By Noah James
Before his untimely death at the hands of an assassin just last month, Dominic Sytin was a rising star in the business world.
He had founded the Philippines’ top auction company, United Auctioneers Inc., and with the help of his brothers, had diversified into car assembly and distributorship, mobile phone dealership, resorts, chemical manufacturing, and power generation.
Sytin was also a noted philanthropist, primarily as the main sponsor of the women’s volleyball team of his alma mater, the University of the Philippines, and counted senators and other prominent personalities as his friends.
But his legacy lay in how he morphed United Auctioneers from a trading company for truck and car parts to the country’s top auction house for remanufactured trucks and equipment, poised to expand beyond its base in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone to sites across the country and even throughout the Asia-Pacific.
In April 2017, in an interview with The CEO Magazine, Sytin detailed how he pivoted his career from being a brand manager with a multinational company to becoming an entrepreneur, and then turning around UAI from near-bankruptcy at the height of the Asian financial crisis to becoming a pillar of the Philippines’ infrastructure boom.
Here are the lessons Sytin imparted in that interview before he sadly passed away at the age of 51:
1) Cut your losses and look for a way back. The Asian financial crisis in 1997 had crippled many companies in the Philippines, including the Sytins’ enterprise importing and selling used trucks and construction equipment.
They were forced to liquidate their entire inventory just to pay their staff and outstanding bills. With only a few trucks and equipment left in their lot, they decided to hold their first auction on March 4, 1999, which was a success — and gave them the impetus to go into auctioning full time.
“The first three auctions from our warehouse in Manila were challenging,” Sytin told CEO Magazine. “We were selling our entire inventory at a substantial loss to raise cash. But then something went right and our ‘everything must go’ liquidation auctions were turning out to be the solution we needed to get back on our feet again, so to speak.”
2) Educate your market. While the revamped business got rolling after other truck and equipment traders consigned their inventories to his company, Sytin said they still needed to teach Filipinos about the virtues of auctioning, describing it as a “tough but necessary measure.”
“Before auctions became popular in the Philippines, Filipinos were used to buying them from importers and traders,” he told CEO Magazine. “We had to pour massive funds into advertising and teaching potential buyers how to register, participate and buy from auctions.” The result? By 2001, UAI was holding three-day auctions thrice a year at its Subic site, and by 2017, it became four-day auctions six times a year.
3) Raise your standards. With United Auctioneers growing exponentially year after year, Sytin made sure to run the company like the proverbial well-oiled machine. As chairman and president, he focused on four key areas – process, system, people and technology – and got the firm accredited by the International Organization for Standardization or ISO after seven grueling months of review.
By earning ISO 9001:2008 certification, the company became the first and only industrial auction company in the world to do so. This enabled UAI “to operate at the most efficient, optimal capacity, ensuring timely hosting of bigger and better auctions every year,” he said. Adhering to ISO standards also gave their buyers more confidence in bidding for their machines and equipment.
4) Take care of your customers. Even with their education campaign, United Auctioneers ensured customers understood how and what they were bidding for on auction day. Sytin deployed highly-trained customer service representatives who handled telephone and on-site inquiries, and real-time online help desks through the UAI website (http://www.uauctioneers.net/) responded to anyone who asked about the company, their inventory, and their auction calendar.
From bidding to payment, no stone was left unturned, Sytin explained. “I say with pride that now that the auction style of conducting our business has been deeply ingrained in our targeted buying public, everyone participates with ease and elevated levels of enthusiasm,” he told CEO Magazine.
5) Plan for future growth. United Auctioneers used to have its auction yard in northern Metro Manila. But the 16-kilometer stretch from the port of Manila, where the firm received its imports, to its yard – plus traffic in the metropolis, port congestion and bureaucratic paperwork – “made it even harder to mount bigger auctions as our buyer base began to increase,” Sytin admitted.
The solution was to move out of the big city and go further north, to Subic Bay, which had its own port and had a freeport zone that at the time was just opening up to business following decades of being an American naval base. “It presented a viable proposition for UAI because of Subic’s sprawling industrial estate,” Sytin said. “Our transfer enhanced our logistics and supply management capabilities. Here we were able to plan our auctions efficiently and more effectively.”
The strength of their Subic operation also allowed Sytin to erect an expansion in Davao City to serve the Mindanao region, and to plan for offsite satellite auctions in the major cities of Cebu, Bacolod, and General Santos. From the freeport, UAI has also bought and exported items to Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and even the United Arab Emirates.
6) Give back to the community. Apart from sponsoring the UP Women’s Volleyball Team, Sytin established the UAI Volunteer Emergency Assistance Team (UVEAT), a group of 50 company volunteers that have trained in first aid, basic life support, emergency rescue, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They are ready to respond to search and rescue and crisis situations in areas around Subic.
“United Auctioneers also regularly initiates and supports civic activities as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility program,” he said. “We hope this initiative will start a ripple effect and create big waves for the betterment of our society.”
7) Take care of your family. United Auctioneers was born partly out of necessity, as Sytin revealed to CEO Magazine that the family lost their father when he was just 25 years old. As the eldest son, he shouldered the responsibility willingly. He would soon have to worry about an expanded business family – not just UAI employees but their partners, consignors and suppliers – but made sure his core team had a healthy work-life balance, bolstered by “mutual respect and professionalism in all our dealings.”
“Every day I go to work knowing that the livelihood of all our employees and their families rests on my shoulders, I cannot fail them,” he said. “From that I now realize that my life’s purpose is to be a man for others, and I hope I am.” As it turned out, Dominic Sytin was such a man, and United Auctioneers Inc. – which marks its 20th year in 2019 – is a shining star because of him.