A sweeter world with ingredients from Ferna

A sweeter world
By Walter Ang
September-October 2009 issue
Asian Dragon Magazine

Walter Ang goes to Navotas to find out more about a little-known outfit which has, in a big way, helped create
A sweeter world

There was a time when flavored shakes were the rage in Manila. The flavors, colors, and variations seemed endless. Flavors ranged from the usual chocolate and vanilla to more Pinoy flavors like buko pandan and ube macapuno. What most people didn't know was that the key flavoring ingredient that almost everyone used to make the concoctions was manufactured by a little company called Ferna Corporation.

"We actually set the standard for the powdered flavorings for shakes here in the country," says Ferna president Giovanni "Vanni" Co with pride. While the shake mania has ebbed, Ferna is still around. It's an institution and brand known to bakers and chefs since it has been importing and manufacturing food and baking ingredients since 1996.

With just a little more than a hundred employees in a factory in Navotas City, Ferna was actually spun off from its older sister company, Purechem Corporation. Founded in the early 70s by Vanni's father Fernando, Purechem's humble beginnings were in the family living room.

"It was the typical Chinese entrepreneurial effort. Our living room was the office and we had some equipment in the backyard," says Vanni. "Our father entertained clients at home and our mother, Ester, ran the admin matters while taking care of the kids. She would go out to check on the equipment one minute and oversee the cooking in the kitchen the next. My four siblings and I were squeezed into one bedroom. "

Growing up in such a milieu gave Vanni an appreciation of the sacrifices made by his parents. "We saw how hard it was to run a business," he says. Even though Vanni wanted to take electronics communications engineering in college, his father prevailed upon him to take up chemical engineering instead.

In the end, Vanni took up commerce major in marketing in San Beda College. Though he may not have gone in the same academic footsteps as his father, Vanni's choice proved to be useful for the family business in the long run.

Purchem had dealt mostly in trading with other companies. In 1996, it was decided that Ferna was to be born to cater to mid-level businesses like commissaries, bakeries, restaurants, hotels and, yes, the everyday consumer. The non-professional home cooks and bakers will certainly be familiar with the Ferna brand and its products like seasonings, spices, gelatine, food colors, and liquid flavorings.

"The flavorings are used for a host of foods like yema, cream fillings, frozen desserts, cakes, breads, and cookies," Vanni says. "Aside from the typical almond, banana, and strawberry flavors, we also have tropical fruit flavors like pineapple, melon, sweet corn, and watermelon. We also have native flavors like pandan, ube, langka, and even durian."

Aside from the usual baking ingredients like yeast, baking powder, baking soda, and corn syrup, Ferna also has siopao and donut premixes. It distributes the Franklin Baker line of coconut products that come in flaked, toasted and desiccated variants. "Coconut is rich in healthy medium-chain triglycerides and it has one of the highest fiber content among all plant foods," Co says.

Ferna is also the exclusive licensed manufacturer of Nutrasweet in the country. "One of the ingredients of Nutrasweet is aspartame, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar. But Nutrasweet Tabletop Sweetener is formulated in a way where one packet is equivalent to two tablespoons of sugar. It is a good sugar substitute for people who are conscious of their weight because it has no calories," Co says.

For food service industry clients, Ferna has its Nova line. "The Nova soft serve ice cream mix uses only vegetable fat instead of dairy, resulting in less than 2% fat. It also contains inulin, a prebiotic fiber. The Nova whipping cream powder is gluten-free and complies with Halal requirements," Vanni says.

Ferna remains a family enterprise until today. Vanni's wife Thefania handles finances, and his siblings have at one time or another been involved in the business. It is the patriarch Fernando's guiding principles that the company stands by. "We make sure that all the ingredients we make are 100% food grade. He always reminds us that we are creating products for other people to eat. It is a very big responsibility," Vanni says.

Vanni is proud of the fact that Ferna's factory consistently passes the audits performed by their multinational clients. "We have to always be very careful to uphold the utmost quality. There are no compromises. We want to make sure that people view Ferna as a reliable, long-term partner," he says.

The sense of partnership extends to not just creating food products and selling them, but also providing people with a way to earn their own living. "We invested a lot of time and effort establishing a network of clients in the provinces. We support them by doing regular demonstrations using our products so they can find out the latest trends in baking or cooking since some of them may not have the resources to come to Manila for further training," Vanni says.

Vanni makes it a point to go abroad every year to see what is going on in the food ingredients industry. "We want to make sure we are on top of new developments," he says. Vanni has taken his father's advice to heart, never resting on current laurels. "We can't consider ourselves successful because there is still a lot to do and a long way to go for Ferna."