by: Junjie Echevarria

Her name literally means "Morning Star". But her neighbors and the other townspeople have always called her Inang Tala or Mother Star. It's an apt name for a woman who, upon first meeting her, strikes you as simple and motherly.

She is Mrs. Sinagtala Acupan, proprietress of Alfredo Woodcrafts, a business which produces papier mâché products. Unlike her peers in the industry, Inang Tala is not an exporter but she supplies exporters and local outlets like Rustan's in Manila.

But on that morning we rode into her driveway in Paete, she was not all business. In fact, she seemed more like a proud Paeteña and a knowledgeable guide who was willing to take us on a tour of the area and introduce us to the town's mastercarvers and apprentices.

Being the businessman in our group, I couldn't help but inquire about her business. It started out as small talk - "How's business?" - and with each answer, I asked more questions, increasingly probing for details. "Where do you get your supplies? How about labor problems?" Her answers gave me the distinct feeling that I was having a mini-MBA refresher course on how run a business correctly.

Newspaper publishers are her reliable and cheap supply of clean,  unused, unsold newspaper. For her other necessary materials, she would take a three-hour drive to Manila's Divisoria district for bargain buys on textiles and other notions. During our conversation, Inang Tala admitted she would rather prefer having lower mark-ups on her products to get volume orders. There are very few labor problems, if you could call it that.

Workers' morale are always kept up by her constant and lavish praise. Should there be any problem, Inang is always genuinely concerned and she never fails to offer help if she can. But it's never a one-sided deal. For as long as they work hard and do their tasks well, Inang promises them a decent living. It was quite clear to us that she's extremely proud of her people and the products they create. "Nobody leaves my place without buying anything.

"They always find something they want to bring home. And they usually come back for more," Inang declared, beaming. She works hard at ensuring product quality, lowering costs, and meeting schedules. Creativity and a treasure trove of fresh ideas help her come up with samples for new products. This, in turn, feeds her next season's orders.

With such a business philosophy and practice, it's no small wonder her business grew even in a time of economic crisis. While other similar businesses encounter the problem of not having enough work, her problem is finding ways and means to keep up with the demand.

Despite her success, she still reminisces her life before her business grew in size and volume. Inang confessed that before, she didn't have to worry about her workers'   salaries, or about dealing with the government.

"Life was much simpler then,"  she said wistfully. Yet the look in her eyes told me that, along with her pride in her work and her concern for her workers, she probably wouldn't have it any other way now.

With the logging ban, I ventured that the whole town must have been hard hit. "Do you have problems with wood supply?" I asked. Inang replied, "We do, but we've adapted." She went on to explain that some artisans and carvers have shifted to papier mâché. However, they still use wood for their master molds. For larger molds or when wood is unavailable, they use
styrofoam instead. Other carvers have shifted to producing resin-based figurines and there are other who have applied their skills to ice-carving. Inang adds, "Many Paete carvers are now working abroad, mainly as ice carvers in posh hotels."

Certainly, the people of Paete are proficient at their art and proud of their handicrafts. Rightly so. They are also adaptable and very  hardworking. And if more of them are like Inang Tala, they certainly do know their business.