In 2021, Universal Robina Corporation celebrated its 65th anniversary. Beloved by many generations of Filipinos, the branded food and beverage company’s diverse lineup of products can be found in nine out of 10 Philippine households today.
Behind the company’s many years of success, of course, are its people. In this profile, we look at two exceptional research and development specialists who had a hand in bringing many of our favorite URC snacks, candies, noodles, bakery products, and more, to store shelves across the country and into our homes.
Olivia “Levie” Rivera and Maria Jesilita “Jute” Baluyut, members of URC’s Global Innovations team, both began their careers back in the 1980s – an incredible run spanning five different decades. Levie, who holds the title of Group Manager for Special Projects, came on board in 1982, while Jute, now a full-time Agile coach, joined in 1987. Both share a chemical engineering background, with Levie graduating from UP Diliman, while Jute came from the Mapua Institute of Technology.
Levie Rivera, URC Global Innovations group manager for special projects, is now on her 39th year at URC and still going strong.
Surprisingly, Levie and Jute candidly reveal that they didn’t know much about the company when they first joined. “I was familiar with products like Jack 'n Jill Chiz Curls and Chippy back then, but I didn’t know it was URC who made them,” says Levie with a laugh.
Asked to name a few of their favorites these days, they both answer in an instant. Going first, Levie enthusiastically says, “Presto Creams Peanut Butter! I like it because it’s very simple, it’s peanut based with some sugar, not even milk, and there is no added fat in the cream filling. And since it was launched, I always get C2 Plus Immuno-C, because it has Vitamin C and Zinc. For snacks, I love Vcut! I always have that in my grocery cart.”
Jute offers, “When I came in, I liked Chippy, but right now my favorites are the Chicharron ni Mang Juan, the Calbee Potato Chips Nori Flavor, and Piattos Sour Cream.” She adds, “In almost all categories, I have a favorite: from the Bakery division, there is the Jack 'n Jill Chocolate Pretzels and Presto Creams Peanut Butter. From confectionery there is Chooey Choco Chewy Butterscotch Caramel, and in the noodles segment, Nissin Beef."
While they didn’t hesitate for a moment to name their favorites, they take more time when asked about how many products they helped develop since joining URC. “I think counting them all will take some time,” jokes Levie, while Jute responds, “Mahirap yata yung question na ’yan,” with a chuckle.
Instead, they offer to discuss a few of their projects that made a significant impact in the consumer market. As it turns out, Levie had a hand in launching the Payless noodles brand in the late 1980s. “URC already had Nissin, but it was being made in partnership with another company. So Payless was URC’s first successful locally developed brand,” says Levie.
According to her, the noodles were first marketed under a different name, but sales really took off following a change in branding. “The name Payless just clicked with the market. And ever since, Nissin and Payless have been among the market leaders.”
Levie also deserves credit for the success of MAXX Flavored Menthol Candy, which dislodged the long-time market leader not long after its launch in the mid-1990s. “We had another menthol candy before, which we developed into MAXX. We created different flavors, like cherry, honey lemon, and honey-mansi. That was my baby,” says Levie proudly.
Another product was memorable for her for a more personal reason. “We started the Piattos project in 1988 and launched it in late 1989. I remember it well because I was pregnant with my eldest when we were doing that,” shares Levie. She adds that Piattos was the first potato-based snack made locally using a special process that she prefers to keep under wraps. “It’s still kind of a secret,” she explains.
“There are similar products now in the market trying to match Piattos, but they’re not quite the same, so I don’t think they’ve perfected the process like we have,” adds Jute.
For her contributions to the URC portfolio, Jute mentions the development of Chicharron ni Mang Juan as having particular significance. “The company really took a big risk with that product. We had a strong competitor, and they were doing well in the market. But the driving force was [the late URC founder] Mr. John Gokongwei, he really pushed for this project. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Imagine, we didn’t have the machines at the time or the know-how to create this type of product, but it takes strong leaders to support a vision. It was a new base product, not just a flavor extension, and we launched within a year. The rest is history!”
For those who might not be familiar with Mang Juan, you might ask what’s so innovative about chicharron? The answer is that Mang Juan isn’t your typical deep-fried pork rind. In fact, it doesn’t have any pork in it at all, as it is made mostly from dehydrated green peas! How’s that for product innovation?
Jute also mentions Mang Juan Chick’n Skin as one of the popular snacks she helped create. “I don’t think anyone else has been able to match what we did. It’s also made with green peas, like our chicharron, but using a completely different process.”
Next on her list of top creations is URC’s Pic-A snack, which combined three favorites – Nova, Piattos, and Tostillas – in one package. The biggest challenge here was how to synergize the three snacks in terms of taste and process in order to sustain the integrity of the product throughout its shelf life, and then upscaling this from a small, manual-based production to mass production. “We were able to successfully automate the processes involved and it took off,” says Jute.
Of course, not all products created have been successful and some haven’t enjoyed long-lasting popularity, leading to their phasing out. Among them, Jute remembers a squid-flavored snack that garnered an extreme reaction from consumers, “Some really liked it, while others didn’t like it at all. But with failure, there is always a lesson to be learned,” she offers sagely.
AN AGILE MENTALITY
Jute transitioned from group manager of Snacks and Bakery Design to the role of Agile coach in August this year, so we were curious about how she perceives the implementation of this methodology at URC. “We’re still in the early stages of Agile in the company, but one of the main advantages I can see is that there is more of a dedicated focus for each project,” says Jute. “Before a project begins, you already have a team or squad assembled, and you know that you will have the resources to see it to completion.”
[A more detailed discussion of Agile in relation to R&D can be found here.]
Having been engaged in quality control, technical and process development, and R&D through the years, Jute knows how the desire to make things perfect in those departments may seemingly go against the objectives of Agile, where the emphasis is “looking at ways to make things fast,” in Jute’s own words. “In R&D, I think we have to guard now against our tendency to overanalyze things. I think we have the opportunity to review some of our protocols to make it more Agile, more adaptable to this kind of approach.
Luckily for Jute, it’s been encouraging to note that Krishna “Krish” Suri, URC Vice President for Innovations and Chief R&D Officer, is comfortable with making these changes. “It’s good that Krish is the one who reminds the R&D team that sometimes we’re not working in an Agile way. ‘You might already be able to test this,’ he tells us when we might be spending too much time trying to perfect a product.”
As the group manager of Special Projects, Levie has been mandated to build and direct the capabilities of the team to design new products and to foster a culture of consumer-centric product innovation.
If you were to listen to the desires of consumers these days, you might determine that they are now looking for healthier snacks and beverages, something that Levie is keenly aware of. “We have a criteria for wellness now. We are working to be better attuned to the times, to satisfy the desire of consumers for healthy snacks. In the RTD beverages segment, for example, we’re working to have zero or low-sugar products.”
For the snacks side, Levie continues to find ways to bring down saturated fat content, among other improvements towards health. She reminds us that despite this vigorous focus now to create healthier products, URC will never compromise on taste. “We always have to take into consideration the flavor of a product. No matter what, taste is the number one priority when it comes to the market acceptability of a product. Hindi basta healthy yung product, successful na yung product.”
Jute adds, “People will keep on munching. even if you say it’s not healthy, these snacks will always be around. On our end, as Levie said, we are doing our best to improve nutrient values. Part of URC’s R&D portfolio are people who work on technology solutions. They aren’t working to build a finished product, but on how to make products better, like how to make existing products have lower sodium, or contain less sugar.”
PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION
With their expertise in many aspects of production and operations, the two R&D veterans have been entrusted with interviewing potential candidates for hiring. “If a candidate is good enough for Jute and me, OK na!” jokes Levie.
Though having the technical skills and know-how is an obvious must-have for potential new hires, the two R&D veterans look for other intangibles that will ensure a candidate is a good fit in URC, such as mental toughness, being able to take constructive criticism, the ability to work under pressure, and having a good work ethic. “No matter how good you are on paper, if you cannot express your ideas well or defend them when questioned by your bosses, you might have a difficult time at URC,” advises Levie.
Thankfully, there have been quite a few talented and capable men and women who’ve managed to impress Levie and Jute, and are now part of the URC family.
Being an influence on the next generation of talents is another aspect of the job that gives Jute satisfaction. “Before, all I wanted to see is my products out in the market. But as I went up the ladder, I found fulfillment in other ways. The fulfilling part now is that the people who were formerly under me are now part of the leadership team of R&D. Seeing that I was a part of their development has been very fulfilling.”
For Levie, the secret to her 39-year (and counting) stint at URC is simple: “I love what I do! Apart from that, of course, are the people, especially the R&D folks. I know that I can always depend on them. We are like family in the Global Innovations team, and I believe that’s also true in other departments of URC.”
Staying true to its purpose to “delight everyone with good food choices,” URC has prospered for the past 65 years. With Levie and Jute continuing the company’s spirit of innovation, whether it’s through the creation of better and healthier products or by guiding the next generation of company leaders, URC can look forward to a brighter future in the days ahead, in the coming year and far beyond.