The simple life of David M. Consunji
MANILA, Philippines – For David M. Consunji, it was always going to be about someone else.
Never mind the lands sought, never mind the cities built. Never mind the signs that read his name or the buildings of Ds and Ms, Cs and Is.
Never mind the awards won. Never mind the billions, even.
To know David M. Consunji was to know a simple truth: he concerned himself most with those who mattered to him. To know Consunji was to know that it was always going to be about someone else.
Consunji's story began at a place he called home.
In 1921, a boy who would build was born in Bataan. Like those of his generation, he saw the war come and take away many things. But every once and a while, it gave something, too.
For the people of Bataan, it was DM Consunji. "He always returned to his roots. And his roots are in this little town called Samal; his roots are in the province of Bataan," said the priest during the homily for the late construction magnate's funeral Mass held on Saturday, September 9, at the Santuario de San Antonio Parish in Makati City.
Speaking to a church filled with Consunji's family, friends, and colleagues, the priest shared that despite how large a figure the tycoon was, he never failed to look back at where he came from.
Building homes, monasteries, and monuments in his hometown, Consunji helped redevelop Bataan, said the priest. "He built up Samal and he built up Orani. He made us known. DM Consunji always remembers with affection, with pride, our people and our place, even if our people and this place is just ordinary and insignificant."
But more than the concrete that gave way to these structures, the people of Bataan found themselves remembered. For the projects Consunji brought to the province, a marching order was to gather builders from there. "Give them work then their life is secure and we will prosper," said Consunji back then.
"He always remembered his roots and he always remembered his people," the priest said.
"He never forgot us."
Consunji believed that construction was a noble calling – one that a secondhand cement mixer awoke in him in 1954.
"The concrete mixer was my equivalent of a violin. It was the tool which formed the basis of my calling," Consunji said in his memoir, A Passion to Build. With P500, he bought the machine and together with a brand new pick-up truck, DM Consunji Incorporated (DMCI) was born on Christmas Eve.
It would become the foundation for the more than 60-year-old business marked by a lifelong pursuit of learning that Consunji made sure to instill among all employees at the company.
"Tama pala 'yung sabi ni DM na 'yung pag-aaral, hindi nagtatapos sa eskuwelahan. Hindi mo alam na araw-araw nagtatrabaho, araw-araw may natututo. Na-feel mo lang na may natutunan ka 'pag may reunion after 10 years, nakausap mo 'yung mga kasama mo, iba na 'yung pag-iisip sa mga kaklase mo," said Isidro Consunji, the late tycoon's son and heir to the DMCI Holdings conglomerate on Friday, September 8, at his father's wake.
(DM was right when he said that studying does not end in school. Every day that you work, you also learn something new. You only realize you have learned something when there's a reunion 10 years later, and you think differently when you speak to your former classmates.)
A widely read man, Consunji was an engineer by profession, and a learner at heart who was also unafraid to teach those around him.
Recalling a moment the leader was a stickler for grammar, Cesar Simbulan*, president of DMCI Mining Corporation, shared an instance when Consunji corrected an engineer in the middle of a report.
"I remember him correcting one of those engineers who was making a report on equipment and wrongly said, 'equipments,' and he said, 'You don't put an 's' on equipment – it's a collective noun,'" Simbulan said.
Simbulan added, laughing: "He corrects you without hesitation about grammatical errors. A bit unusual for an engineer."
It was the same enthusiasm for knowledge that each of Consunji's colleagues distinctly remember him for.
"David was a pure engineer at heart. Even during his later years, his eyes would light up at meetings whenever an engineering problem was presented…He was constantly looking for ways to improve work methods and processes, and acquiring new and better equipment," said Cesar Buenaventura, vice chairman of DMCI Holdings.
"I was new to the business but he had good people involved with me and he would keep on asking me questions, giving me direction," said Nestor Dadivas, president of DMCI Power Corporation.
Along with a fondness for learning, Consunji also had the appetite for bold decisions.
In 1985, Consunji knew he had what it took to build a maintenance hangar bidded out by the US Navy in Subic. Despite being the only Filipino bidder with the smallest offering for the project at $8.6 million (the next lowest bid was worth $10 million), DMCI won what was, at the time, the biggest project inside the US base.
"To the eyes of a young engineer as myself, this bold move showed me that for DM, it was never just about the money. It was important to him to show the skill of the Filipino. If he bid for something, he followed through. For him, a commitment is a commitment. His word was his bond," said Alfredo Austria, president of DMCI Homes Incorporated, in a mix of Filipino and English.
As he put emphasis on quality and efficiency, Consunji took DMCI from constructing chicken houses for the Bureau of Animal Industry to building some of Manila's most recognizable landmarks: the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ayala Tower One, the Philippine Stock Exchange, and Manila Hotel, to name a few.
For Consunji, building the structures that would eventually shape Manila's cityscape was possible because he had perfected the art of construction. "Construction? Simple lang 'yan (That's simple). Construction is nothing but handling material from start to finish," he had said.
More than 60 years after he founded DMCI, Consunji became the 6th richest Filipino with an estimated net worth of $3.68 billion (P187 billion), according to Forbes Asia's 2017 list.
Buenaventura added, "He had this passion to build, and build he did."
But all that comes second to what Consunji valued most: family.
"He kept things simple, he made time for people who mattered. He seemed to retain an instinct for the things that mattered the most," said David Consunji, a grandson named after the patriarch.
In the same speech, Consunji's grandson recalled how his grandfather, who they fondly referred to as "Papacon*" (Papa Consunji) arrived at a grandchild's wedding ceremony much to the surprise of his entire family.
Having suffered a recent stroke, Consunji was advised by his doctors and nurses to rest and stay home. However, there the man was – arriving at the wedding in a wheelchair, nurses behind, and oxygen tank in tow.
"He was there in body and mind," said Consunji's grandson David.
There is one thing, however, that all of Consunji's family and friends agree on – his life revolved around his wife of 70 years. "The closest to his heart was and always will be my grandmother. One life, one love," said grandson David.
They were never far apart for too long but if it ever got close to that, the police were involved, Isidro said, recalling a time he and his mother left their house and returned at 7 pm to 3 police cars waiting outside. Consunji feared his wife had gone missing. "Ganyan talaga si Daddy (That's how Daddy was)," he said during his father's funeral Mass.
The church filled with laughter before fading once more into silence.
To know David M. Consunji was to know a simple truth – that besides the buildings, cities, and billions in his name, he concerned himself most with the people who mattered to him.
To know him was to know that it was always going to be about someone else. – Rappler.com
*Editor's Note: In a previous version of this story, we said Cesar Simbulan was the president and COO of Semirara Mining and Power Corporation. We have corrected this to indicate he is president of DMCI Mining Corporation. We also corrected the reference to Mr Consunji as Papacon (short for Papa Consunji).