SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR
Only a handful of pioneer businesses that assisted in the development of the islands has lasted for years and one of that is the Maganda “Utang” shop, earning for itself the honor as this year’s Saipan Tribune Small Business of the Year.
The Maganda “Utang” shop in central Garapan was first established back in 1992 and has survived the vicissitudes of the CNMI economy for over two decades.
The small shop offers bedsheets, curtains, pillows, blankets, comforters, and futons that are both affordable and durable.
Moon Haeng Lee, 76, has spent over 26 years of his life on Saipan. His arrival back in 1991 brought the first authentic Korean beddings to the island of Saipan.
Lee takes pride in the quality of the materials used for his bedding products. He said those who buy from his shop have testified that the materials that they bought have lasted over 10 years.
“I bring products that are very good material. If they [customers] buy, they say ‘oh Papasang (the honorific for a person of Asian descent) I buy from you 10 years ago and I’m still using it,’” said Lee.
According to Lee, he had no entrepreneurial background upon arriving on Saipan. He came here solely as a referee and coach for the hotel basketball leagues.
During his stay in the Philippines as a referee, one of the most popular descriptive words he would hear was maganda or beautiful and it just stuck with him.
Maganda “Utang” got started when Lee saw that there wasn’t any store on Saipan that specifically sold beddings.
“I was thinking about what I could make my business. I was looking and there was nothing doing like this business,” said Lee.
Because Lee was also providing Korean-made uniforms for the basketball teams he coached, he decided to bring in beddings and that was the start of Maganda “Utang.”
Maganda “Utang” has been in business for 25 years now and, according to Lee, the reason his business has stood for so long is because of the friendship he created with both his customers and employees.
“That’s why most of Saipan’s people know me; they know Maganda ‘Utang,’” he said.
Lee’s strategy is to allow his customers to buy items from his shop on loan (hence the term “utang,” the Tagalog word for loan) and then set up a payment plan. This creates a relationship between Lee and his customers, and, most importantly, they always come back. “They [customers] have very good credit with me; they always pay,” said Lee.
Today, Lee said that business isn’t as it used to be; business has slowed down significantly for Maganda “Utang.”
“Now it’s slow, not like before. Business went down about 20 percent or almost 30 percent,” said Lee.
Another secret to the longevity of Maganda “Utang” is that the shop isn’t limited to just one ethnic group. Lee said he ensures that he establishes the same customer relationships with Filipino customers, Chamorro customers, Carolinian customers, Japanese customers, Chinese customers, etc.
Lee’s advice to all aspiring entrepreneurs is to make sure that the products they are selling are of good quality, be as kind as they possibly can, and be patient while thoroughly explaining why their products are worth buying.
“You must have good quality, you must be very kind, and explain well,” he said.
Lee said Maganda “Utang” is only exclusive to Saipan because he wanted only to establish a business that could provide him with a comfortable life and he is most comfortable on the island.
“I continue to do this to make enough only for a life I can enjoy and on Saipan, I really enjoy,” he said.