ProfileZenaida ‘Nedy’ Rustia Tantoco, 77: Empress, matriarch, icon

Zenaida ‘Nedy’ Rustia Tantoco, 77: Empress, matriarch, icon

As head of the Rustan’s retail empire, she curated and delivered the luxury experience

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Nedy Tantoco lived, breathed, and embodied international luxury and professional family values.

As the matriarch of the Tantoco family and the leader of the Rustan’s group, she grew and defined the vision and work ethic she learned from her parents into a set of family and corporate values. As head of the Rustan’s retail empire, she defined luxury for generations of Filipinos. This was not just in the sense of her personal lifestyle; it was her predestination, her passion, her vocation. The Tantoco family’s Rustan’s group dominates the Philippine luxury market until today, representing almost all the principal global luxury brands.

In a 2021 interview with Asian Dragon magazine, Ms. Tantoco described her life’s work as more than just stewardship of these brands; it was the curation and delivery of the luxury experience. In her view, luxury is only partly brands and products. It is also a level of service, guidance, and customer support befitting the prices of the goods. Above all, it is attention to detail:

“[My mother, Glecy] always said: Retail is detail. Up to now, I’m still doing those things. Micro-managing. Sabi ko eh, paano, ‘di pa kayo marunong, eh.” (Laughs).

“I see the differences that they don’t see, so I know I’m still contributing. I still need to. If I’m shown an ad layout that I don’t need to correct, I’m so happy. But every time I see an ad layout, I have to correct something. We keep up with our merchandise.”

Ms. Tantoco was born in 1946, the eldest daughter of Bienvenido Rufino Tantoco, of Bulacan, and Gliceria Dimaano Rustia, also of Bulacan. She has one elder brother, Bienvenido Jr. (Rico), and four younger sisters: Menchu Tantoco Lopez, Marilou Tantoco Pineda, Marlien Tantoco, and Maritess Tantoco Enriquez.

In the 1950s, Nedy’s parents liked to travel and shop abroad. In 1951, when Nedy was six years old, on the encouragement of friends, her parents set up an occasional, by-invitation-only display of imported luxury goods, including clothes, bags, jewelry, and perfumes, in their own living room. Such goods were not widely available in the post-war “Filipino First” era, when dollars were very scarce and the economic policy was import substitution through local manufacturing. The store attracted a small but dedicated clientele of Manila’s more prosperous citizens.

The store eventually became a stand-alone gift shop, and evolved into Rustan’s Department Store, on San Marcelino St. in Paco. When Nedy was in her teens, her parents would take her and the other children on their buying trips to Europe, teaching them about the world of luxury goods and the dominant brands. The Tantoco couple originally bought their goods at retail, but eventually built relationships with the major manufacturers that allowed them to buy in volume at wholesale. These relationships were inherited by Nedy and her siblings.

Mr. and Mrs. Tantoco also built a close personal relationship with Imelda Marcos, who was, in any case, probably their biggest single customer. This relationship would evolve into an important catalyst in the success of the business, and it was also a factor in the appointment of Mr. Tantoco as the Ambassador to Italy and the Holy See from 1983 to 1986.

Rustan’s Department Store in Makati was established in 1969, and was then the largest department store in the Philippines. By this time, having graduated from college, Nedy was already working full time in the business.

She married Anthony Cheng Huang and they had three children, Anton, Michael, and Catherine. The marriage dissolved in the 1970s, and Mr. Huang subsequently remarried. Nedy is survived by her partner, Patrick Jacinto.

By the time Glecy Tantoco passed away in 1994, Nedy was established as her successor in the luxury retail business, and she was made the operational head of the Rustan’s group. The distribution of ownership of the parts of the group was resolved privately, and Nedy personally took over Stores Specialists Inc., backstopped by her son Anton, who she made responsible for professionalizing the business by hiring and developing managers.

As well as running the business, Ms. Tantoco did a remarkable job of managing the family, as well. She recognized the strengths and weaknesses of family business, empowered her siblings, nieces, and nephews according to their strengths, and led the move to professionalization, which had become not only necessary, but desirable, as her generation began to pass the baton to the next.

Ms. Tantoco also had a passion for arts and culture, and she was a dedicated patron of music, particularly opera. She supported many cultural agencies, and helped develop such outstanding talents as soprano Rachelle Gerodias and internationally acclaimed tenor Arthur Espiritu.

Those who knew her well always remarked how, despite being immersed in the world of luxury, Nedy was never a snob. She was warm, friendly, and outgoing, and never looked down on anyone. She had many close friends, and valued people for their character rather than their money. As a business partner, she was described as attentive, focused, and anticipatory.

Nedy Tantoco uplifted Philippine business and culture, and will be remembered for her warm personality, her steadfast character, and her achievements. – Rafael A.S.G. Ongpin

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