Michelle Ongpin Callaghan: Woman On Top

By Shauna Popple Williams

Striking the work-life balance has never looked so easy. Michelle Ongpin Callaghan shows us how it’s done

Tatler Asia

Michelle Ongpin Callaghan is a study in contrasts. On the surface—yes, she’s beautiful—she paints a picture of calm collected serenity. Though, with all she has on her plate these days (we’re talking buffet here, not à la carte), she somehow breezes through her professional existence with such quiet poise and such a strong sense of organic self-transcendence. Essentially, Michelle has it pulled together.

For starters, the Ongpins opened a second branch of the Aegle Wellness Centre (for which she is a consultant for their skin care products) at The City Club at Alphaland Makati two years ago. The original branch of Aegle at the Balesin Island Club, with its state-of-the-art medical equipment and facilities as well as up-to-the-minute diagnostics and procedures, was in fact nominated Medi-Spa of the Year in the 2017 AsiaSpa Awards. She also founded feel good food café, Moxy, where locally-sourced, organic eats are the yummy health pitch.

Outside of her work realm, the holistic health and wellness advocate rolls her sleeves up for two initiatives, one that tackles education, the other, women’s health.

Funnily, another dichotomous aspect of her reality is that while she leads such a “pristine” albeit wholesome lifestyle, Michelle was recently appointed of president of her family’s established cigar brand, Tabacalera.

How the young go-getter pummels through, one can only imagine. Meet this multi-hyphenate Jack of all trades and find out how she juggles it all.


Generation T: Describe yourself in 5 words.

Michelle Ongpin Callaghan: Stubborn, optimistic, lucky, confident, halfie

GT: What’s the first thing you do in the morning? 

MOC: I used to be the opposite of a morning person, but I have actually started enjoying those early hours to myself. After I wake up, I have a glass of water with some apple cider vinegar or lemon, then I do a 30-minute workout, shower, and afterwards I have a green smoothie. Only after that do I start looking at e-mails. It’s a nice way to ease into my work day.

GT: What’s a typical day like for you?

MOC: My days vary quite a bit, depending on which business currently needs the most attention. At the moment, that’s definitely Tabacalera. But on any given day I could do purchasing for Moxy, heading out to the cigar factory, reading reports on the JVO scholars (I also head the JVO Foundation). A foundation, which puts 200 hundred scholars through the Ateneo high school in seven different high schools all over the Philippines), or setting up meetings for a NGO, Roots of Health (ROH), I recently joined the advisory committee of. ROH is a brilliant women’s health organisation in Palawan and I feel very honoured to be able to contribute to their cause.

I thrive on variety and enjoy that no two days are the same. I am very fortunate that my office, Moxy, and that most of my meetings are in the building where I live, so I hardly ever have to deal with traffic. My commute is an elevator ride. I usually eat lunch at home. Frank [Callaghan, her husband] and I love to cook, so we also often have dinner at home.

GT: Aegle Wellness Centre of Balesin Island Club was nominated by the 2017 AsiaSpa Awards as Medi-Spa of the Year. What’s next?

MOC: I am excited to see where Aegle will go next. I am a true believer in their philosophy of preventive medicine and I think wellness clinics such as Aegle can really help transform people’s health.

GT: What Aegle treatment(s) or product(s) do you swear by? 

MOC: I absolutely love the Odacite facial. It’s a one-hour treatment, with all natural ingredients and finishes off with a wonderful lymphatic drainage massage with Odacité oils. Staples on my bathroom shelf are the Goldfaden MD face scrub, the CBeauty Glow face oil, and, most importantly, the Rose and Acai serum from Odacite (it truly gives you an instant glow and just smells heavenly).

GT: You were recently appointed as the president of Tabacalera. Tell us more about this exciting development? Why get involved in the cigar industry now?

MOC: My family has owned Tabacalera since the ‘90s. I have always loved the brand and have been taking an active interest in it over the years. I was actually looking for a president for Tabacalera when the position was offered to me. It never occurred to me to work in the cigar industry but now that I do, I am loving it. It is certainly a challenge and a steep learning curve, but it is also fascinating. I am particularly taken with the long history of the brand. Tabacalera has been producing handmade cigars since 1881 and was at one point one of the largest companies in the country. We started sugar farming in Negros, inter island shipping and were even producing rum!

GT: What is it about cigars that attracted you to the role? As president, what is your scope?

MOC: Cigars are carefully crafted, handmade masterpieces that have the complexity of a fine liquor. They are created by a master blender, just like a cognac would be. The leaves are aged to create the ideal flavour and nicotine content. A cigar is just that, the years of experience of the master blender, the aged leaf and the skill and dedication of the cigar rollers. I find this combination of knowledge, skill and patience absolutely fascinating.

As President, I would never dream of changing our excellent product, what we are doing right now is overhauling our processes. We are also looking to export Tabacalera to more countries and make the local market more aware of this homegrown, handcrafted product. 

GT: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learnt about the cigar industry?

MOC: It’s hard to choose one thing, but I guess it is the care and knowledge that goes into every single cigar. We age our leaf for a minimum of one to three years, with some of the leaf having been aged for up to 26 years.  Our master blender is a lady who has been with Tabacalera for 40 years.  She trains every single person who rolls our cigars. It’s a privilege to work with and learn from people like her. 

GT: You also opened a café-cum-delivery service for the health-conscious called Moxy. How did this concept come to be?

MOC: I started being quite passionate about organic food when Frank and I lived in London.  We would get an organic, locally-sourced veggie box delivered to our doorstep once a week and we had to figure out how to cook it all. We became more in tune with the food we were eating and we definitely felt better. We brought this lifestyle with us when we moved back to the Philippines, but it was much harder to find healthy eating options in Manila. So, when the opportunity came up to open a small restaurant in the Alphaland Makati Place mall, I was keen to bring our kind of feel-good food to more people. At the same time, a good friend of mine, Rica Cacho, was moving back to the Philippines to get married. She liked the idea and we became business partners. Rica designed our super cosy café and is now in charge of day to day operations. She had the idea of doing a similar concept to Leon in London, where you can get healthy, fast food take outs. And this is how Moxy was born, a mostly organic, healthy quick serve restaurant that targets the office lunch crowd. 

GT: What’s your favourite thing to order off the Moxy menu?

MOC: The Vietnamese noodle salad. Super refreshing. 

GT: Between cigars, consulting for a wellness spa and running a café that specialises in healthy food, how do you, in your mind connect the “at odd” dots? 

MOC: I am passionate about all three, so for me, it’s like I am getting paid for my hobby.  None of them really feel like work. But in general, I am a cause driven, business minded—and, to some degree—creative person. As long as I can connect those three aspects in a role, I am happy.

GT: Favourite vacation spot and why? 

MOC: At the moment that would probably be Japan. I just love the food and culture. But I love to travel so it could be that I have a new favourite spot soon.  

GT: Last lesson you learnt?

MOC: A few grey hairs are not the end of the world. 

GT: Which show would you love to guest star in?

MOC: Chef’s Table! Could I just eat please? I love this show.

GT: What’s the last book you’ve read? 

MOC: The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak.

GT: If you weren’t into the industries you are in now, what would you be doing?

MOC: When I chose my courses at university and later at the Diplomatic Academy, I either wanted to work for a NGO, the UN or become a journalist. Life had different plans and honestly, I think I would be happy doing a lot of things, as long as there is variety and I feel I can make a difference, however small. 

GT: What are your tips for multi-tasking and staying on top of it all without getting overwhelmed?

MOC: I write to-do lists in my notebook—it is so satisfying to tick off a completed task. The tasks I don’t really enjoy doing, I break up into little bite-sized pieces, so they don’t seem that long or big. I always end up doing most of it in one go anyway, but it feels like I don’t have to, which makes it easier.

I also meditate regularly and although I am a sociable person, I need a lot of alone time to recharge. Eating well and regular exercise is also a big part of staying balanced for me.

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