Industry

Uniwide Once Rivaled SM as the Country's Biggest Retail Empire. What Happened?

The rise and spectacular fall of Uniwide Sales.
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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Most shoppers in Metro Manila and major cities across the Philippines go to familiar groceries and supermarkets each time they need to replenish every day household items. The biggest names like SM, Robinsons, Puregold, Rustan’s (now owned by Robinsons), and MetroMart compete for the highly lucrative retail market, which was valued at around P6.36 trillion in 2016 and forecast to have grown to P9.43 trillion by 2021, according to global studies. 

But for those who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there is one popular chain of retail outlets that has all but disappeared from the urban landscape and cultural zeitgeist. Branches of Uniwide Sales and Uniwide Warehouse Club used to dot the city and were a favorite of smaller retailers like neighborhood sari-sari stores for its bargain price items. At one point, Uniwide rivaled the influence and reach of the Sy family’s SM, which is the country’s top retailer—and one of the biggest in the continent—today.

What happened to Uniwide?

History of Uniwide 

To understand the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of Uniwide, we need to go back and trace its beginnings. The company was founded in 1975 by the Gow family as Uniwide Sales Textile Bargain House Center along Rizal Avenue in Avenida, Manila. The company sold products like fabrics and textiles at bargain prices, supplying other retailers in places like Divisoria. 

The initial business succeeded because it targeted low-income buyers, or the so-called “masa” market. Eventually, the company expanded into apparel and accessories and, by the 1980s, it had grown into a department store and supermarket chain. According to an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, it had grown enough to compete with similarly sized retail chains at the time like Ever Gotesco, Plaza Fair, Isetann, and COD Department store.

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By all accounts, Uniwide was doing good business all throughout the rest of the 80s. In 1988, it introduced Uniwide Sales Warehouse Club, which catered to wholesalers that brought down its merchandise prices even more. At its height, Uniwide Sales Warehouse Club stores were massive: at least one hectare and around 60 checkout counters per store. The company employed as many as 3,560 employees at the time, with as many as 11 stores spread out not just in Metro Manila but in neighboring provinces like Laguna, Cavite, and Tarlac.

“The warehouse club was so popular that in 1988, Uniwide had to initiate measures to somehow limit the traffic in some of its stores during its annual promotional season,” according to a story published in BusinessMirror. “It was even criticized in the media one time in 1991, when it held a midnight sale that lasted up to 4 a.m. because it caused major traffic jams in Metro Manila.” 

By the early 1990s, data showed that Uniwide Sales was averaging annual sales of about P14 billion to P20 billion, which would have made it the country’s top retail company at the time. The company was also extremely liquid, with most transactions with suppliers done almost exclusively in cash. At around the same time, Uniwide Group founder Jimmy Gow decided to invest in several properties, having attracted good deals due to the company’s willingness to pay in cash, the BusinessMirror article said. This included prime lots in Cubao, Quezon City; Las Piñas; and the massive property in the reclamation area along Roxas Boulevard in Parañaque City, where the company built its biggest venture so far—Uniwide Coastal Mall—in 1990. 

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Uniwide Sales was also firmly implanted in the public’s consciousness at the time for its sponsorship of popular television quiz show Battle of the Brains.

IPO and crash 

It was in 1992, according to the same article where Gow was interviewed, when the idea to take the company public was first floated. The founder said he was convinced to do so by a man named Jaime Cabangis, who worked at the prestigious accounting firm SGV. Cabangis later left SGV to join the Uniwide Group as its CFO, helping the company in the complicated initial public offering process. 

Uniwide Holdings Inc (UHI) was incorporated in 1994, and the IPO proceeded two years later, in 1996, raising a total of P4.3 billion in fresh capital. It seemed the company had rosy prospects.

But then the Asian financial crisis happened in 1997. Like many big companies, the Uniwide Group was not spared. Just one year after its successful IPO, UHI’s assets amounting to P30 billion were reportedly wiped out and the value of its stock fell from a high of P7 to just P1. By 1999, total revenues fell to P2.7 billion and the company recorded a net loss of P383 million, primarily due to low sales volume and reduced franchise fees and rent, according to the rehabilitation report prepared by Buenaventura Filamor Echauz (BFE). 

The Securities and Exchange Commission, under then-chairperson Perfecto Yasay Jr., placed the company under receivership and appointed officers led by Monico Jacob to help steer the company back to financial health.

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But Gow alleged that the SEC at the time made no such effort. On the contrary, he wondered why a company that had just raised over P4 billion in funds from its IPO a year ago had been placed under receivership so quickly.

Liquidation

In any case, the case of the Uniwide Group dragged on for years, until, in 2017, a Parañaque court issued an order to liquidate the company’s assets and declare it insolvent. In October that same year, the Philippine Stock Exchange ordered that UHI be officially delisted from the roster of publicly traded companies, seven years after trading of its shares had been suspended in 2010.

It didn’t help the company that it was ordered to vacate its Uniwide Coastal Mall by Jacinto Ng, whose Manila Bay Development Corporation, owned 40 hectares of the reclamation property in Parañaque. Gow had insisted that it was Ng who had “enticed” him to build Uniwide Coastal Mall, but Ng has been quoted as saying that he and Gow “were never business partners.” That case has also been dragging for years.

There is an entire web of court cases and legal proceedings that the Uniwide Group has been and is currently involved in, which would make it extremely hard for Gow to stage a comeback and recoup the losses he and his company has sustained over the years. But in the BusinessMirror interview, which came out in 2018, Gow had said that recovering his property and assets and getting compensated for his losses were secondary to him receiving justice for what happened to him and the Uniwide Group.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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