What do you think you bring to the table as the new chief of this nearly 200-year-old company?
I spent 19 years in a global investment bank; seven of those years as head or co-head of investment banking in Asia Pacific. I spent nine years as a partner in a New York-based alternative asset management firm, where I focused on private investing. Finally, I spent 13 years in a leading local commercial bank, eight of those as president and CEO. Investment banking is about financial deal-making to create value; private investing is about allocating capital for profit; and commercial banking is about risk management and big team leadership. I suppose I bring deal-making, capital allocation, risk management and leadership skills to my current job.
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I also have quite a bit of exposure to corporate governance at the board level. In the last 25 or so years I have served on numerous public company boards. I first joined the BPI board in 1995, 18 years before I became the bank’s CEO. Prior to my current job, I was already on the boards of Ayala Corporation, Globe Telecom, ACEN and BPI. Equally important, I have served as an independent board director of Jollibee Foods, First Gen Corporation, and CIMB Group Holdings, the second-largest bank in Malaysia. I was chairman of National Reinsurance Corporation. I still serve as chairman of the Philippine Dealing System, a role I assumed when I was president of the Bankers Association of the Philippines. My public company board experience is useful, since Ayala has several listed companies, each with its own set of shareholders.
I understand there are many different aspects of the job, not to mention many different units and subsidiaries within the Ayala Corporation conglomerate. But offhand, what were your immediate priorities as you stepped into this new role?
My first priority was to make sure that the momentum that the group had built up, with Fernando as CEO and Jaime as chairman, doesn’t slow down with my entry. Sometimes senior leadership changes in large companies can do that. Fortunately, Fernando had crafted a strategy that I thought made perfect sense. All I would have to do is tweak it at the margin. We are saving a lot of time not having to recraft strategy.
My second priority was people. Ayala has highly qualified, dedicated people, at all levels. I had to make sure that the organization didn’t reject me, that the best people had the most impactful jobs, and that I would add energy to the place, rather than take energy away. It’s early days, but so far, so good.
Finally, my third and ongoing priority is execution. While strategy is important, what often determines success is execution. Can our companies, teams and people execute with a cadence that creates sustainable value for our customers and shareholders? We can if we go to work with the mindset that asks, “How am I going to create collective value today?”, and then act on it, day after day. Execution is going to be a priority until the day I leave this job.
Tell us about your experiences in the various other roles within Ayala Corporation. Broadly, how would you describe working at AC?
I have been an investment banker to the group, ran one of its publicly listed operating companies, and have been a board director of several of its public companies. I helped take Ayala Land public in 1991; helped BPI acquire Citytrust and then Far East Bank in 1996 and 2000, respectively; and then sold J.P. Morgan’s shares in BPI to DBS in 2000. As an investment banker to the group, I realized that Ayala was very financially sophisticated and set for itself high expectations, both financially and strategically.
Later, when I became CEO of BPI, I realized just how serious Ayala was about “doing well by doing good.” It wasn’t enough to hit financial and strategic targets—the bank had to contribute to building a better Philippines. BPI’s massive investments in digitalization and the growth of its micro finance business are testimony to this mantra.
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And later yet, when I eventually joined the boards of the other group companies, I realized that BPI’s concern for all its shareholders ran true throughout the group. Minority shareholder concerns are always front and center. Ayala may sometimes make mistakes, but they are not going to be mistakes of principle. Much of my professional education has been by osmosis, working with and for this group. It’s been an extraordinary and rich learning experience.
You clearly have close ties with the Ayala family as you worked closely with them over the years, particularly JAZA and FZA. Could you share with us a few things about them that might not be so publicly known?
Jaime and Fernando are intelligent and analytical, expansive in their thinking, biased towards action, inclusive in their approach, and nationalistic in their priorities. These qualities make for effective, enlightened leadership. But they do share one quality which makes them very special—they are true gentlemen, with all the qualities that the term connotes.
How many principals will send you a text asking if they can call before they actually call you? How many will be as conscious of your personal time as their own? How many will treat their senior executives as real partners? How many will be unwavering in their support of their key executives once a path of action has been agreed to, even in the face of challenges? There’s a reason seasoned professionals want to work for Ayala. And Jaime and Fernando are central to it.
How would you describe the corporate culture of AC? What values does the company espouse and promote?
How I describe Jaime and Fernando is reflected in the culture of the company and the group: financially disciplined, expansive, action-oriented, inclusive and a contributor to nation-building. We greatly respect our past—we all stand on the shoulders of giants—but we are also keen to build the Philippines of the future. We strive to always be a stalwart of Philippine business, and we firmly believe that we do well by doing right and doing good.
And we make a positive difference. It’s hard to imagine our country without BPI standing fast amidst the country’s political and economic challenges, or without the estates of Ayala Land providing planned spaces for homes, leisure, and production. And can you imagine what the COVID lockdowns would have been like without the mobile apps of BPI and Globe’s GCash? I can’t.
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A company lasting as long as AC has is very rare, not just here in the country but elsewhere in the world. What do you think is the company’s secret?
It’s the culture, which we’ve just discussed, coupled with a strong sense of stewardship that we see in generation after generation of the company’s leaders. I see in the Zobel de Ayala family a strong desire to see wealth preserved and grown from generation to generation, and to use that wealth to help build a better Philippines. I don’t see any sense of privilege. Instead, I see purposefulness, a focus on collective well-being, an eye on the future.
We have three members of the next generation of the family now working in the group, each in positions of significant responsibility. They are some of the most capable, industrious, and humble professionals that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. They have minds of their own, they’re great listeners and they’re doers. I have no doubt that the Ayala group will be in very good hands.
What growth areas or sectors do you see AC exploring more deeply in the months and years ahead?
We have quite a broad portfolio, but our largest value drivers are our listed companies in the real estate, banking, telecom, and renewable energy industries. These companies are No. 1 or No. 2 in their respective industries, and we intend to provide them the support to ensure that they remain industry leaders.
We also want to bulk up in the healthcare and logistics industries. COVID has taught us that, as a country, we have to invest a lot more in healthcare if we want to have a productive population, and the lockdowns that accompanied COVID demonstrated the importance of logistics, in all its forms, to our economy. So healthcare and logistics will get a bigger share of our investment budget.
Most, if not all, of our portfolio companies touch consumers in some way. We want to make sure that as a group we are getting our fair share of the consumer wallet, especially given our consumption-led economy.
Finally, we want to continue to build digital capabilities in all our companies. Globe/Mynt, BPI, Ayala Land, AC Health, AC Industrial, AC Education are clear digital leaders, but all our companies are investing significantly in digital platforms.