The man who developed the soul of Bonifacio Global City

Katherine Visconti
Meet Charlie Rufino, the developer behind one of the first high-rise office buildings in the next hot business district in the country.

MANILA, Philippines – Bonifacio Global City, home of high rises and commercial centers, has a soul, insists Charlie Rufino.

The 62-year-old developer envisioned a city with the scale of Boston and the feel of Vancouver. The result is a city of layers.

 

Charlie Rufino, President of the Net Group. Photo credit: Asia CEO Forum

Rufino is behind The Net Group, which built Net One, the first high-rise office building in the next hot business district in the country. Aside from making a bold first-mover investment decision, he was also deeply involved in Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation (FBDC) as head of business development from 1995 to 2000.

“When I was with FBDC, we spent P600 million, which is over a billion in today’s peso-dollar exchange rate, on only the planning, the soft costs,” he says.

At the time, the 240-hectare former military base was a vast empty field. The government privatized it in 1995, before the Asian financial crisis caused property prices to dive.



Bonifacio’s personality 

On the surface, the district is an art lover. The developer is proud that every lot owner subsidizes the Bonifacio Art Foundation Inc. According to Rufino, each owner pays P100 per square meter of their building area to the foundation.

Fort Bonifacio retains its open sunlit feel with development that spans deep beneath the surface. Rufino excitedly talks about a storm retention tank which, he says, is the width of EDSA and capable of holding millions of gallons of water. At more than 20 meters above sea level, the developer says, the district isn’t at risk of flooding. Still, water from a big storm like Ondoy could run off into Makati, so the retention tank can prevent a storm surge in the neighboring district.

At Rufino’s pushing, the district is also becoming more green. His group’s Net Lima building is setting up systems for air recycling, sun shading, as well as harvesting and reusing water. Net Lima, due to be completed by the first quarter of 2012, has become the flagship pilot project for BERDE (Building for Ecologically Responsive Design Excellence), the green design certification system created in and for the Philippines.

“It (Net Lima) has forced the big developers to alter their plans to make them more green and more livable. So he has made an impact that is felt across the industry,” says Richard Mills, one of the judges who awarded Rufino’s Net Group the Asia CEO Awards’ Entrepreneurial Leadership Team of the Year trophy.

Mills adds, “He is newer, smaller, what he would call a boutique developer competing with Ayala Land and SM for instance. But they (The Net Group) have established themselves to become the largest developer of office space in Bonifacio and their buildings are always very unique.”

Keeping up with big boys

As a boutique developer, the Net Group has to slug it out above their weight class. Rufino cites his business partner, Jacques Dupasquier.

“[Dupasquier’s] family owns a string of boutique hotels in Paris and I come from an office background. So what did we get? Boutique Office Spaces.”

Rufino believes they are as polar opposites as yin and yang and just as complementary. “We disagree on many things. But in the long run we are successful because we cover the entire spectrum. He is involved in every single detail. Me, I just want to get the project done on time.”

Rufino also cites having fewer partners as clients but making each one count. He says he is on a first name basis with every tenant. Yet Rufino is not exactly running a mom and pop shop. Many of his clients are important multinational corporations, most in the ranks of the elite Fortune 500. One client alone, for example, has half-a-million square feet with Net Group.

A family affair

The Rufinos are associated with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the family-owned newspaper chaired by Marixi Rufino-Prieto. In Makati City, the country’s business and financial district, a street is named after Charlie’s father, Don Vicente A. Rufino. The reflective Rufino Pacific Tower is a landmark along the namesake street. 

The wealth of the Rufinos was spawned from a string of movie houses in the 1950s. It was a time when Philippine movie houses were among the top grossing in the world. “If you miss the trend you will miss out on the bigger thing,” says Rufino reflecting on the early movie house business.

His father amassed enough capital to move out of movies and on to construct the Rufino Tower, the first skyscraper completed in 1963.

Like his father, Charlie Rufino ventured into new real estate. He constructed several pioneering projects in Metro Manila, then went on to build Bonifacio’s first commercial office space. The Rufinos have even brought a third generation of the family into architecture. Charlie’s son Raymond, who he used to bring along to construction sites as a kid in a big hard hat, is now the Net Group’s Executive Vice President, along with Tina Samson.

Raymond, 34, describes his dad as the type of man who will sit staring at blank space in his office then pop up with a great idea. He sees his dad as a man who pushes the envelope. “If nobody pushes that envelope, we won’t get to the next level.”

After all, Charlie Rufino has made a business not out of riding trends, but of seeing the wave before it swells.