MANILA, Philippines – In the ballroom of the Marco Polo Plaza Hotel in Cebu City, Erramon Aboitiz, president and CEO of Aboitiz Equity Ventures, and grandchild of Aboitiz patriarch Don Ramon Aboitiz, stands before an audience of about a hundred student leaders from all over the country. He’s about to give his opening remarks to the Aboitiz Future Leaders Business Summit, a two-day leadership seminar created by the Cebu-based conglomerate 8 years ago.
And as the undergraduates look up to the illuminated podium onstage, at the back of the room, spread across several tables, several key members of the Aboitiz Group look on: upper management, long-time employees, and further at the back, family members working in the company.
“We look forward with much anticipation to this annual event,” he begins, “as this is where we meet promising young men and women overflowing with optimism, with an idealism that is inspiring, and a passion that is burning for what they believe in – certainly the stuff future leaders, like you, are made of.” The participants are transfixed, of course, hanging onto his every word. But if you didn’t know it, he could’ve well been addressing his relatives seated at the back.
For more than a hundred years now, the Aboitiz Group of Companies has made a name across various industries in the country. Starting as a family business trading hemp in the early 1900s, the company went into a variety of businesses like power generation and distribution, sugar milling, construction, and – what most people associate the brand with even up to this day – shipping.
After going public in 1994 with Aboitiz Equity Ventures, the company branched out to several key industries: power distribution with AboitizPower; banking with Union Bank and City Savings Bank; food manufacturing with Pilmico Food Corp.; and real estate with AboitizLand.
The 57-year-old Erramon is part of the 4th generation that transformed the once family-owned business into a publicly-listed conglomerate currently with more than 20,000 employees and, as of the first half of 2013, a consolidated net income of P11.9 billion.
But as the current leaders of the company reach maturity, it’ll soon be time for the 5th generation to take the reins and continue the legacy and name Don Ramon began decades ago. And for them, it’s more about responsibility than honor.
All in the Family
“Nobody’s forced to work in the family business; it’s a choice,” says Ana Aboitiz-Delgado. “So in that sense, you know the responsibility that you’re taking on.” On the flipside of that, says the current assistant vice president of Union Bank, “there’s something really exciting about working in a company that can make such a big difference across the country.”
For the 33-year-old, her exposure to the family business began when she was 8. “My earliest memory is visiting my dad in the office here in Cebu,” she recalls. He was working in the construction subsidiary Metaphil.
“I remember the sounds, the metal works, walking through the factory, and sitting there in his office listening to his conversations,” recalls Ana. After college in the United States and a brief stint working for a financial institution in Manila, she applied for a job at Union Bank.
Meanwhile, for the Spanish-born and United States-educated Rafa de Mesa, it was through his trips back to the Philippines that he came to know of the growing family business. The 34-year-old is an Aboitiz on his mother’s side and currently works in business development at AboitizLand.
He was working in the banking industry in the States when he decided to relocate to the Philippines 4 years ago. “When you work in corporate America,” he says, “you work hard and it’s all for yourself, stepping on people along the way. Whereas here, you share all the hard work with your cousins, your family, and even the ones who aren’t family.”
Getting into the family business was different for Rafa, though. “I was the one who inquired about it. I think I’m probably the first one who grew up abroad who’s now working for the company. Usually, the ones who work for the family grew up here [in the Philippines]. Whereas the ones who grew up outside usually stay abroad.”
At that time, Ana, Rafa, and the rest of the 5th generation were still young adults, and the company wasn’t the business empire it is today. When it came to the growth of the company, “you’re only talking about the last 10 years, a maximum of 15 years, maybe,” says Tristan Aboitiz. “Now, it’s taken on a whole new and much larger significance as far as being a corporation.”
Born in Cebu and educated in the United States, Tristan is currently the assistant vice president at Pilmico. “For us, seeing the brand and growing up around it, it was always there,” says the 32-year-old. “And then as you get older, you begin to understand the significance of it.”
The significance is keeping the legacy and the business going. But when your last (or middle) name’s not just on the door, but also on the building, the truck, and the stock market ticker, the pressure comes in a different way. “Of course, just like in any other job, there’s pressure,” says Ana. “But I don’t see it so different if I was working here or elsewhere. There is an added pressure in a sense that you want to continue the legacy. But I chose to work here; and if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it really well.”
Contrary to what many may think, there actually aren’t many family members working in the company. In fact, says Tristan, they have more relatives who work outside than those who choose to work in the family business.
And for those in the latter category, the only way to move up is to work for it. “Meritocracy is a core belief for the company,” says Erramon Aboitiz. “Promotions, positions, and salaries are not a function of ownership, of how old you are, or how long you have been with the company, but based on your contributions and the value you bring in.”
But for a family listed as one of the wealthiest in the country (7th, according to Forbes), there’s a refreshing modesty to, as Carlos Aboitiz calls themselves, “the 5th gen.”
With their sharp nose and fair skin, it’s easy to dismiss the group as being anything but Filipino. Their roots, after all, are from Spain. But as Carlos explains, people react more to their being Filipino than to their being an Aboitiz. “People are like, ‘no way.’ And then I’d start talking in my really broken Tagalog,” says the business development manager at AboitizPower. Tristan, meanwhile, speaks to all employees in perfect Bisaya.
“I think it’s also about the local culture in Cebu,” says Carlos. “It’s not about that here; it’s much more humble and laid-back.” According to the 29-year-old, “our name wasn’t really out there when we were growing up. And outside of Cebu, not so much at all.”
“I think we grew up just like everybody else,” says Tristan. “To the credit of our parents, that was really great. We weren’t burdened by that type of thinking. And I wouldn’t consider my childhood to be any different from everybody else’s.”
And that lack of a sense of entitlement extends way beyond the 5th generation, says William Paradies, 36, senior vice president at City Savings Bank and now a father of four. His eldest, in fact, “thinks we’re poor,” he says with a straight face. “I’m just kuripot (thrifty),” he explains, “so he thinks that way.”
The brand ‘name’
And how do they all feel when they see their name on a truck, plastered on a billboard, or lit up on a building? “I never really thought about it,” says Ana. “To a regular customer, if you ask them about Aboitiz, they’ll probably still say ‘shipping.’” It’s a testament to how strong the brand was even if in 2010 they sold all their shareholdings in Aboitiz Transport System, which 2Go and SuperFerry were part of, to Negros Navigation.
For Carlos, it’s the same way. “You grow up seeing it, but maybe that’s because of the shipping business before. But we don’t really think about it.” He adds, “If you put Aboitiz and Power together, yes, it’s a brand. But if you separate the two words, no.” It’s their name.
But did they ever realize the enormity of it all? “We were never raised to think about the company as being huge,” says Ana. “To a child, that impresses on them a sense of entitlement which you don’t want to have. So I’m thankful that we were raised not to think that way. It was more on working hard and doing the right thing, and making sure that in business, you’re honest and have integrity.”
She adds: “We realized that, yes, we had been fortunate enough to have been able to build a company that has a presence all over the country and is able to impact a lot of lives. And so I think in our minds the enormity is more in the sense that this is, first, a legacy that we have to continue, and second, there’s a responsibility involved.”
Back in the ballroom, Erramon Aboitiz wraps up his opening lecture to formally begin the leadership summit. He looks up from the printed speech in front of him and gazes at the sea of heads before him. “I believe your generation has what it takes to succeed in whatever career or business endeavor your choose to pursue,” he says, making sure the students understand. “You have the power to chart your destiny, so go for it.”
At the back of the room, the 5th generation looks on. – Rappler.com
Here’s a brief clip of Erramon Aboitiz:
Peter Imbong is a full-time freelance writer, sometimes a stylist, and on some strange nights, a host. After starting his career in a business magazine, he now writes about lifestyle, entertainment, fashion, and profiles of different personalities. Check out his blog, Peter Tries to Write.