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Naty Cheng: The Lady Bossing

Credits to BizNews Asia
Written by Mina Paras. January 17, 2014


The first thing that struck on upon meeting Mrs. Natividad Cheng that was her photograph, as published in a newspaper ad, doesn’t do her justice.

The picture heralding her as the lady bossing Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 had her arms folded and her face in a serious, unsmiling pose.

It can’t be farther from the real Naty Cheng, CEO of Uratex Foam, a 45-year old company has been supplying the foam needs of bed and furniture manufacturers in the Philippines and South East Asia.

She looks more a kindly mother than a no-nonsense businesswoman, who, with her late husband Robert Cheng, established the Polyfoam Chemical Crop. back in 1968.

In between mouthfuls of Kapampangan delicacies at Fely J in Greenbelt, Naty Cheng recounted the Uratex story.

It’s the classic story of struggle, persistence and determination in the face of adversity. With only P4,000 as seed money, the young marrieds Robert and Natividad Cheng put up a foam company on sheer guts and hard work. “We lived in Robert’s grandmother’s house, going there only to sleep,” Cheng recalls.

By early morning, the couple would board their only vehicle, a pickup truck, which serve as their ‘office’ and delivery truck. Their first factory was a small rented warehouse where they produced the blue foam.

Four thousand pesos, even when that amount was quiet a sum 45 years ago, was not nearly enough to bankroll their needs. Robert Cheng’s friends – of which he has many, according to wife Naty – helped.

We talked our importer friends and asked that they import the chemicals that we needed, and to just add a small margin for their profit.” The Chengs also talked to their customers to pay for the foam upon delivery.

As soon as the Chengs received the chemical, they manufactured the foam in what was then a makeshift factory. They then delivered to their customers who paid them in cash.

Thus, the Chengs were able to pay the importers pronto. “Business was good; there was hardly any competition,” Naty Cheng said. There was only the Baltao Urethane Industries, which eventually folded up.

Two years into the business, tragedy struck. The warehouse in Pasay burned down, leaving nothing but ash. “We had just received our chemical supply from the importer that day; by morning there was nothing left. ‘Yun ang masakit.’” (“That was what painful.”)

That chemical was worth around P1 to P2 million, as recalled by Cheng.

With a ‘never say die’ attitude, the couple started over in another rented warehouse in Quezon City. “Pinilit naming makabangon,” Naty Cheng told BNA. (“We tried our best to recover.”) The suppliers and importers and all other creditors weren’t left behind. “We paid all of our debts,” Naty stresses, “up to the last centavo.”

They also learned a valuable lesson – that the chemical should be chilled and kept at a cool temperature. “Noong araw kasi, we didn’t know those things; it was parang trail and error.”

So we acquired chiller. “Today, Uratex uses state-of-art technology in producing their beds which they export to countries as far as Australia and the Netherlands. They use the Hennecke Multiflex Technology from Germany, a brand used by the world’s best foam makers that conforms to the strictest global standards.

Uratex is now the oldest foam factory in the Philippines, supplying all the furniture companies, the foam retailers, the bed manufacturers, including some known companies like Salem, “everything, foam, springs. “The only thing that are not ours are the wood (frames) and the cloth for covering the foam.” Then there were the furniture manufacturers in Pampanga” Las Palmas (one of the best manufacturers in the region), Cal-furn (an exporter of furniture), and local retailers-manufacturers like Bituin and Guiao’s and the myriad other small furniture makers. Since Pampanga is the center of furniture making in the Philippines, the Chengs established a quite network, and eventually became “godmother” to her customers’ children. “They’ve become like family.” The Chengs even planned to put up another factory in Pampanga, and had in fact bought a big lot in San Fernando City, Pampanga for that purpose. Then the Americans left Clark Air Base in the aftermath of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption., and the plan was quashed.

Uratex’s reach went farther North, and farther South, including the Quenn City of the South, Cebu. Cebu was a city/province rich in furniture factories and exporters. The city was ripe for a local foam factory. And the Chengs, egged on by a small furniture retailer, went into partnership with the latter and thereby committed what Naty avers as the “greatest mistake of our lives.”

The retailer, an old Chinese woman, convinced the Chengs to form a partnership with her. In good faith, the Chengs agreed.

“We would put up and operate the factory and they would sell the foam .” In a sleight of hand maneuver, the Chengs suddenly found themselves on the losing end of the deal. “We had a man living inside the factory to watch over the place.”

The man later told the Chengs that their partners had urged him to live outside the factory. And before long, the Chengs found themselves holding an empty bag. “Sabi nila bankrupt na daw ang factory.” To add insult to severe injury, the Cebu ‘partners’asked the Chengs, “Sa amin na lang ang company. Tutal bankrupt na.”

Naty Cheng bristles, “It’s as if we handled it to them on a silver platter.” The company which the Chengs founded in Cebu is now a big retailer of furniture with their own stores, including in Metro Manila. And for a while there, people thought foam-making originated in Cebu.

Why Uratex never went into furniture production. Mrs. Cheng tells BNA: “It’s a protection for our good customers, who are all furniture manufacturers. If we competed with them, we’d be able to charge lower, since we make the foam. We want them to know they can trust us.”

Trust is a big thing with the Chengs. People trusted them, at the time when they were still struggling, and they repaid that trust fully. “That is why we are getting good karma, “Naty Cheng states with pride. “Business is good.” Along with that trust is a 5-15 warranty for their mattresses. “Beds are for keeps; if you have the money, buy the best. If not, buy what you can afford, and save up for an upgrade,” Mrs. Cheng advises. Considering that people spend a third of their lives in bed, that’s sage advice. Mrs. Cheng though reveals she still uses the same bed she and her husband shared, for sentimental reasons.

Although Uratex never went into the furniture business, it expanded simultaneously with their car seat business. “We supply car seats with molded foam, to local assemblers,” she says. Eventually, they diversified into adhesives, plastic furniture(the famous Monoblock tables and chairs), food containers (which are sold in their factory-cum-office and sales center), bed springs and fabrics.

Uratex’s Profits were all plowed back into the business, “we didn’t even build our own house”. Robert Cheng, Naty says, invested in raw land because “our business is bulky. We need to have big spaces to house the foam, beds and furniture (plastic).” The land constitutes a big part of Uratex’s assets.

Naty Cheng is married to a business and at 67, still workds as hard as she did when she was younger. Ensconced on the 4th floor of their office building-cum-sales center, she can look over every aspect of their busness, assosted by her daughter Pinky. The other children (Peachy) and their husbands are also involved in the business. Naty’s only son lives in a building on Santolan, she shares, “and is into art.”

Life is good for Naty Cheng. Among Uratex’s prestigious products are the premium beds that rival the expensive Tempur brand. A partnership with known foreign brand is in the blueprint stage. Just recently, they launched their top-of-the-line mattress “Kensington” in Royal Tea Party at the Our Home in SM Megamall. (Kensington was the palace in London where the Philippine ambassador’s residence.)

Life is good for the 2,000 employees of Uratex. Naty Cheng, and at 67 – she exercises two hours a day – is a very generous employer. She takes her employees, group by group, to Hong Kong every year. “I drop them off to Disneyland while I go to my meetings,” she reveals. Even the driver goes to HK.

Bossing 2012 winner Natividad Cheng honors the memory of her husband Robert G. Cheng. Asked to donate an arch in an area in Quezon City, she agreed on the condition that she could put her husband’s initials (RGC) on it. “He was such a good man,” she says with pride.