7-Eleven CEO Victor Paterno Talks About His Ups and Downs

Master retailer Victor Paterno talks about cycling, literary attention deficit disorder, and historical turning points.

President and CEO, Philippine Seven Corporation

You’ve been heading Philippine Seven Corporation, the local licensee of 7-Eleven, since 2005, and it has since expanded to 1,000 branches. In 2012, you won Ernst&Young’s master entrepreneur award. What do you attribute this success to?
Reinventing ourselves at the right time. We hit bottom shortly before I came in when our auditors raised solvency concerns for the first time in 20 years. We tested the patience of stakeholders as we deliberated a way forward, then redesigned and rebuilt our foundations. It’s a classic tale of recovery and redemption—one I’m no stranger to in my personal life—writ large by fortuitous timing: We found our footing just as economic and BPO tailwinds began to blow, tripling stores and rewarding shareholders fifty-fold in five years.

What drives you?
Leveraging technology for inclusive growth. For example, microfinance helps many but maintaining repayment rates require costly weekly meetings, driving up interest rates. A personal project of mine seeks to lower costs (and thus interest rates) by substituting Google-like algorithms and SMS for meetings. After two years of community testing though, getting repaid is still a problem. If we figure it out, we’ll scale up and make a real difference. If we don’t, we’ll at least have helped out a few thousand folks along the way.

Historical figure Pedro Paterno is one of your ancestors. Your father Ting was former trade and industry minister and a senator. Do you feel that you have a lot to live up to?
I have a print of Lolo Pedro in my office with Rizal, Bonifacio, and other founding fathers. It reminds me that he was one of them until he wasn’t, and that being on a pantheon is fickle and best avoided. As for my dad, I struggled under his shadow until I accepted that we were different personalities, under different circumstances. I still hope to build on his legacy, even as I follow my own path.


Victor Paterno with wife Melissa in Cape Town after a race

You majored in Mechanical Engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Were you planning on a different path away from business when you were younger?
My dad was a mechanical engineer, and he told me it taught him how to think. The systems discipline has been useful in running stores, but if I had to do it again I’d major in physics and minor in philosophy. I considered pursuing a research-oriented career but ultimately decided that I loved living in the Philippines more.

You are an avid biker. How did you get into this sport? What do you love most about it?
I started mountain biking 20 years ago in the U.S. when I couldn’t ski. I love being able to go anywhere on my own power. It’s also one of the few sports my doctor allows; a higher impact activity would wear out my hip replacements faster.

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Bike of choice?
I have 10 bikes for my different race disciplines—downhill, enduro, cross-country, road. I tell my wife it’s cheaper than collecting cars, and among the most benign of mid-life crises.

The 7-Eleven pro team at the 2011 Le Tour de Filipinas

And you’re a cancer survivor! What impact has this had on your life?
I believe each of us has a purpose, and there’s nothing like being reminded there’s a deadline to bring it into focus.

How did you meet your wife Melissa, and how did your love story develop?
My sister met her in New York and insisted that we meet when she moved back. I was in a wheelchair and refused to go out on a pity date. So I waited a few months till I was on crutches, which was only slightly less pathetic. Fortunately, she was still available.


What’s the most romantic thing you’ve done for her?
We had dinner at the Four Seasons in Istanbul, a converted prison (legend has it, the one in Midnight Express), on the eve of the anniversary of martial law. I took the confluence of metaphors as a sign that maybe I should change the way I thought about marriage, and proposed.

What would people be most surprised to find out about you?
I’m a regular at an informal street race with a 20 peso entry fee. I love how inclusive it is—senior citizens, SEA Games medalists, newspaper delivery boys. I also love that I once won 100 pesos there.

Participating at the Giant XC Race La Mesa in April 2013

Books you've read?
Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Eldar Shafir, Mastery, by Robert Greene, Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World—and Won, by Geoff Drake, Networks: An Introduction, by M.E.J. Newman, Smart Homes for Dummies. My nephew says I may have attention deficit disorder.


What gets you excited the most?
Living through a turning point in history. As social networks evolve from merely overthrowing institutions (e.g. the Arab Spring) to actually supplanting them, countries like ours, with strong social ties but weak institutions, will benefit most. It’s kind of like cell phones leapfrogging landlines in developing countries first, only better. And that’s why I still lurk on Facebook, even if all the oversharing and shameless self-promotion curls my toes.

What’s on your bucket list?
Riding across the Philippines, unsupported and incognito.

Complete this sentence: I like my job, but I’d rather be?
Riding of course!

This story was originally published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Town&Country.

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