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Great Leaders in Our Midst

TOFIL column published in Philippine Star

TOFIL Awardee for Entrepreneurship, 1991
by Michelle D. Santos


“Never make any promises that you can’t keep and never cheat your client.”

                                                                        - Mr. Leonardo S. Sarao, Sarao Motors, Inc.


      Post-World War II Manila was a ravaged city pockmarked with rubbles of once-stately buildings and gracious homes. Yet, enlivened by the resilient spirit of its citizens, it was slowly rebuilt. Businesses, driven close by the war, threw open their doors. People once again walked the streets without fear of being accosted by the kempeitai. And everywhere, American G.I.s were being hailed as heroes.

        It was at this time of transition, of heady liberation, that a former cochero or calesa driver, Leonardo S. Sarao, revolutionized a burgeoning industry and changed the life of generations of Filipinos.

        Sarao was born on April 13, 1921 to Zacarias Sarao and Maria Salvador of Imus, Cavite. Their family had little in the way of luxuries and privileges. With eight children, Zacarias’s meager earnings could support their needs. Thus, after finishing Grade 6, the young Sarao took on whatever job that came his way: farming, fishing, and even working at the Cavite railways. He was working at a shipyard in Sangley Point in Cavite when World War II erupted.

        His also worked as a cochero, or as a driver of a horse-pulled calesa (two-wheeled rig), before the war. Arch. Edgardo Sarao, Leonardo’s son, recalls that his tatang loved to talk about his life as a cochero. Plying the route from Cavite to Manila, the elder Sarao met a lot of people from all walks of life.  This was his first foray into the transportation business. It was also then that he started toying with the idea of venturing into the “major league”: four-wheeled vehicles.

        Liberation found Sarao employed in an auto bus body-building and repair shop owned by his ninong, Lucio Mata.  “The motor shop specialized on buses initially,” explained Arch. Sarao. The jeepney of that era didn’t look in any way as we know it today. Built from G.I. jeeps left after the war, it was a cross between a military vehicle and an automobile. It had two benches facing each other at the back that can seat only four people.

        The popularity of this new form of transport quickly gained ground, spurring the growth new industry of assembling jeeps. At the Mata motor shop, Sarao learned the ins and outs of the trade. He worked as a lathe operator, upholsterer, painter, welder, designer and even as a chrome fitter.  Later, he and his younger brothers started assembling jeeps on their own, gaining customers through word of mouth.

        In the ‘50’s, passenger jeepney assembly shops can be found jowl to cheek with each other.  However, the rudimentary mode of vehicle assembly common then put Sarao off. He had an idea that he believed could drastically improve production. He knew that with such a ready and rapidly growing market, anybody who could put in place an efficient system to supply the demand stand to really make it big.

         Sarao borrowed P700 for his start-up capital and, with his brothers, Rafael, Eduardo and Ernesto, set up shop along a busy road in Las Piñas.  Here he put in place an assembly line method from the preparation of parts to the test-run of the vehicle.

      This system paid off. Sarao Motors It churned out a steady volume of jeepneys, enabling them to stake their claim on the market. 

        When the supply of US surplus jeeps eventually ran out, the Saraos shifted to German and Japanese engines. Bigger but  simpler in design than their American counterparts, the brothers thus re-fashioned a wider body to fit these in. They also lengthened the body to double the seating capacity.  Finally, they added the back railing and top railings for cargo.

        In 1962, he incorporated the company which became known as Sarao Motors, Inc. Sarao had its heyday in the ‘60s to the ‘80s when it climbed to the top 1,000 corporations in the Philippines. During that time, the company was producing around 12 to 15 units per day. The Sarao jeepney became so integral to everyday life that it became an icon of Filipino culture. They were commissioned to built a very special jeep for Pope John Paul II’s visit on February 1981. “We were told that it was later shipped to the Vatican,” Arch. Sarao relates. By this time, the family had also branched out in other businesses, which includes, Liberator Transport Company, Sarao Development Coporation, Las Piñas Financing Corporation and Pagsanjan Tropical Hotel.

         Despite the success of his venture, Sarao – fondly called Mang Nardo by everyone – kept up the exacting pace he set since the beginning .  He would be up by 4 am tinkering around in the shop.  By 7 am, he would be in his office. He kept open communication lines between him and the employees., his way of letting them know that they were very important to him. “Tatang constantly told us to never look down on our workers, and to treat them with respect. That’s because they’re our partners in making the business work.” Sarao is known for his aversion of laying off workers. During the turbulent early ‘80s, he shortened the work week to four days so that nobody had to lose their job.

        It was thus understandable that he almost broke down when he announced to his staff in October 2000 that they were stopping production. The worsening socio-economic conditions coupled with unfavorable government regulations had severely hobbled the company. Nonetheless, the Sarao management reconsidered; Sarao Motors re-opened several months after, re-organized and downsized.

        Sarao extended his famed brand of generosity to everyone, including purchasers of jeepneys. He devised a payment structure that allowed people of limited budgets to own jeepneys.

        His experiences along the way impressed the value of hard work on Sarao. Thus, aside from pakikipag-kapwa, he instilled in his children a healthy appreciation of old fashioned labor. Arch. Sarao recalls that when he and his siblings were young, their tatang required them to help in the shop, particularly during the summer months. “While our classmates would be heading off to the States or to the province for a vacation, we would be here [at the shop] helping out.” The elder Sarao also drummed in his children the worth of education.  He made sure that his younger siblings and, later on, his children would have a clear road to education. Today, his children include a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, a businessman and an engineer.

        It is also quite ironic that for someone whose highest educational attainment was Grade 6, Sarao was regularly invited to speak before business clubs and institutions, including the renowned Asian Institute of Management.

        Mang Nardo kept a simple and practical outlook to the end. He didn’t smoke, drink, nor gamble. “He didn’t even want to live in a big house,” Arch. Sarao said. His only luxury was his stable of horses and pets on which he lavished care. His fondness for horses, in fact, has been forever immortalized in the ubiquitous steel horse adorning the hoods of Sarao jeepneys. He passed away in 2001 from a heart attack.

         Leonardo Sarao, a former cochero who dreamed of great things and made these a reality, left behind a legacy that is hard to match. He is an example of how an ordinary person can become extraordinary by dint of hard work, integrity, love of his fellowmen and trust in God.



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