Dr. Rommel recounting how his med school professors ogled his first leather briefcase
“Design is a moment…” begins Dr. Rommel Bautista—veteran ophthalmologist and co-founder of Fino Leatherware—as we chat over pizza and wine. “People ask me ‘how do you do it?'” He shrugs: “You know, I can’t explain it myself.”
Entrepreneur, doctor, designer, builder—these are a few of Dr Rommel’s labels that earned him the nickname “Renaissance Man.” This is a nod to Leonardo da Vinci who, like Dr. Rommel, was engrossed in both science and art.
Fully aware of his reputation, Dr. Rommel is frank when asked about his somewhat uncanny versatility. “When I like something, I’m obsessive and compulsive about it [laughs].”
When not busy tending to patients, Dr. Rommel has no shortage of hobbies that keep him on edge. He constructs cafe racers in his garage—custom lightweight motorcycles from the streets of Europe—while rounding out his collection of Belstaff jackets and Land Rovers. The father of two is also something of an architect, albeit unlicensed; he helps design and build custom houses for a select clientele. But his main passion project is his leather business, a hobby that became his calling.
His fixation on leather began in a city thousands of miles away. “I remember taking a vacation in New York. As I was peering through a window, I saw a Coach briefcase, and I absolutely fell in love with it! It was about maybe $425,” he recalls, “money I didn’t have. So I figured, maybe I can just design or make my own.”
Shortly after, he established Fino Leatherware with a collection of luxurious Filipino-made leather bags. It was a change of pace from his days in the clinic. “The fact that Fino was also there allowed me to pursue other things. Because you know what they say about medicine, if you don’t really work, if you don’t operate, if you don’t see patients, then there’s no money coming in.
Through his years of managing Fino, the successful and seasoned entrepreneur has grown to understand the value of efficient yet personalized service. This is something that he can always rely on from Security Bank. “I just sit there, fiddling with my phone. Then in a few minutes, the papers are ready. I just sign it and then I’m off. It’s that easy!” He couldn’t avoid comparing the service to that of other banks: “I went to another bank in Medical City once, and man, they couldn’t even find my account.”
As our interview wanes, Dr. Rommel keeps us on our toes with stories of his adventures abroad as well as his everyday frustrations, narrating mundane episodes of city traffic and his view on economics and politics. His curiosity is infectious.
For a man so meticulous about life’s details, Dr. Rommel—self-admittedly—sometimes doesn’t know what he really wants. He recalls: “There was a time I just sat in one coffee shop for 7 weeks doing nothing, observing in the middle of winter to the end of March.” In the end, it’s in these moments of self-reflection, in the gaps of his busy schedule, that the Renaissance Man finds his inspiration. “When you’re sitting around, people-watching, ideas start to come out. Before you know it, you’re reaching for a piece of paper, and that’s when the creative process starts, all over again.”
Some people call me Renaissance Man. Some people think I have double vision, maybe because I’m always looking at different things at the same time. I pay very, very close attention to how things are made because if I want to do it myself then I have to know how to make it. I need to be able to make it properly. If I know the basics, then I can inject whatever’s in my head in terms of creativity to change it or take it to a direction that I would like to take it.
I don’t come from a poor family, but I don’t come from a wealthy one either. A fair statement would be to say that I come from a family with means, but my parents were never ever financially supportive of anything that I did.
My mom hated Fino.
She thought it would be a huge distraction because I started this business when I was in med school. She felt it was a gigantic distraction that would cause me not to finish my studies.
So when I was chosen as one of the Top 10 Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2006, I was looking straight at my mom while I gave my speech and said, “Mom, maybe now you can let it go.”
I didn’t. My father was a contractor. I remember back in grade school, high school—I’d go with him on Saturdays to the job site. At the time, they were building Manila Hotel, Peninsula simultaneously. Of course, my father didn’t build the hotel. What these companies did was they’d get a general contractor and then sub-contract certain areas of the hotel to you. I was exposed to those things. As a result, I really wanted to be an architect…it’s my frustration.
But that was the 80s, and business was very difficult during the Marcos years. I saw my parents have a hard time with business. My mom was telling me, “You know, you just be a doctor. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor but your grandfather didn’t allow me to be one.”
In other words, I was supposed to live out her dream.
So when I was chosen as one of the Top 10 Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2006, I was looking straight at my mom while I gave my speech and said, “Mom, maybe now you can let it go.” I did both things, and I’d like to think that I’ve experienced not tremendous success but perhaps modest success in just about everything I tried to get into.
It’s got a good balance of fulfillment and medical practices like surgery… I don’t like dealing with life and death. I don’t like telling patients: “You’ve got two months to live; get your affairs in order.”
I don’t like the scene—staying up all night in the ICU, hearing the monitors beep, and watching a patient die. It’s just not my cup of tea. I’d rather operate on you, and in an hour or the following day, you’re able to see and wow! It’s just like in the movie. That in itself is very, very gratifying.
But if you let character be your basis or your compass, you’ll end up doing well one way or the other.
The good thing about having Fino on the side was that I was able to practice medicine in a manner that to me was very ethical. A lot of young doctors are very eager to get ahead in the game or very eager to provide for their young families. I’m not going to generalize but I’m sure you’ve heard of doctors who perhaps maybe performed procedures or are quick to the trigger, when in fact perhaps maybe it’s not indicated.
One of the guiding principles I’ve had in my life was that I’ve always tried to be more careful about my character rather than my reputation, which are two different things. Some people want to be known as the doctor who has the most patients, who has the most surgeries and all, but at the end of the day, it makes you wonder if these things are really necessary. Are they financially pressured to do these things?
But if you let character be your basis or your compass, you’ll end up doing well one way or the other. You’ll end up doing things that are ethical and right. A lot of people are very, very good or excellent with their bedside manners that they can convince to have anything done at any price.
Fino’s been a good wall for me to lean against during those very, very, very lean years.
I was in med school. I remember taking a vacation in New York and I was peering through a window. Coach was very, very small at that time. And then the briefcase there—absolutely fell in love with it. It was about maybe $425—money I didn’t have. So I figured, maybe I can make my own or design my own and that’s how it started. Because it’s a big bag, you know you’re carrying it around school. And all the doctors—they see it, right? They went: “Your bag is really nice. Where did you get it?” “Oh Sir, I just made it.” “Really? Can you make one for me?”
The startup capital was P2,000—a thousand bucks from my wife and a thousand bucks from me. The money was really supposed to be used for beer [laughs], to buy magwheels, to buy radios for our car.
But then as it grew and it grew—all of a sudden, oh my God, this became a real business. One branch led to another. After a while, we even opened a store in the States. For that I was trying to save money by not getting a contractor, so we bought maybe a 40-square meter space.
Yeah, and then in the end I was just so, so, so exhausted, I ended up getting a handyman for two days, just to help me out. My body was aching, it was the middle of winter. I was dead tired, and there was two feet of snow. This was in Connecticut.
Startups are always difficult. You’ve got great ideas but you don’t have the money to finance it. Aside from finances, I think one of biggest challenges was technical know-how because leather is not as easy as sewing a blouse. You need to fit it out on the edges so you can fold it. You need to use the right glue, the right thread, the right machines.
Because during the time we started, there wasn’t anything else. It was either the cheap stuff from the cheap factories or you had to go to Rustan’s and buy Gucci. But at the same time, there’s also a lot of competition that came in.
Before, everybody knew who Fino was. Now…who?! Especially the millennials. In the past, everybody knew who Fino was. If I stayed in Rockwell in a café, I’d see maybe at least 20 people walk by with my bag on their shoulders. But now the competition’s basically killing everybody.
We were never really heavy into advertising. But now we’re obviously trying to get our head above the water, above the sea of competition. We’re getting very influential designers to collaborate with us, and we’re also doing a lot of high-profile events. We aim to be newsworthy. Because if you’re not doing something very different, no one’s gonna write about you.
A few weeks ago, we were in CCP for Ballet Philippines, and we made a special collection with Rizal on it. Then 2 weeks back, we were in the Manila Fashion Festival where we launched the Vinta Collection—you know those colorful boats in Mindanao?
Because everybody seems to be doing the same solid-colored bag, we’re trying to deviate. It’s obviously not gonna pay the rent, that’s for sure. It’s also not gonna pay my salary. But it’s something to write about. It makes you a bit newsworthy, and it shows people that you can flex your muscles if you want to—that you’re flexible.
What I do is I don’t practice [ophthalmology] every day. I practice every other day—do the surgeries on the off days, and then I’ll see my patients on the following day. Then the following day I’m off. That’s the way it works for me.
And on the off days, I’m able to do the things that I want to do. So if today I don’t feel like I need to go to the factory, I don’t have to. Or I’ll call my pattern-makers and we’ll meet here.
I think being an entrepreneur is different in the sense you’re only basically answerable to yourself. If it fails, then it’s on you. But if you’re a patient and I’m responsible for you. There’s a big sense of responsibility.
As an entrepreneur—let’s face it—not everything you draw, design, manufacture, make and put in the stores will fly off the shelves. There will always be designs that are sellers, and there are others that will sit on the shelves forever. That’s a loss.
I can’t do that to you if you’re a patient.
Every time I enter Security Bank in Medical City, I never line up.
I opened an account in Security Bank when the new hospital opened. That was almost 10 years ago. My experience with the bank has been pleasant.
Every time I enter Security Bank in Medical City, I never line up. [The Branch Manager] will always call me, then I’d go sit in her booth. She’ll then ask, “What’s your transaction for today, Doc? A deposit? Let me handle it.” If she’s is not around, somebody will always stand up to take it off my hands. It’s come to that point. I’m happy, I can’t complain.
I went to another bank in Medical City once, and man, they couldn’t even find my account. They were pretty mean about it too.
What’s next for me? I’d like to rest [laughs]. You know I go to a priest on a regular basis. He’s always telling me to slow down so I’ll probably slow down a bit. Right now I feel like I don’t want to move—I just wanna rest for now. And rest is good, you know. When you’re sitting around, people-watching, ideas start to come out. Before you know it, you’re reaching for a piece of paper…. And that’s when the creative process starts, all over again.
The best way to describe it is that it’s a moment—it just comes to you. I’m fortunate enough that it comes to me, and that it seems to appeal to other people. Maybe that’s why they buy my stuff. I’m just fortunate that way, that people seem to like what I like, and that this is financially rewarding as well.
I think the problem with startups is universal. Every startup has some sort of sound idea going for it. Whether it will take off or not is another thing. The universal problem with startups is finance. My advice is to be proactive in finding an institution who will listen and be sympathetic to your idea.
If you have a personal relationship with the bank, with your loan officers, it makes things a lot easier.
My advice for them is to work closely with the bank because the banks can truly, truly help you. Other people are afraid of loaning money. I mean let’s face it, without finances you can’t indulge in the other things that you want to do, right? So if you want to have that freedom, you need the cash.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photography by Sean Kevin Joya