Philippine tycoons

[Vantage Point] The unsinkable Zobel de Ayalas

Val A. Villanueva
[Vantage Point] The unsinkable Zobel de Ayalas
I have no doubt that Fernando Zobel de Ayala would overcome whatever ails him. It is in his pedigree. Working with him and his family up close has given me firsthand experience in his resoluteness and strength in the face of adversity.

November 29, 1993, 8:35 pm. I was about to tuck myself to bed when our phone rang. It was from the office of Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala. Danny Gozo, Ayala Corporation’s vice president for public relations, was on the other line telling me to immediately proceed to the construction site of the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) and get in touch with [the late] Bobby Chan, Ayala’s government relations officer. No further explanation was given, except that my presence was urgently needed. 

As I approached Ayala Avenue, I could hear the wailing sound of sirens and see a huge swaddle of the Makati and Ayala Avenue intersection cordoned off by fire trucks and Makati Police vehicles. Bobby, whom I was in constant touch with through mobile, told me to park in front of the Peninsula Hotel Manila waterfall and that a Makati policeman whose name I could no longer recall would escort me to where he was. Up to about that time, I had no clue about what was going on. I was told by my escort later on that the roof of a concrete passageway linking the fourth floor of the PSE and a 35-story tower in the early stages of construction collapsed as cement was being poured, and there were casualties. 

My wife had just given birth to our daughter and only child 29 days earlier, and the rigors of caring for an infant who didn’t know day from night was taking a toll on our sleeping pattern. With no household help to assist us at that time, my wife and I took turns in caring for our baby who was awake the whole night and only slept at daytime. I had taken a sleeping pill prescribed by our family doctor less than an hour before our phone rang during that fateful night. 

Months prior, I had resigned from the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times as business editor and was newly minted as an Ayala Corporation external consultant under Danny’s office. 

Dazed and disoriented from the medication, I met Bobby at ground zero where the putrid-metallic stench of blood wafted in the air. I saw bodies buried with only their heads or hands protruding from the rubble, while some were sandwiched by the debris from the collapsed roof. It was as gory a site as you can imagine. A few minutes later, Don Jaime came and calmly asked the rescue team for assessment. We formed an emergency team with me assigned at the Makati Medical Center to care for the wounded in coordination with Bobby who was to remain at the site.

At the emergency room, I organized a group of doctors and nurses to specifically attend to the wounded from the collapsed building with Bobby providing me the list from the site. My right hand turned numb from the countless signatures I had to execute in behalf of Ayala Corporation, which had shouldered all medical and hospital expenses.

At around 2 am of November 30, official police records tallied the dead at two, with 16 severely injured, and 20 with minor injuries, while an undetermined number of people still lay buried in the rubble.

Managing a crisis

At 8 am, and still deprived of sleep, we had an assessment meeting, attended by Danny and his staff, Don Jaime and his sons Jaime Augusto and Fernando. It was at this meeting where I saw up close and personal how the Ayalas go about managing a crisis situation. They exhibited grace under enormous pressure. I should mention here that Ayala Land Inc. (ALI) was in the middle of a tit-for-tat competition with Gerry Lanuza’s Philippine Realty and Holdings Corporation PhilRealty was bidding to host PSE under a unified roof in Tektite Tower in Ortigas. (Note: The PSE was formed from the country’s two former stock exchanges, the Manila Stock Exchange, established on August 8, 1927, and the Makati Stock Exchange, which was established on May 27, 1963. Although both bourses traded the same stocks of the same companies, they had been separate stock exchanges for nearly 30 years until June 24 2022, when both exchanges were unified to become the present-day Philippine Stock Exchange.) 

At that time, the question was where to house the two bourses which had been at odds for three decades. It became a battle between two real estate companies. The Makati and Manila brokers until that tragedy just couldn’t get along. We expected then that the Makati PSE building collapse would be a fodder for unfounded news. But the Ayalas were resolute. The mantra: No sugar coating, no excuses, everything open for scrutiny. The Ayalas’ handling of the PSE building collapse should be a model case for crisis management. It did not in any way taint the family’s personal and business reputation, but rather solidified their professionalism at the highest level. We became better from such an unfortunate incident. 

The battle to host the country’s stock exchanges, however, tilted in favor of the Lanuza group when then-Securities and Exchange Commission chairperson, the late Rosario Lopez, favored the bid of PhilRealty. This meant that the construction of Makati’s PSE would be all for naught. The Makati brokers were up in arms.

Danny asked me if there was a way to get through to Chairperson Lopez to find out if a resolution favorable to all could be reached. On December 1993. My wife and I traveled to Tanza, Cavite, to present to Lopez ALI’s vision of a PSE center. She also agreed to meet with Ayala’s key officials to explain where she really stood.

The calm Fernando

Fernando, then-Ayala Land President Francisco Licuanan, and I met the SEC chairperson for dinner at Nielson Tower [now Black Bird] two days after. The dinner was short and bitter. Lopez was adamant in asking Ayala to give way to PhilRealty. When Lopez left, Fernando exhibited no ill feelings toward the SEC Chair, and expressed understanding of where she was coming from. He had the same air of calm and confidence he showed during our previous meeting. I felt that this guy had what it takes to go over humps, big or small. There would never be “game over” for him.  (Today, stock trading is done entirely floorless. On June 24, the closing bell rang for the last time at the PSE marking the permanent closing of its trading floor, after the Makati and Ortigas exchanges unification in February 19, 2018 at the Bonifacio Global City.)

Even after I left Ayala for EuroMoney London, I witnessed how Ayala faced and weathered crises not too far between – the Glorietta 2 and Serendra explosions on October 19, 2007, and May 13, 2014, respectively, and the collapse of a portion of the Suite building under construction at the corner of 5th Avenue and 28th Street at the Bonifacio Global City (BGC) on February 4, 2015.

Fast-forward to a few days ago when Fernando resigned as Ayala Corporation president, chief executive, and board vice chairman due to health reasons. The business community was caught by surprise. His resignation is reported to be “effective immediately to allow him to focus more on his recovery and health.”

His brother Jaime Augusto said in a social media post: “As a family, we’re fully supportive of Fernando’s decision to take a leave so he can do whatever is necessary to rebuild his strength. Let us all give Fernando the support he needs to focus on improving his health.” 

Ordinarily, family dynasties in business and politics cover two to three generations. The scions of these families either retire or venture into other careers. Most of them are then replaced by other family dynasties which may last for four, maybe five, generations. But the Ayala clan is far from ordinary. The Ayala-Zobel family business has outlived them all for the past nine generations. 

I have no doubt that Fernando would overcome whatever ails him. It is in his pedigree. Working with him and his family up close has given me firsthand experience in his resoluteness and strength in the face of adversity. Godspeed, Fernando! – Rappler.com

Val A. Villanueva is a veteran business journalist. He was a former business editor of the Philippine Star and the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times. For comments, suggestions email him at mvala.v@gmail.com.

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