Grab Philippines Country Manager: 'Studying in UP Changed My Life'

Meet Grace Vera Cruz.
IMAGE Grab PH

Grace Vera Cruz was named country manager of Grab Philippines in October 2020, but it took her a whole year before she felt she was ready to face the media. On Wednesday (November 3), Vera Cruz sat down with journalists in her first-ever roundtable interview since assuming the top position of the regional behemoth. 

“I wanted to make sure I learned the business,” she answered on why it took her so long to meet the press. “I wanted to be comfortable learning (different aspects of) the business. A lot of things happened (since I came onboard). I didn’t know we were going to list. And with the listing there were a lot of things that we could and could not do. Some internal and external factors.

“Lastly, we were hoping we do this in person,” she added.

A UP education 

Vera Cruz was named to the position after founding Grab PH chief Brian Cu stepped down in July 2020. Before Grab, she was managing director of Seawood Resources, a Philippine-based investment company with a global footprint, and has held key positions in McKinsey & Co., CLSA Exchange Capital, and Shell.

Before she came onboard, Vera Cruz said she made sure to prioritize three things. The first was that she wanted to put people first in the company. That meant all the stakeholders involved in Grab: employees, merchant-partners, driver-partners, and consumers. The second was to make sure the company stayed relevant by offering products and services that touch the lives of ordinary people.

“Whatever we do has to be an answer to a specific need,” she said. “That drives relevance.”

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And third was to ensure the business was responsible and sustainable. This was where she said her education at the University of the Philippines made a difference. Vera Cruz revealed that her mother is a graduate of Ateneo De Manila University and wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps. But the young Grace had other ideas. She chose to pursue a degree in Business Economics at UP Diliman. 

“Being in UP changed my life,” she said. “(Studying there) has had a major impact in my life. It showed me that we can do always do something, that we have a mission.” She dropped the oft-repeated quote from the first Spider-Man movie directed by Sam Raimi, about great power coming with great responsibility.

Afterwards she completed her MBA with a concentration in Finance at the London Business School.

“I could’ve stayed in London forever and ever, but the calling of home was so strong for me,” she said. “Social impact is important to me.” 

Vera Cruz said she sees Grab—a company that has famously resisted publicizing data about its earnings for years—as a social enterprise. 

“That’s just my opinion,” she said. “If profits were the only goal, it would be easy because that’s a singular metric. But the tradeoffs that we do…we think about driver income, merchant income, consumer (welfare), value for money. Of course, hindi naman pwedeng sobrang lugi (we can’t be losing money). It makes it harder but very refreshing.”

How Grab PH is doing

On-demand food delivery experienced a surge during the past year as lockdowns and quarantine restrictions kept most people at home and reaching for their phones to order. About 71 percent of respondents in a survey by Rakuten Insight said they started ordering more through food delivery apps during the pandemic. While this is good news for Grab (and its major competitor Foodpanda), Vera Cruz said it’s a misconception to think that the Malaysia-founded, Singapore-based company has been doing well during the pandemic.

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“Our core business is still transport, and transport tanked (the past year),” she said. “And it still hasn’t recovered. Or, at least, recovery has been slow. We’re still seeing a lot of hesitancy (from people) to go back to riding. Health and safety is still a priority. So there are still barriers.

“A lot of the drivers (also) lost their cars,” she added. “Even if we tried to help, some of them have dropped off. 

Still, it’s not all bad news for Grab. In its filing for its SPAC listing in New York, the company said it posted GMV (gross merchandise value) of approximately $12.5 billion in 2020, surpassing pre-pandemic levels and more than doubling from 2018. The company said it is also the category leader in Southeast Asia for its core verticals, including ride-hailing (72 percent of total regional GMV), online food delivery (50 percent of total regional GMV), and digital wallet payments (23 percent of regional TPV or total payment volume) in 2020.

In the Philippines, Vera Cruz said the focus is on diversification and expansion. On top of GrabFood, which started out small but is now a force to be reckoned with in the food delivery app wars, the company is planning to expand its geographical footprint even further. Ten new cities got GrabFood services for the first time this year and the number is expected to go up before the end of the year. It also plans to open new branches of its GrabKitchen concept—a central commissary where multiple brands can service customers across a specific area—in Northern Luzon and Visayas in 2022. 

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As for the ultra-popular motorcycle ride-hailing service, the company recently partnered with MoveIt to offer its services on the Grab app. 

“We’re probably the largest motorcycle platform in Southeast Asia,” Vera Cruz said. “Do we have the expertise to do it? Yes. Are we interested? Yes. But we respect the regulators. So for now, it’s our partnership with MoveIt and Grab as a platform rather than Grab as an operator.”

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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