Atty. Jesus “Bong” Suntay wears two important hats
— an entrepreneur and a public servant.

He is the founder and chief executive officer of Clean Fuel, the leading brand for alternative fuel in the Philippines. Many years earlier, as a freshman law student in San Beda, he founded Basic Taxi by initially operating five second-hand units, which eventually increased to 1,200. At its height, it was one of the largest public transportation operators in Metro Manila. 

He served as House Representative of the Quezon City Fourth District, concurrently Deputy Majority Leader, and today remains active in various social development undertakings, especially community health and medical services. But between these two significant roles, he is foremost a family man, for which he now admits he has more time. Just recently, he traveled with his wife Shiela (nee Guevarra) and their children to Japan where he explored the countryside on his bike.

How a privileged young man, who could have chosen an easy path in life, had instead chosen to earn his keep as a law student is an inspiring story that bears telling as he counts down to his birth anniversary this coming 14 November.     

His success story is one of a young man who needed to earn his own money because his father, who was willing to give him his tuition fee to law school, told him to take care of his daily expenses. 

“I had just graduated from college in De La Salle University and was in my freshman law at San Beda,” Bong shared in an interview with the DAILY TRIBUNE in his beautiful home in Quezon City.

“My father, an executive at A. Soriano Corporation, was a strict disciplinarian. He would always tell me that his obligation and responsibility to me ended after I graduated from college. So, it was his way of telling me to ‘find a job because you cannot depend on me anymore.’ I told him I wanted to pursue law school. And he said, ‘I will pay for your tuition fee but you take care of your own allowance.” 

From five to 40 units

Only 20 years old then, he talked to his mother who belonged to the Cabochan family, who owned the El Oro Engravers. “She asked me what business I wanted to engage in and since I was always interested in cars, I chose to operate taxis because then, I thought that would be easy. I just had to send them off to work in the morning and then collect the earnings at the end of the day. I thought it was that simple.”

But as he soon found out, “I had to deal with drivers and with the maintenance of the cars since these would break down now and then, especially because they were second-hand units.”

It was 1989. “Slowly, the business grew,” he shared. “I would keep adding to the units. One day, my girlfriend, who eventually became my wife, told me that her dad, Domingo “Boy” Guevarra Jr., who operated metered taxis at the airport, was disposing units since the company’s exclusive contract had been awarded to another company. Her father decided to sell their units. Their family divided the units among themselves while I decided to buy some. I ended up having 40 units and there was no stopping its growth from there. In time, I became the president of the Taxi Operators Association.”

Those were challenging times as the fuel prices kept going up. “It wasn’t possible to keep petitioning for fare increase or we would have priced ourselves out of the market.

Discovering LPG conversion kits in Italy

“That was when I started thinking of alternative means for our taxi drivers to earn more money despite the high cost of fuel. In one of my travels, I came upon Tartarini, a factory in Italy that manufactured Auto LPG conversion kits. These allowed ordinary vehicles running on gasoline to be converted so it could run using LPG or Liquified Petroleum Gas.”

Bong ordered five conversion kits and, with the help of an engineer friend, “we installed them and we were able to run those five units. This was in 2004.”

Thinking fast and smartly, he wrote to Tartarini Italy and asked to be appointed as the exclusive distributor of their conversion kits in the Philippines. “My intention was to sell it in my company. They said yes. They didn’t even know there was a market in the Philippines. They were more than happy to give me the distributorship. So, I started importing the kits. I started converting our vehicles.”

He then went to Shell which willingly installed the facility in Bong’s garage. “Since auto-LPG is 40 percent as cheap as the regular gasoline, our drivers were happy to earn more and I was happy that they were earning more. Soon, other operators wanted to convert so I started selling to them also. It reached that point when 92 percent of all taxis in Philippines was running using Auto-LPG.”

He explained, “Shell and Petron were willing to install conversion kits for big fleet operators. It was okay since we had a fleet of 50 and above. Because it allowed them to recoup the cost of investing in the loading facility. But when I had serviced all the big operators, and the only remaining market were the small ones, that was when I put up Clean Fuel. It’s called Clean Fuel because Auto LPG is cleaner than the regular gasoline. That is why the exhaust emits less carbon monoxide. It is environment-friendly.”

First station in New Manila

Bong established his first station in New Manila, Brgy. Mariana on E. Rodriguez corner Campanilla Street. He followed it with another in Congressional Avenue in front of S&R.

“We became very successful. We practically had the monopoly since there weren’t many outlets that retailed Auto LPG. And we converted a lot of taxis and they came to us for their supply.

“But in time, we had been able to saturate Metro Manila where we are still fast growing. We have also expanded to Baguio. Then, we decided to expand our line. We decided to sell diesel and gasoline, too.  We then became a full-service station, which was timely because Uber and Grab started operating which meant that the owners targeted taxi drivers who, thankfully, had already been used to loading with us. These are the drivers that we cater to right now. We have airconditioned drivers’ lounges where they could sleep. They have access to clean bathrooms and comfort rooms too. As a result, we have achieved brand recognition.”

As of press time, Cleanfuel had established branches in the Caraga regions, Ilocos and Cagayan Valley.   

Bong has prepared for expansion by land banking because “we prefer to build on properties that we own.”

Assisting Bong in the management of the company are his business partner Ralph Atienza, the vice president who handles operations. A son of another partner, Saymour Go, is also active in the company’s management.

Serving his constituents nonstop

Through it all, Bong took time to serve his country. He was a House Representative of Quezon City. He did not make it in the last election, but he continues to serve his constituents as he engages in social development efforts especially health and medical missions and livelihood. Just recently, he welcomed to his district and assisted in Senator Bong Go’s TUPAD program in the distribution of community-based package of assistance designed to provide emergency employment for displaced workers, underemployed and seasonal laborers.

As part of the Clean Fuel social responsibility program, Bong, at the time of the interview, was at the top of preparations for a visit to cancer patients.

“It’s all part of my day. I try to fit in as much time for my family, my constituents and Cleanfuel, and I am happy that all is well.” His break from politics has brought him blessings, like having more time with his family — wife Sheila and children Nikki, Chloe, Jaime and Zara — while Clean Fuel continues to expand to the rest of the country.

The freshman law student who had to find a way to earn his allowance has since achieved success in helping Filipino drivers earn more for their families. Bong feels blessed he contributes to the well-being of the Filipino.

“There’s more food on the table for the family when fuel is cheaper,” he says with a smile, pleased that he has made a difference in his own special way.