x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gerby Cadungog: go-getter's fortune is in the bag

Seven years ago, she lost it all in a pyramid scheme. To pay off her debts, Gerby Cadungog set up her own company in the UAE, and made it big.

Gerby Cadungog, who founded her business with the aid of a 'dummy's guide' from Magrudy's.
Gerby Cadungog, who founded her business with the aid of a 'dummy's guide' from Magrudy's.

DUBAI // With a chic flat, an SUV and a penchant for designer shoes and handbags, Gerby Cadungog seems to fit the archetypal image of a successful expatriate entrepreneur making more money than she could in her home country. In fact, her story is not so straightforward. Ms Cadungog, a university graduate, had a good career in her native Philippines, with a manager's job and a salary to match.

But then disaster struck: she lost everything after a foolhardy investment in a pyramid scheme and ended up broke - 1.8 million pesos (Dh140,650) in debt and with no means to pay it back. To earn money, she moved to the UAE and took a job as a sales assistant. Seven years on, the 35-year-old has turned her life around, having co-founded a flourishing business designing and setting up stalls for exhibitions, and is once again living the lifestyle to which was once accustomed.

"Generally, Filipinos are not risk-takers, and would rather remain in their comfort zone," she says. "But I've learned a lot from my mistakes in the past, and I pushed myself to the limit to get where I am now." The pyramid scheme enticed investors to part with thousands of pesos, promising unusually high returns. Among those who invested were military and police officials. To make money, and feed the pyramid's growth, investors had to recruit new members.

"We were encouraged to invest in the company," she says. "For example, with a 200,000 peso investment, we were promised a 20 per cent profit." She and her former husband persuaded her parents - who mortgaged their property and invested the bulk of the money - and friends to invest. The rest came from the couple's savings, and money they borrowed from the bank. When the pyramid collapsed, Ms Cadungog was left with large debts. "I had to figure out a way to pay back the many people we owed," she says. "One option was for me to get out of the country and get a job. Prior to losing everything, I was enjoying a monthly salary of more than 50,000 pesos plus commission, a car and other perks."

In Dubai, she started out as a sales assistant with a Dh4,500 monthly salary at an international company specialising in exhibitions and interiors. Home was a humble bed space for Dh450 a month. Determined to get on, she eventually won promotion to the position of senior sales manager. "I began training and managing other employees," she said. "I tried getting as much commission as I could to pay off my debt."

Her client base grew steadily and she found herself handling major clients like Etisalat and BP. It was then, between 2004 and 2005, that Ms Cadungog began to receive offers from clients wanting to help her start up her own company. "I felt that I wasn't prepared yet. I'm a journalism graduate and didn't have a degree in architecture and engineering. "But I was at a stage when I was still learning."

Her fortunes changed in October 2006 when an Indian colleague who had returned from a holiday back home asked her, "Do you want to become rich?" "I told him that we could get rich by simply working hard," she says. "But he told me that we should start a company like his cousins had done in India." Ms Cadungog found an investor willing to back their plan for an interior and exhibitions consultancy. The investor asked her team to come up with a viable business plan. "I went to Magrudy's and picked up a book entitled Business Plans for Dummies and worked on it overnight," she says.

"We met the investor and a few days later, I resigned from my job." By November 2006, Ninecubes LLC was up and running. As the company's sales and marketing manager, Ms Cadungog was backed up by a production manager and a designer. The designer later resigned, so they had to employ freelancers, both locally and from the Philippines. "For the first year we borrowed Dh850,000," she said. "We only used Dh600,000, and paid it off."

From a two-man team, the company has now grown to a staff of 19 - mostly Filipinos - working in three departments: marketing, production and design. Ms Cadungog set up branch in the Philippines last April and plans to open a branch in India within the next six months. Nepthalie Parra, 36, a Filipino architect who is the company's production manager, said Ms Cadungog's story was an inspiration for other Filipinos in the Emirates.

"We both started out in the same company in 2003, where she brought in huge sales revenues," he says. "Her work ethic is admirable. We would stay up late till 1am and turn up for work at 8am." The company is also involved in considerable charity work, and last year donated food to 137 Filipino bus drivers who were illegally recruited in Dubai and left scavenging for food at a dumpsite in Ajman after the jobs they were promised turned out not to exist.

The company also sent money to the Philippines when typhoons struck last October. Ms Cadungog's family bought and distributed goods to hundreds of families in four of the affected areas. "I guess it's in my nature to help others," she says. "For me, material things are just temporary." Joenalyn Quares, 35, an administration officer in Dubai, has known Ms Cadungog since they were schoolchildren. "She's very competitive, passionate and a go-getter. We're proud of what she has become."

"I took calculated risks to set up a company in November 2006," Ms Cadungog says. "Our competitors were expecting us to fold. We took care of our clients and our suppliers and didn't have any loans." She has since been investing in several properties and businesses in the Philippines, including setting up a school in Tagaytay, about an hour south of Manila. She is looking forward to slowing down. "I want to regain my life," she says.

Her debt in the Philippines was paid back in full in 2008. Despite her success, Ms Cadungong leads a modest, comfortable lifestyle and rents a small studio flat. Evenings and weekends will find her at the gym. She does, however, confess to a soft spot for luxuries. "Like any woman, I love to splurge on shoes and designer bags," she says.

rruiz@thenational.ae