Building a business out of death may be taboo for many Filipinos, but not for the founders of St. Peter Life Plans and Chapels. The founders Francisco M. Bautista and Basilisa R. Bautista, lovingly called “tatay” and “nanay”, founded the country's most successful memorial service company.
Today, St. Peter Life Plan and Chapels has around 290 memorial chapels, 300 life plan offices, and claims to have about 95% of the market in pre-need plans. It also has 11 casket factories around the country and provides death care services to 9,000 individuals and families monthly.
Let’s look at how St. Peter started and the lessons we can learn from them.
The Orphan Who Would be King of the Philippine Death Care Business
While it is an enormous success in the death care industry today, the company had its harsh and humble beginnings.
In an interview with Esquire Magazine, York B. Vitangcol, President and CEO of St. Peter Group of Companies and grandson of the founders, recounted the lives of the company’s founders. He tells Esquire that Francisco M. Bautista became an orphan at age 4 and only finished 4th grade.
His life was one of hardship and he had to work hard just to survive. He earned a living by selling junk (by kariton) and hitched onto fire trucks to help firefighters to help put out fires. Tatay earned small amounts of income, so he ate little but saved what remained of it. Later, he met Basilisa (nanay) and started a gravel and sand business company with her.
World War 2
Many unexpected things can throw a wrench in business growth, and war is one of the worst ones of them. The outbreak of World War 2, the worst conflict in the history of humanity, put a stop to Tatay and Nanay’s gravel and sand business. The Japanese forcefully took their gravel and sand trucks.
Then they beat up Tatay, tied him to a post in the silong of some house, and left him for dead. This would have been his end, but fortunately, Nanay found and saved him. After the war, the couple tried to rebuild what they lost during the war.
A New Beginning
Mr. Vitangcol tells Esquire that the couple ventured into the memorial park business but didn’t find success. Normally, this would demoralize many entrepreneurs, but the headstrong Tatay did not give up. He said, “Let’s not veer away from the death care industry. Let’s start a pre-need company selling memorial plans or life plans.” And thus, St. Peter Life Plan came to be on June 6, 1975. 5 years later, St. Peter Memorial Chapels opened its first memorial chapel on Quezon Ave.
In spite of his business experience, Tatay is smart enough to recognize his limits. He had difficulties understanding finances because of his lack of formal education, so he hired experts to fill the gaps in his business.
Convincing the Skeptic Filipinos
Convincing people to buy a life plan to prepare for their inevitable end is normal these days, but it was different back in the 70s and the succeeding decades. St. Peter’s salespeople reported Filipinos found their offers offensive.
Mr. Vitangcol recounts that people throw harsh remarks such as “Walanghiya kayo, buhay pa ako, binebentahan mo na ako ng kabaong!” or “Ha? Kabaong? Ikaw kaya ilagay ko diyan?”
The poor-quality standards of the services given by the accredited funeral parlors to the plan holders were another obstacle to success. Despite these challenges, Tatay and Nanay carried on.
Funeral services eventually improved, and the public became more open to preparing for their death. What’s not to like about the assurance that you will only leave behind memories and not the burden of the cost of a funeral service?
St. Peter is ahead of the curve with death care innovations. Among the most well-known of their pioneered innovations is the eBurol, the first 24-hour online real-time viewing of a funeral service. This helps loved ones who can’t attend the service physically. Filipinos ridiculed this at first but soon found its value after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Soon after, this gave way to other innovative online services such as ZoomBurol/ZBurol, eLibing, St. Peter Mobile App, and St. Peter’s Gate, an online community where loved ones can make personalized pages to honor the memory of their late loved ones.
Mr. Vitangcol states that they’ve always tied customer satisfaction to the company’s growth, which is why they invest in these innovations.
In 2021, St. Peter partnered with PLDT and launched an e-store to keep up with the times. Since the pandemic, consumers increased their reliance on contactless transactions.
The story of St. Peter is an inspiring one that gives several virtues and insights into what it takes to start and grow a successful business. Here are some lessons we can learn from them:
1. Take risks. Before St. Peter Chapels became a household name for death care, the industry didn’t really have much of a welcoming feel to it. How they package their services, took a different approach, and tended to their customers made the brand what it is today.
2. Hard work. This teaches us discipline, dedication, and determination that will help us gain the experience we need for business. Even people without a higher education like Tatay can succeed through grit and hard work.
3. Fortitude. Starting out poor is not the only challenge Tatay and Nanay encounter throughout their lives. The horrors of war and the public’s perception of their business could have put a wrench in their business. But despite these obstacles, they showed courage in front of adversity and succeeded. If we can weather the storms of life, we will eventually see the clear skies of growth.
4. Being open to innovation. The business world and consumer behavior are factors that constantly change. Getting with the times and embracing technological innovations can help you solve problems, improve business strategies, and improve customer satisfaction. Being able to foresee the necessity of contactless transactions and online funeral viewings helped the business to grow more during and after the COVID crisis. Your business will lose opportunities to grow if you are close-minded to innovations.
5. Focus on the customer. Satisfied clients will be more likely to make repeat purchases and recommend you to others. St. Peter grew to its current state because of the drive to make its services worth every peso.