MANILA, Philippines – Amid President Rodrigo Duterte's war against a select business elite, Ramon See Ang remains on the administration's good side.
Ang, who has an estimated wealth of $1.4 billion and the 11th richest man in the Philippines as of June 2017, according to Forbes data, is unlike other tycoons and business families that Duterte has targeted. Ang's businesses, including diversified P255-billion conglomerate San Miguel Corporation and newly listed Eagle Cement Corporation, have remained unscathed.
A year into power, Duterte's tirades against select big business have caused tremors. Gaming and mining tycoon Roberto Ongpin gave up Philweb Corporation after Duterte threatened to "destroy" him. The Lopez family, the object of the President's ire because of the alleged unfair reports of ABS-CBN, saw the top broadcast firm's stocks plummet.
Ang, who provided financial and other support to Duterte during the 2016 presidential campaign, has long wanted a media arm in his growing business portfolio. (READ: Ramon Ang and his media interests)
The 63-year-old businessman surely knows the importance of politics and politicians when it comes to doing business in the Philippines. Since he handled the businesses of tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco Jr, who fled the country following the 1986 EDSA Revolution that toppled the Marcos regime, Ang has been swimming with the political and economic tide under 6 presidents already.
While some oligarchs of old have blatantly used their access to top politicians to curry favor and snag government contracts, Ang has charmed Duterte to just let him be.
Under Duterte, who repeatedly said he will leave business alone, Ang and other business groups have either been supportive or have stayed neutral on Duterte's pet issues, such as the war on drugs and terror.
It's a formula that is seemingly working, and investors have amply rewarded Ang for this strategy.
A year into Duterte's 6-year term, shares of listed San Miguel Corporation jumped P25.2 higher to P104 each on July 1, 2017, from P78.8 on June 30 last year.
Bloomberg reported that the conglomerate's shares soared to the highest level in over 3 years during this period.
Under Ang's leadership, San Miguel continues to grow its network by undertaking merger and acquisition deals, as well as participating in public infrastructure projects.
In February 2017, Ang revived San Miguel's proposed $14-billion international airport project, rivaling the offer of the group of Henry Sy, the Philippines' richest man. It's meant to either replace or complement the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the country's main gateway that is bursting at the seams.
This multibillion-dollar unsolicited proposal is now undergoing review of the National Economic and Development Authority.
The following month, San Miguel announced plans of proposing a $2-billion, 14-meter spillway project that will allow the waters of Laguna de Bay in the east of Metro Manila to flow directly to Manila Bay. In exchange, Ang wants the government to give San Miguel the right to use waste materials from Laguna de Bay for power generation.
Over the course of Duterte's first year in office, the conglomerate has bought and merged with several firms – latest of which is its acquisition of Australian bottler Barossa Bottling Services.
In 2017, San Miguel also plans to break ground of its single biggest investment so far: a P1-trillion petrochemical facility in the south of Manila.
Ang, who did not come from an established Philippine business elite, has cultivated a friendship with Duterte, himself a political outlier from Davao City before bursting into the national political scene.
Duterte disclosed that Ang offered to buy him a private jet for his safety, but he refused. (READ: Duterte: San Miguel's Ramon Ang was campaign donor)
From Singapore to Davao City, Ang has been there whenever Duterte needs support. During the President's state visit to Singapore in December 2016, the San Miguel president made efforts to gather Singaporean businessmen to meet with Duterte. In a housing project event in May, Duterte was all praises for Ang for his "philanthropic" deeds – even if the President had to wait for about 10 minutes because the businessman was stuck in traffic.
Aimed at helping the government pursue economic development in Sulu, Ang has promised to do the following: build a 50-megawatt coal-fired power plant, rebuild Hadji Butu School of Arts and Trades, and create a feed mill supply chain.
On several occassions, Ang has also expressed his optimism in the country's economic growth under Duterte.
San Miguel donated P1 billion to the government to build new drug rehabilitation facilities. The conglomerate also pledged a P2-million business start-up package to the kin of each military personnel killed in action in Marawi City.
"Mark my word: This country will fly. This country will be a better place for our children and grandchildren because the drug problem will be eliminated under Duterte," Ang once said about the Duterte administration.
"If the President solves the problems of drug, criminality, and corruption, he will become the best president the Philippines has ever had," Ang added.
If there is one thing the self-made tycoon is skeptical about the administration, it would be its shift to official development assistance from public-private partnership (PPP) when it comes to implementing public infrastructure deals.
"It will be very complicated," Ang said in Filipino during a media briefing on Eagle Cement's market debut in May, when asked to comment on the policy shift.
With the government's plan to spend about P8 trillion on infrastructure until 2022, private investors are looking for ways to make the most of the ambitious program. But Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III had said the government will veer away from PPP deals as much as possible, causing uncertainty among investors.
"They want government-to-government because (of) low(er) cost, but if the government loans billions and billions, it will destroy the balance sheet of the Philippines," Ang told reporters.
Since the PPP thrust's launch in 2010, San Miguel has been an active participant in biddings. Of all the auctions it has participated in, San Miguel bagged a total of 4 PPP projects: NAIA Expressway project, Metro Rail Transit Line 7, Bulacan Bulk Water Supply project, and Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3.
"Me, I'll just bid and bid....I think the best is stick to the pronouncement of President Rodrigo Duterte: public bidding and unsolicited Swiss challenge. That's better," Ang told reporters. "I just hope for the faster delivery of these projects."
San Miguel is banking on infrastructure for its long-term growth. The conglomerate aims to triple its net income to P156 billion by 2020, as it expects its investments in toll roads and other infrastructure deals to start contributing to its bottomline.
If achieved, it would be a "historical" income growth for San Miguel, which has diversified extensively under Ang's leadership.
Gutsy and hardworking as described by friends and associates, Ang started by repairing and selling used Japanese truck and car engines before he linked up with Mark Cojuangco, son of Eduardo Cojuangco Jr, to sell aluminum wheels. They both shared the love for cars.
When Francisco Eizmendi retired in 2002, Ang was appointed president and chief operating officer of San Miguel, monitoring the company's day-to-day operations. (READ: How Ramon Ang paid for Cojuangco's shares in San Miguel)
Ang was able to turn San Miguel from a food and beverage company into among the country's most diversified conglomerates. San Miguel now has interests in brewery, oil, power, mining, infrastructure, and most recently, car distribution. (READ: San Miguel's latest venture: BMW vehicles)
Despite these hiccups, Ang remains optimistic about San Miguel's financial growth. In 2016, the conglomerate's net income surged by 80% to P52 billion from P28.9 billion in 2015, as most of its units delivered strong growth.
Even Ang's privately-held businesses are growing. Eagle Cement Corporation, the country's 4th largest cement distributor, went public in May to fund expansion plans, including building plants in the Visayas and Mindanao. Aside from Eagle Cement, his family also owns a hotel and about hundred acres of prime real estate, said Forbes.
"This Ramon has sheer guts. By his own hard work he became a billionaire 10 times over...He gave donations, charitable endeavors but they don't publish it," Duterte had said about Ang.