Adrian Ramos: From Nat'l Book Store baby to president 2
Ramos brothers, Anton and Adrian, sporting their National Book Store shirts. They are currently the company’s Chairman of the Board/COO and President respectively.
Culture

How this National Book Store baby kept the family business together thru the worst of times

At the height of the pandemic, NBS Group president Adrian Ramos remembers telling himself, ‘Over my dead body will I let [this company] go down on my watch’
RHIA GRANA | Aug 16 2023

It’s a few weeks before school opens and National Book Store (NBS) president Adrian Ramos is witnessing from a distance the flurry at his packed Megamall branch. “The energy inside is definitely alive and kicking. And it's exhilarating to see.” 

He’s been waiting for this. NBS has yet to reach its pre-pandemic sales, as per the reports on the first half of 2023, so the company is really looking forward to this back-to-school season. “We were prepared. Our partners were prepared,” he offers. “Parents and students were prepared to go back to face-to-face schooling at hindi siya biglaan, so everybody was looking forward to this.”

National Book Store in Avenida, Rizal, 1962
National Book Store in Avenida, Rizal, 1962

Like many businesses, NBS was heavily impacted by the Covid pandemic. “We were hit because most of our stores are mall-based and there was no mall traffic during the lockdowns,” Adrian recalls. “Nobody could go out. Kids couldn't go out at all. Nobody was going to the office.”

No face-to-face classes meant there was no need for school supplies. “Some used laptops for online classes. But the broad side of the market were only using cell phones and bond paper. That was it,” Ramos says. “Nobody needed notebooks. Nobody needed a lot of the things that we normally sell.” 

NBS stores were also forced to carry lesser books. “We unfortunately had to make certain sacrifices because of limited resources,” Adrian admits. “And my number one goal with whatever resources that we had was to support local vendors and suppliers. And so we had to cut back on a lot of our importations for a while.”

NBS trucks in 1956
NBS trucks in 1956

One day towards the end of 2020, the company was left with no choice but to let go of some of its valued employees. Recalls Adrian: “That was the worst day of my life.”

The pandemic lasting so long had the businessman feeling “really devastated.” “I aged so much,” says Adrian, now able to laugh back at the difficult episode. With his father, then company president Alfredo Ramos, already in his advanced age, Adrian, the chief finance officer, had to take over the old man’s post. Meanwhile, Adrian’s siblings Anton and Xandra, assumed their roles as Chairman of the Board/COO and Vice President/Treasurer respectively. Alfredo Ramos passed away in November 2022.

During the pandemic, Adrian’s primary goal was to ensure the company’s survival. “The most important thing for me was to hold the people together, hold the organization together…because it was so dark, and it was so impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” He remembers telling himself: “Over my dead body will I let [this company] go down on my watch.”

 

Keeping everyone’s hopes up

Adrian remembers writing to all the NBS employees before the lockdowns started. “I would send letters to all. I would talk to them. It was not about policies or business. It was about, ‘Natatakot ako, natatakot kayo, natatakot tayong lahat… pero we have to stay together.’”

Since the situation was so bleak, his number one goal was to hold everybody together and keep their hopes up. He advised them to focus on the problems that they can solve and quit thinking too far ahead.

“Instead think of the things that we can solve today. Yung mga ibang bagay, wala naman tayong magagawa e. If we think about all of that, we will all be overwhelmed,” he remembers saying. “Let’s just go week to week, focus on the problems we can solve this week. Make everything bite-sized chunks. Focus on small goals.”

Adrian was also very much concerned about everyone’s mental health so he made sure everyone in the organization felt connected. “I'm a big believer in the importance of mental health,” Adrian says.  

Xandra Anton Trina with Lola and Lola Store Opening 1979
Xandra and Anton with their cousin Trina and Lola Coring during a store opening in 1979

Growing up with NBS

Adrian assumed the post of president only in January of this year. The youngest among the three children of Alfredo and Precy Ramos, Adrian practically grew up in the world of National Book Store. Dad Alfredo is one-half of the twin sons of National Book Store founder Socorro “Coring” Ramos and her late husband Jose. While Alfredo served as president of NBS, his twin brother, Benjamin, was vice president.

“I have foggy memories of visiting my grandparents in NBS Rizal Avenue, [the first NBS branch]. I had memories of our whole family riding my dad’s station wagon, and we’d drive up to National Book Store in Araneta Coliseum, when it was spanking brand new,” Adrian says.

As he grew older, he started to look forward to visiting the big branch in Cubao on Sundays with his father, though not exactly to learn about the book business. “There used to be a canteen on the third floor and I used to love the hotdogs there,” Adrian recalls laughing. “Then ginugulo ko yung telephone operator. That used to be one of the hubs of National’s operations then.”

There were days his mother would pick him up from school and they would go to the Virra Mall branch. “My memories naman there would be buying Archie comics.”

Adrian with mom Presy, Lola Coring and Lolo Jose
Adrian with mom Presy, Lola Coring and Lolo Jose

He would eventually be drawn to books. He was the nerdy type who was heavily into nonfiction as a kid. “I had access to books on sharks, dinosaurs, and lots of things, so I gobbled those up. Remember, that was before the age of the internet.”

But he was also secretly fond of young adult fiction, particularly Sweet Valley High and the all-girls comedy drama The Baby-Sitters Club. “I would read my sister’s Sweet Valley High and I was collecting Babysitters Club on my own,” admits Adrian, sounding quite embarrassed. By the way, contrary to what some might think, the Ramos kids don’t just get to take any book they like from the NBS shelves. The rule of thumb was to always pay. “Except when Lola says, ‘O kuha ka na.’”

Speaking of his grandmother, he says she was never not charming. He describes her as a gifted salesperson and negotiator. “She was an expert in using soft power…convincing [people]—that was her ultimate skill. And she always did it with a smile.”

Adrian and Lola Coring
 “She was an expert in using soft power…convincing [people]—that was her ultimate skill. And she always did it with a smile,” Adrian says of his Lola Coring. 

‘My dad was always my hero’

The Ramoses used to have a family tradition called “Thursdays with Nanay Coring.” Here, they get to keep everyone in the family updated about the goings-on in the company—the opening of new stores, new advertising campaigns, etc.

Even as a teenager, Adrian himself would occasionally join these meetings. “Nakikinig lang. There were no specific tasks yet,” he says. “The organization then was a lot smaller and more compact so we knew almost everybody.”

While there were no formal talks yet about him dipping his toes in the family business, he knew it would be an eventuality. “This sounds a little cheesy but my dad was always my hero. I’ve always looked up to him for his knack for business and I always felt that I was going to follow in his footsteps,” Adrian says. 

Adrian with his mom and lola during his graduation at The Kellogg School of Management in Northwestern University.
Adrian with his mom and lola during his graduation at The Kellogg School of Management in Northwestern University.

Adrian completed the Management Honors Program in Ateneo. His initial foray in the book business right after graduation was thru Power Books, where he worked as operations manager for a couple of years in his early 20s. Alongside that, he taught accounting and statistics in Ateneo.

But when the opportunity came to work as a business analyst for McKinsey and Company, the global consulting agency, he jumped at the chance. He knew he could learn a lot and meet people in the business. After working at McKinsey for a few years, he went to the US to take up his MBA at Northwestern University. “I had a plan for myself only up to that point—getting an MBA,” he says.

Adrian with mom, dad and lola
With his dad Alfredo, mom Presy and Lola Coring

But it seemed destiny had it all figured out for him. Two months before his graduation, Adrian got an email from his father saying he had to come home and start working for the family businesses, which he happily welcomed. “In a lot of ways, I’m glad that I did it because I was able to shadow him so much in the next five years.”

Adrian didn’t join NBS right away, though; he helped his dad get other businesses off the ground. Around 2010 to 2011, that’s when he became more involved in NBS, and in 2016 he joined on a real functional capacity as its chief finance officer.

“It’s not really training. You’re just thrown into the fire. Like, ‘Make this happen,’” he says about working with his dad. “He was a bit old school in that sense. His style was more, ‘Figure this out.’”

What the youngest son valued learning thru his father was how to communicate well with people—from the big bosses of business and government to the rank and file. “I saw how he was so diplomatic and so strategic, and really picky with his words,” he remembers. “For me the most important aspect of being a leader is being able to communicate well.”

With Lola, Sec Briones, Xandra, NBS College Students
Adrian with  Nanay Coring, former DepEd Sec. Leonor Briones, his sister Xandra Ramos-Padilla, and NBS college students

Voice in his head

What kept him strong thru the pandemic, says Adrian, were the nuggets of wisdom implanted in him by his folks through the years. “Whenever we’d encounter a problem, Lola would tell us, ‘Wala yan. Giyera nga pinagdaanan namin dati e.’”

The first time he heard those words, he was much younger and thought he knew better. “I used to tell her, ‘No, Lola. You don’t understand…’” But his Lola Coring’s words took a different meaning in the face of this recent adversity. “She was totally right. If you don't try, the outcome is sure. If you try, you give it the best possible chance [to succeed]. It’s true, mahirap. Pero every year has its own challenges. It's how you face the challenges that determines the outcome.”

From his dad, he learned the importance of duty, responsibility, honoring one’s word and commitment, and always doing what’s best for the company. He remembers one heartbreaking conversation they had during the pandemic. “When we had no choice but to do the retrenchment, I had to talk to him about it. And he was saying, ‘Wala na ba talagang choice? We had never done it ever in our history.’ And it broke my heart to tell him, ‘I’m afraid we have no choice.’”

Adrian Ramos
“We're not fully back to pre-pandemic levels but we're doing better,” says Adrian. “So what we're doing really is restrengthening our core business and rebuilding our positioning in the market." 

The past few years were a period of self-discovery for Adrian. “I realized that I didn't have to be somebody I was not. I didn't need to be a big shot,” the NBS head says thoughtfully. “[In the beginning] there was that thought na I needed to be a formal businessman, or an executive or whatever. And I realized that none of that matters. What mattered was I was comfortable with myself and who I was.”

He adds, “As someone from finance, I used to believe in controls and perfect systems…and suddenly none of that mattered. And all that mattered was the organization. It was always what was going to be best for the organization.”

National Book Store Shangri-La Plaza
National Book Store at Shangri-La Plaza is ready for the back-to-school season 

Growth mindset

Adrian is happy to report NBS is on the road to recovery. The back-to-school season last year was like a "lifeline," when they started building up their inventory again, fixing old stores, building new ones.

“We're not fully back to pre-pandemic levels but we're doing better,” he says. “So what we're doing really is restrengthening our core business and rebuilding our positioning in the market. And that's our goal for this year and maybe next year.”

He would also like to revisit the franchising idea they were supposed to roll out in 2020 but was halted by the pandemic. “Tama na ang survival mindset,” Adrian says, sounding determined. “We’re gonna go back to growth mindset.”

[As a way of expressing their gratitude to customers for their continued support, NBS recently launched a raffle promo where they’ll be giving away Xiaomi 55-inch Smart TVs, Xiaomi airfryers, and Xiaomi smartwatches. There will be winners in every store, and one can get a raffle ticket for as low as P100.]