As far as Brian Cu can remember, he has always been a good student. He rarely had any time for extra curricular activities, save for a few duties as class officer during his years at Xavier School in San Juan. That kind of discipline and focus remains a quality of his leadership as president of Grab Philippines.
He must have acquired some of his business acumen from his parents who ran their own company. He was shown, early on, how an idea can change lives. “I’ve always had the desire to be an entrepreneur, but never a leader. I never really imagined myself to be leading something this big,” he says of his current position as one of the co-founders of the transport services application.
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While he was already exposed to his family’s small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with around 20-30 employees under their stable, being a regular employee at some of the biggest companies in the region gave him a different perspective on business. After graduating at the Ateneo de Manila University, with a degree in Management Engineering, Brian studied finance at the National University of Singapore. It was in Singapore where he acquired a wider perspective.
Once, as a consultant, he was exposed to a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, where they taught high school students basic financial terms and strategies. The training allowed the students to learn how to implement their own ideas and pitch them to investors. What he didn’t know at the time was that his experience in the corporate world would help prepare him to lead one of the most socially relevant start-ups in the Philippines.
For the Drivers
Brian has been in the digital space long enough to know how it can solve problems. When he helped start Grab with his business partner Anthony Tan, co-founder of My Teksi, a ride hailing application in Malaysia, he had already co-founded another transportation application called Go-Jek in Indonesia. He had also co-founded the online shopping application, Zalora.
When he met Anthony, “the stars aligned,” Brian says. “I believed in what I believed in: the good that Grab can do.” Brian’s big vision was to help solve the biggest problems in the Philippines, and transportation was on the top of his list—or on most Filipinos’ list. But he turned his gaze at what he calls the “marginalized” side of the spectrum: the drivers.
Before Grab was officially launched in the Philippines in August 2013, Brian engaged with the taxi drivers themselves. He would go around Metro Manila and take photos of taxi doors, where phone numbers and addresses of the taxi owners or operators were painted. Many drivers would end their work shift at around 4 a.m., the same time they would park the cars in their designated garage. Around this time, Brian would drop by and and talk to the drivers. He would convince them of the relevance of Grab to their livelihood. He would also talk to the operators, and ask if they wished to collaborate, so the drivers could earn more money.
Through his conversations with the drivers, Brian found out that their personal safety was a common concern. Drivers are exposed to higher risks. Whereas passengers interact with taxi drivers once or twice a day, drivers need to interact with as many as 20 to 30 passengers every day. The drivers shared with him stories of getting mugged, of spending more money for car wash services (when a passenger makes a mess, or vomits inside the vehicle, for instance), of getting harassed.
“Passengers will always be heard, and they should be heard because they are paying for service,” Brian clarifies. “But what a lot of people don’t see is the other side. Don’t get me wrong, there are drivers that really need to be taken out of the system. But there are good ones out there. Throughout the life of Grab, since month one, drivers have always been at the center, when we think about features, when we think about roll-outs or about initiatives.”
Grab’s food delivery service, Grab Food, for instance, was a way to fill the income gap of Grab Express (delivery service) riders. When the riders are not moving packages all over the metro, they can still make money by delivering food to the Grab users.
Brian proudly says their drivers earn 35 percent more than the average employee, and their top drivers can earn twice as much as the minimum wage. This, Brian says, is partly due to the fare range of their products. “We’re a service,” Brian explains. “On the other side of that service are human beings, who need to make an income.”
But they do try to be considerate to the passengers by creating other services, such as Grab Share (ride-sharing), which is cheaper than the Grab Car (one car per user) service. The company also launched GrabTrike in Pampanga and Bataan. In November 2018, they launched the GrabTrike Premium in Pangasinan. The vehicles were made in partnership with the local government units (LGUs) and AutoItalia Philippines, the local distributor of the modern tricycle, Piaggio Ape. The drivers can also own their vehicles through microfinance.
“Technology is malleable,” Brian says about using technology for social good. “Technology in itself is not inherently good or evil. It’s up to you how make use it. For us, it was less about the technology, but more about the idea of being able to provide safe rides to passengers, who can pay, and a better livelihood to drivers who needed it. Technology just happened to be the means to allow that. But if I could do it without technology, it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t do it.”
Grab for Good
It’s not enough to give drivers a fair share in the employment market, Brian says—not if they want to sustain their livelihood. In addition to giving the drivers an opportunity to earn better, Grab has also designed training programs for their partners. It’s a win-win situation: the company gets better drivers, and the drivers get to have a better future.
The Grab Academy is a training program for drivers, which includes lessons in road safety, first aid, defensive driving, grooming, family planning, etc. It has extended to the wives of the drivers, through another program called Misiskolar, which teaches financial literacy, crafts making, perfume making, to name a few.
Grab is also invested in the youth, and they have partnered with universities to train what they call “tech talents.” Through the partnerships, the students will get to hone their skills and will be exposed to tech companies, so that in the near future they could build their own start-ups.
After almost six years in the country, Grab’s pursuits and attempts are proof they are ready for a bigger ecosystem. They’ve somehow cracked the transportation end of the country’s woes, now they’re on to the next “problem."
Last year, they had a minor rebrand, Brian shares. “Instead of just an everyday transport app, we are now an everyday super app.”
Grab Wheels, or an e-scooter service, was launched at the Bonifacio Global City complex in Taguig City, in March 2019. It’s part of the company's quest to be kinder to the environment, solve congestion, and reduce pollution. Grab also partnered with small sari-sari stores and the pervasive Jolli-jeeps so customers can now order food from these SMEs through Grab Food. GrabPay, a payments service, can now be used to pay for other products outside of transportation, such as cinema tickets, grocery stores, etc.
“It wasn’t all smooth-sailing,” Brian admits. “Every stage of growth is crucial. Sometimes you plateau. You forget the small things. We were so involved with the operations that there was a constant reminder of who we were serving.” He and his partners have also learned how to deal with the barrage of issues, such as the recurring regulation concerns. The bigger their growth, the faster they have to adapt. Now, regulation issues are part of their strategy, instead of something they just solve and let go.
"We were so involved with the operations that there was a constant reminder of who we were serving."
“We’re on a constant level of stress,” Brian laughs. “I don’t have a problem sleeping when there are regulatory issues kasi alam naman naming we didn’t do anything wrong. I have more problem sleeping if I see that the drivers’ incomes are coming down, or if there’s a passenger that got hurt.”
Brian, a father of two girls—and there’s one more girl on the way—has learned through all these experiences that keeping a sense of balance is of utmost importance. Balance is necessary for sustainability. All sides must be covered, at all times.
He applies this notion in his personal life, too. When he’s not innovating, he spends time with his family or he plays golf. He also prioritizes his health: “Work should not get in the way of health. If you’re not healthy, you won’t be able to work.”
Today, one in every six Filipinos, has a Grab application on his or her phone. Suffice to say, the company is growing every day, just like Brian is getting better and learning more on the job.
“I’m still trying to learn," he says. "And I’m and still trying to figure out for myself what type of leader I am. There are ideas of what I want to be. I feel like I’m still a work in progress. And I’m just fortunate enough to have such a great team that can support the company.”