Bienvenido Tantoco was born in Malolos, Bulacan during the American occupation. He is the son of Luis Buendia Tantoco, a fisherman, farmer and trader, and Carmen Rufino, a pianist and music teacher. The Tantocos were a prominent clan in Malolos. When Rizal dedicated his famous letter to the women of the town, of the 20 women, nine were from the Tantoco family.
The young Benny grew up in a place charming and idyllic. His days were spent tagging along with his father to their rice fields and lending a hand in the fishpond. According to the book “Appointment with the Vatican,” sometimes they would have a picnic, and father and son would partake of a meal of snails, meat and vegetables. In between his chores, Benny swam in the river and shared bike rides with friends.
Despite their comfortable life, Luis knew to instill in his son the importance of punctuality, fairness and hard work. Which would serve Benny well as he would become the breadwinner of the family at the young age of 16, following his father's passing. Although the farm Luis left was able to support the studies of the eight Tantoco kids, it could only do so until their high school years. Which would compel Benny’s Mother to pray fervently that her son get the chance to have a college education.
Carmen’s prayers were answered: her cousin from the Fabellas gave Benny a full scholarship to the family-owned Jose Rizal College. Another cousin, Vicente Rufino, offered the young man a part-time job. Having finished accountancy, he would become head cashier for the Rufino family’s movie theaters: State, Rialto, Capitol and Gaiety among them. In a 2018 interview with Rogue, Benny’s son Rico Tantoco said his father was the most trusted man of the Rufinos. Rico recalled being in and out of their theaters as a child, sometimes watching a film for as many as 25 times.
The beginning of Rustan’s
It was while working for the Rufinos that Benny saw himself in the world of business. In the early 50s, his wife Gliceria “Glecy” Tantoco actually started a small enterprise of her own. It would cater to the tastes and whims of the privileged women of Manila who were eager to return to a life of comfort and the finer things following the end of the war. While Benny would only help her out in the beginning, he would soon leave his post with the Rufinos and become full-time partner in his wife’s burgeoning retail venture.
The couple decided to combine the first syllables of their names and came up with “Rustans.” This was in 1952. Benny and Glecy’s living room in San Marcelino Street in Manila was transformed into a gift shop, or what would be the earliest incarnation of their iconic Rustan’s Department Store. From just the living room, the merchandise would eventually take over the dining area as well. Rico remembers there were days the house would be packed with shoppers, especially during the Christmas season.
The Tantoco couple would become a formidable business duo. Benny took on the finance obligations, since accounting was his expertise, as well as operations. Glecy, meanwhile, became the face and heart of the store, engaging customers, finding out what they want and what they need and making sure she has the best products in stock. A trip abroad with Benny would spark an idea: to buy stuff from different countries and bring them to the ladies of Manila. Using capital borrowed from the Rufinos, she made her initial round of buying, and her first batch of purchases were sold out almost as soon as they landed in the San Marcelino residence.
Rustan’s would open its first official store in 1959, in the address where 6750 Ayala now stands. It would eventually become the country’s premiere shopping destination—an icon of Filipino pride, representing the best products in the Philippines and the world. It would also set the bar when it comes to personal service in local shopping.
Man of faith
Apart from being a sharp accountant and an enterprising manager, another side to Benny was his devotion to his faith. It is said he attended daily masses throughout his life and was a devotee of the Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy, and our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1983, he was appointed Ambassador of the Philippines to the Vatican, and was able to personally present his credentials to Pope John Paul II in the presence of his family.
The post was a great source of pride for Benny, and he happily hosted a variety of important people at the Ambassador’s Residence in Rome, among them nobilities, bishops, Filipino priests and nuns and, one time, then First Lady Imelda Marcos and her entourage. His apos Anton Huang, Joel and Donnie Tantoco, and Dino Pineda even got to live with him.
Rome turned out to be a short chapter, however. When the Marcoses were kicked out of Malacañang, according to a special article on Benny Tantoco in Metro Society, “the Tantocos faced political persecution, police harassment, and false accusations; and though he wasn’t asked to do so, the ambassador resigned his post.” The family lived in exile in Morocco and began to pursue a much simpler existence “in a simple home that also became their office.”
The Tantocos would make it back home to the Philippines by December 1993, after then President Fidel Ramos assured them “security but not immunity from lawsuits.” Despite the happy news of being able to return to their home country, the family now had to deal with illness. The matriarch Glecy had cancer in an advanced stage and would pass on in a matter of months.
“If he was heartbroken, he did not make a spectacle of it. From his youth, when faced with problems, he had always kept calm,” his biography described Benny. “Neither his father’s untimely death nor Don Juan Rustia’s fury cowed him. The ravages of World War II did not render him hopeless, and the bad times in Rome did not arouse rancor in his heart… Although heartbroken, he was at the same time hopeful. He needed to be hopeful. If it was the end of an era, it was also the beginning of another. Benny was now the man in charge. This was no longer just the backroom.”
He would not carry the weight of the Rustan’s business by his lonesome. His children and grown grandchildren provided much-needed support. When time came that he was confident the generation after him can take over, Benny stepped back and focused on strengthening the Tantoco family, making sure they remain close and supportive of each other.
Bienvenido “Benny” Tantoco Sr. died Tuesday morning July 6, 2021. He was 100 years old. Last Father’s Day, his grandchildren dedicated a song to him especially composed by Ryan Cayabyab. Entitled “I Am Me Because of You,” it expresses just how highly they regard the incomparable Tantoco patriarch, promising to “stay strong and true in all we do” as a way of saying thank you for all that their Lolo Benny has given.
[This article is largely based on the special feature “A Perfect Score: One Hundred Years of Gratitude” written by Leah Puyat for Metro Society, published in Metro.Style last April 7, Tantoco’s 100th birthday. Special thanks to Raul Manzano, EIC of Metro Society, and Geolette Esguerra, EIC of Metro.Style.]