as producing “saleable” shades because retailers willingly took all product offerings. Items were considered “saleable” when stores placed a repeat order.
The expansion was also much slower due to limited capital. Silliman discloses how their business cycle worked, “after securing PO (purchase order) from a store, we repack the cosmetics items and deliver to them. They usually issue a check upon receipt of their orders, which we wait to clear in about 60 to 90 days; this was our downtime. As soon as we’re able to liquidate, we use the money to get any available makeup stocks that our supplier from Taiwan can provide, brand it Ever Bilena, and then repeat the cycle.”
Deciding to Stay With Ever Bilena
Silliman originally promised his mother, Cely, his commitment to helping with Ever Bilena for at least one year. When asked what made him stay or if he found anything particularly enjoyable, he jests, “My brother gave me two times the salary I was getting at SGV, so that wasn’t bad!”
But to be more truthful about it, he admits that “I don’t have many wants in life. After a busy day, we would spend the night with our stay-in employees watching TV together. When there’s extra money, my brother would buy everyone balut, and eating that together was already such a treat!”
There was never a boring day because managing a startup had its own hurdles that would force one to think and act strategically while working within their means. Silliman shares, “there was always room for improvement, so you never run out of things to do.”
Silliman was also inspired by the people he met. He mentions a specific instance when he tried to bid for a purchase order from SM Supermarkets’ big boss, Herbert Sy. “Herbert personally approved and booked the orders for his supermarkets. During those days, their head office was still at Libis. I would go to their headquarters at 1 PM, then wait until 10 PM to be seen to present our products. Herbert would even stay until midnight to meet all vendors,” narrates Silliman.
The humbling encounter serves as a constant reminder to Silliman, who adds that “I thought to myself, if the owner and big boss can work until midnight, who am I to complain about working long hours?”
It was not too soon before long when Ever Bilena’s employee count reached the 100-mark just shy of the company’s 5th year in business. Silliman mentions that Ever Bilena just kept aiming to improve themselves, “we were happy whenever each year turned out to be better than the last!”
Professionalizing the Business
As the company grew, the idea to professionalize the business eventually entered the picture. Silliman credits his wife, Atty. Leah, who triggered the proposition. Apparently, he had conferred with her about the legal implications of certain employment issues. And Atty. Leah replied, “why don’t you let your HR figure it out?” Only to learn that Ever Bilena did not have a Human Resources department.
The pioneer managerial roles Silliman helped form for Ever Bilena included HR, Finance, Sales, Warehouse, and Production Planning. Marketing, Product Development, and IT (informational technology) departments were formed a bit later as the business and the local cosmetics market gradually advanced.
Silliman confides that there was some resistance in the beginning, as their original employees struggled with the changes, having been accustomed to directly working with Dioceldo and Silliman. Utilizing his natural emotional quotient, Silliman sat down with Ever Bilena’s staff members to explain the need for the adjustments, and was able to convince them one by one to see the advantages of the new organizational setup.
Key Life and Business Lessons
A personal principle that Silliman abides by is “know your place,” which he uses to delineate his role as support to Dioceldo, who is the founder of Ever Bilena. He shares he has never been comfortable with grabbing the limelight and feels perfectly fulfilled helping run the business in the background.
Learning to “trust your team” has also been a critical lesson for Silliman, especially when the company had first begun professionalizing the organization. “Let them work. Do not micromanage them. Then monitor them to achieve the milestones.” Silliman says it’s the end goal that’s most important, so once the direction has been agreed upon, trust the team to come through. “Frustrations are understandable, intervene where necessary.”
Silliman also encourages taking calculated risks. “Don’t be afraid to take risks, but make sure you can absorb the losses without disrupting your cash flow.” Meaning that even if things fail, you can afford to do business as usual.
Finally, “treat everyone with respect, regardless of position.” Silliman refers to this as the 360-degree leadership. “Everyone matters.” That’s why he is so passionate about mentoring others.
Never Stop Learning
It’s not easy to keep adapting to different ways of life, but Silliman asserts that this is necessary to stay relevant, both as a person and in business. Take it from Silliman, who, at his age, has gone through so many technological transitions from landline phones to beepers, to fax machines, dial-up modems to wifi, to typewriting to emails, to mobile phones, smartphones, and tablets!
“I am intentional in my efforts to learn new things, because it is the only way to better connect with the future generations, as well as for the business to progress,” Silliman reveals.
Ever Bilena’s Sister Brand, Careline
Ever Bilena Cosmetics, Inc. primarily relied on the Ever Bilena brand’s sales for over two decades until a serendipitous conversation in 2005 paved the way for the birth of Careline Cosmetics, Ever Bilena’s younger sister.
Careline’s funny backstory started when Ever Bilena’s European packaging supplier talked to the Sy brothers about a container-load of empty nail polish bottles their client from the US had PO’d but failed to honor. “He gave it to us at cost, and you know us Chinese. Basta lumaki kita, laban! (If the margins are good, we go for it!)” Silliman recounted. The empty nail polish bottles were the logo “Careline” imprinted.
Silliman said it was timely because at the time, Ever Bilena was 22 years old already, and most of its pioneer customers were already in their mid 40’s. “Careline was a way to reconnect to the young people,” as he acknowledged God’s divine intervention in making these things possible. Toni Gonzaga, fresh from her Eat Bulaga stint, was the first-ever face for Careline.
At present, Ever Bilena’s marketing team has successfully conveyed its story as a brand for every Filipina beauty across all ages, gender, and walks of life. On the other hand, Careline continues to appeal to the contemporary youth, the Gen Z today, with its bold and trendy colors and product packaging.
The Birth of Blackwater
In 2007, costs for nail polish raw materials skyrocketed. Not to mention the myriad environmental issues involved with nail polish disposal due to its flammable nature. Silliman mentions, “the local Philippine landscape was also making it very hard for us to compete. Despite costs rising, SRP (standard retail price) of our top competitor brands stayed the same.”
In an effort to source revenue to replace the nail polish they were phasing out, the brothers decided to enter the fragrances category after much diligent market research. They thought of the brand name, “Blackwater,” which they agreed was very manly. “If you Google the term, it’s associated to a group of military mercenaries.” Most of Blackwater’s scents are made in Indonesia, whose customer profile and fragrance preferences are very comparable to Filipinos.
Silliman gives credit to God’s guidance again for the birth of Blackwater. “Had costs for nail polish not increased, we would not have needed to create the Blackwater brand 15 years ago. And there would be no PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) team today!” At the present time, Blackwater’s product line also includes women’s scents and other men’s Korean grooming products —like facial wash, sun care, moisturizers, and men’s razors.
“The pandemic is something no one ever experienced in this lifetime,” shares Silliman. Since the last pandemic was exactly a century ago. “All of us were taken by surprise. But it is during this time that we see the best in some of the people.”
Silliman illustrates his brother’s generosity at the onset of the pandemic as an example, “we released financial aid in the form of full month’s salaries in April 2020, advanced mid-year bonuses, and 50,000 skincare sets for our employees to resell.” He reiterated that all of Ever Bilena’s nearly 2,000 employees received the same financial support.
From a business perspective, the pandemic also hit the color cosmetics industry hard due to mask mandates. Forcing Ever Bilena again to be creative and harder working in generating sales where there’s demand. “We had to develop a full skincare line fast, and built on our new brands like Hello Glow, Ever Organics, and Hyaloo.”
Moreover, it was the mass market that was hit particularly hard, forcing the company to innovate and devise a higher quality, higher-end makeup line called Spotlight Cosmetics.
“Pre-pandemic, I guess I was a bit complacent. Our mass color cosmetics was doing good, we were the local market leader. But we are humbled by the Lord,” professes Silliman.
Building these new brands and expanding on these new categories was the company’s source of survival. Silliman states, “Once normalcy resumes, I’m hopeful that the recovery of our core mass cosmetics business with the addition of the new dynamics we were able to ignite during the pandemic can bring us to a higher level!”
On Finding Fulfilment
What was supposed to be one year of helping with Ever Bilena passed by so fast that it became two years, became a decade, and now 36 years in for Silliman!
When asked if he ever cogitated over his “what ifs” and dreams of working abroad, Silliman firmly says no. “It never crossed my mind anymore. I found fulfilment in my work with Ever Bilena, and it is truly enough for me.”
Silliman’s life conveys an inspiring message of finding fulfillment and being at peace with what we have. “We might not live the life we dream of… This wasn’t the life I planned. But always trust that this is the life that God has chosen for you. So live your best life.”
Nowadays, Silliman’s simple joys include mentoring his office team members, “My role is to coach and mentor them. I may not be their boss forever, but I hope I’m able to make a difference in their lives by helping train them to become better versions of themselves.”
Additionally, for Silliman, the biggest joy that emerged during the pandemic was when his wife, Atty Leah, became a great cook. “Imagine, in all our years of marriage, she never cooked, and I happily accepted my wife wholeheartedly.” So Silliman confesses to being the happiest husband when Atty Leah started cooking during quarantine, and her home-cooked meals taste amazing too! “That’s really my current greatest personal happiness! I can’t ask for anything more!”
Putting God First
Silliman only has one regret in his life, and that’s not carrying through with the one and only wish his mom Cely had desired for him. “She wanted me to go to church,” Silliman relays tearfully. Mother Cely passed away in August 2015, and Silliman laments not being able to realize her wish while she was still alive.
“Since then, I’ve never missed a Sunday service with my wife and kids,” says Silliman, who attends church at CCF (Christ Commission Fellowship) in Ortigas.
Word for 2022: HOPE
At 62 years old, he reminds others to focus on what’s truly important. “Have hope that things will get better, and don’t worry over things you cannot control.” Silliman concludes jokingly, “Worry produces wrinkles, which our skincare products can help address! But kidding aside, having hope will enable us to continue moving forward and find meaning in life.”
If there’s a word that Silliman wants us to take away for 2022, it’s hope.