November 3, 2004 (STAR) By Jessamine Villareal - The Christmas trees that New Yorkers ogle at in the display windows of Bloomingdale, Saks, and Front Gate; those that dazzle Londoners at Harrods and John Lewis Department Stores and revelers at Disneyland in Tokyo all have one thing in common.

They are made by Tamilee Decors, which fashions them from silk roses, hydrangeas and poinsettias, velvet leaves and silk ribbons; frosted sprigs; apples, pears and pomegranates brushed with gold; metallic ball ornaments; mini holly wreathes and nosegays; gilded pine cones; and glass beaded berries.

The company buys some of the ribbons from Divisoria and some from Belgium. The artificial fruits are shipped in from Taiwan. But mostly, the company uses local lowland pine cones, seed grasses, and banaba pods baked until they burst into wooden florets. For a final touch, these are frosted so they shimmer as if sugared with powdered snow.

A winner of the 2000 Golden Shell Award, the highest award annually given to exporters by the Department of Trade and Industry, Tamilee owners Nelson Leung and Tami Filler-Leung have yet to use the free slot in the Frankfurt world exhibit that came with the prize. "We don’t have the time," said Filler-Leung.

Tamilee generates annual sales of P36 million from the shipment of 200 containers of Christmas decors.


October is the time that Tamilee’s showroom for local buyers in San Juan and showroom for foreign buyers in Pasig are ablaze with Christmas decor.

For five months of the year, the company’s showroom for local buyers (which used to be the Leung’s old home) stops traffic at P. Guevarra St. From the road, one sees all-season ornaments in burgundy and green, gold lame and lime, amber and champagne. The array ranges from nine-foot trees to candelabras, from topiaries to swags and wreaths, giant cone ceiling ornaments, gilded bird houses, floral arrangements in urns, and gilt cone baskets.

Tamilee’s export season begins in February. The first containers are shipped out starting March. In between the endless production, the owners put on shows, talk to buyers, and do serious globe-trotting.

"I get ideas for my creations while walking in the woods. I travel a lot to see what the buyers want. You need to have a global look, not just a Filipino look," "said Filler-Leung, who handles the creative side of the business.

The First Time

Like many businesses, Tamilee had its beginnings in a hobby.

"While Nelson worked full-time for a steel company in Manila, I was left with nothing to do. I made Christmas decors to give to friends," said Filler-Leung. "When I heard that Christmas decors were exportable, I went to the office of the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions. They asked to see samples of my work. I had to borrow back my gifts to friends to show them."

CITEM squeezed the newly formed company in its October Christmas décor show. It also sent a teacher, free of charge, to conduct a crash course on design, costing, product sourcing and packaging.

During that first exhibit, Tamilee used more gifts borrowed from friends to fill up the booth.

"An Italian buyer asked to see our showroom. I had none. Overnight, I had to turn our house into a showroom," said Filler-Leung. "I was scared to death we would get a huge order and fail. We didn’t know where to source enough raw materials. I told the buyer my problem. He assured me it was not a problem. He left for Hong Kong, shipped me a container full of greenery and flowers, and told me to make it into a line of products."

That first order of baskets, wreaths, and topiaries worth $165,000 was completed in three weeks. The workforce, initially made up of Filler-Leung, the family driver, housemaid, and cook, was quickly expanded with the recruitment of housewives in the neighborhood.

From just a showroom, the Leung home also became Tamilee’s manufacturing facility and warehouse, where every space from bedrooms to wash rooms were crammed with boxes.

Bigger Capital

On the day Tamilee loaded its first shipment into a container, it discovered it couldn’t fit in all the goods. The company was also snagged by red tape at the customs office.

On top of it all was the question of cash.

"Our initial capital was P45,000 from the salary of my husband. Then, his boss lent us P450,000. In 15 days, every centavo was spent on materials and salaries. Fortunately, the father of our son’s tutor was then a senior vice-president of Far East Bank & Trust Co. He heard of our problem and offered us a P1-million loan with no collateral," said Filler-Leung.

After a year of exporting, Tamilee needed bigger capital, borrowing P3 million, repayable in five years, from the Technology and Livelihood Resource Center.

Case Study

During its early years, the company was the subject of a case study by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

For a year, a UNIDO representative observed the company’s operations. One of the recommendations of the study was for Leung to quit his corporate job and join Tamilee.

Today, Leung handles the company’s finances.

"If I let Tami, she will give away everything for free," said Leung.

"Sometimes, we quarrel over five centavos. Sometimes, we don’t talk to each other for three days. My concern is the design. His concern is the price. But we compromise. Although our concerns are different, we know we have to meet somewhere. We can’t bamboozle each other," said Filler-Leung.

Today, less than 10% of Tamilee’s production goes to the local market, the bulk of which are corporate accounts.

Foreign buyers are either entertained at the showroom in Pasig or in hotels in Hong Kong and the United States.

"We are now focused on the American market," said Filler-Leung. "When we meet our buyers abroad, we can only bring a few samples. We have to make do with lots of photos."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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