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Three life lessons for the next-generation leaders and managers

(This piece comes from the author’s Acceptance Speech as the Management Association of the Philippines’ Management Man of the Year 2022 Awardee.)

When I learned that I was nominated for the MAP Management Man of the Year Award, I asked if I could be withdrawn from consideration. I didn’t think I had done anything extraordinary to deserve the nomination.

You see, Washington SyCip, Cesar Virata, Cesar Buenaventura, and my father, David Consunji, were my real-life heroes.

Growing up, I witnessed their brilliance, passion, and love for our country. I saw how they shaped their professions, championed progress, and made life better for others. In my mind, they were in a different league altogether.

So, imagine my shock when I received a call from Cesar Buenaventura telling me that I was this year’s awardee.

If my father was here today, I’m sure he would laugh and say, “Pano nangyari ’yan, eh kamote ka?” (How did that happen since you are dumb?)

Dad, wherever you are, I hope this kamote made you and Mom proud.

Some people see life as a series of moments. For me, being an avid reader, I see it as a book with blank chapters. You pen your own story and hope that in the end, it is one worth reading and retelling.

This is my story.

Engineering comes from the Latin words ingeniare and ingenium, which mean “to devise” and “cleverness.” I’m referencing these terms to give you an idea of how I came to be. You see, I never set out to become an engineer.

Initially, I was an Economics major at Ateneo. But after seeing the mini-skirted ladies in UP (University of the Philippines) Diliman, I devised a way to convince my parents to let me transfer schools. I told them that I wanted to take up Civil Engineering — just like my father. Elated with my decision, they allowed me to enroll in UP.

Unfortunately, my cleverness did not translate to strong academic performance. It took me six years to finish a five-year course.

I wasn’t interested in studying so I stopped for two semesters. To earn some money, I worked in our motor pool division and logging concession. The time I spent on the field was enlightening and formative for me. At the age of 18, I learned how to deal with difficult employees, angry suppliers, and tough customers.

Just as crucial, I discovered the importance of productivity, efficiency, and cash flow when running a business.

In millennial parlance, I was #adulting.

Eventually, I went back to UP to finish my degree. I also took the civil engineering board exam to appease my mother.

As the first-born son and second of eight children, I had more than my fair share of tender loving care — may kasama pang palo at sermon (which came with spankings and scolding). I was a handful growing up, and my father did his best to instill discipline in me.

Many of you knew my father and his remarkable work ethic.

He was thorough, structured, and extremely hardworking. He lived and breathed construction, and his passion to build made him an industry legend. Even in his ’90s, he would go around our construction sites, meticulously drilling our project managers on their work programs.

I saw construction through a different lens. To me, it was a business tool and not an end in itself. I was more interested in finding ways to leverage my technical background to identify and maximize commercial opportunities. That’s when I realized that I’m more of a business manager than an engineer. My interest was in value creation and business transformation, not solely construction.

So, I decided to enroll at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) to learn more about the “science” of business and management.

Unfortunately, I never completed my management course. I became too busy with our hotel projects for the International Monetary Fund conference in Manila.

However, the time I spent at AIM was invaluable as it cemented my passion for business.

When D.M. Consunji, Inc., or DMCI, was founded in 1954, my father’s ultimate objective was to build not only an enterprise but an institution. By that, he meant a business that could provide stability, service to the community, and protection to its people. But fast-forward 30 years, and still, we were nowhere near that.

Ironically, after completing the world’s biggest palace and royal residence in Brunei, DMCI had to retrench many of its best engineers and workers because there was no work coming in. At that time, the Philippine economy was in disarray. Construction demand also dried up almost immediately after the assassination of Senator Ninoy Aquino.

As you all know, laying off people is one of the toughest decisions a company could ever make. It affects the health, livelihood, and well-being of employees, as well as their families.

But being a contractor, we had very limited survival options. We couldn’t formulate a corporate plan or strategy because we were always dependent on the kind of projects our clients will do or won’t do.

And so, from being a contractor, I convinced my father to become an investor as well.

In 1995, we listed DMCI Holdings and raised enough funds to expand and diversify into other industries. We acquired assets and invested in projects that could generate revenues and growth for DMCI. That decision brought us closer to building an institution.

Today, the DMCI Group has a total workforce of over 35,000.

We have engineers and foremen who have been with us for more than 20, 30 years. Some of their children have even found employment in our companies.

Our business portfolio currently includes energy, real estate, mining, and water distribution — all of which draw from our engineering and construction background.

I must admit that luck played a big role in our expansion.

In certain cases, we were delivered from failure and financial ruin by commodity rallies, financial downturns, and wise advice from good friends.

It also took us decades to get to this point. And the process — while fulfilling — was many times daunting, painful, and draining.

Looking back, I can think of three galvanizing moments for the DMCI group:

A year into our listing, the Asian Financial Crisis happened. The whole country had no liquidity, and banks did not renew our short-term credit lines. To generate liquidity, we formed DMCI Homes to turn our idle land into residential condominiums. It took us eight iterations before we got the two-bedroom format right because we knew little about the real estate market. We were a bunch of engineers who tried very hard to become developers, marketers, and salespeople.

I credit Freddie Austria and his team for making DMCI Homes a viable business and a market leader in its main product segment.

In the late 1990s, we invested in what others then considered a zombie company.

Semirara Coal Corp. was not only heavily indebted and hemorrhaging money, its product was also rejected by the market. It was even referred to as Semirara clay.

To transform the company, we focused on raising production and improving coal quality. We changed our mining method from continuous mining to selective mining, and put up a coal washing plant on the island. These initiatives allowed us to create new domestic and foreign markets for Semirara coal.

It was my brother, Victor, and his trusted lieutenant, George San Pedro, who spearheaded the transformation and rallied our people to embrace these changes.

Because of their collective effort, Semirara Mining and Power Corp. is now the most modern coal mine in the country, accounting for over 96% of domestic coal production.

Another galvanizing moment was our acquisition of Maynilad, in partnership with Metro Pacific Investments Corp. of Manny Pangilinan. In 2006, it was our single biggest investment and most dramatic fund-raising activity. Wala kasi kaming pera noon (We had no money then).

Herby Consunji moved mountains to raise the P3 billion we needed for the Maynilad bid. He borrowed money from multiple sources and mortgaged our Semirara shares and DMCI Homes’ contracts-to-sell. Knowing that we would lose our shirts if our joint venture failed, Herby agreed to be the sole DMCI management representative in Maynilad. Together with Babes Singson and Randy Estrellado of Metro Pacific, they did much of the heavy lifting to turn Maynilad around.

In the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon wrote that iron sharpens iron, so likewise, one person sharpens another.

I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by these exceptional people who sharpened me into becoming the manager and leader I am today. I will always be grateful for the roles they played in my life.

At this point, I would like to acknowledge a few more people who were instrumental in redefining the future of the DMCI Group.

I proudly share this honor with them:

My siblings, who support and work together with me in our public and private companies: Ate Jing, Jorge, Lucy, Cristina, and Dinky.

Dad was correct when he said, “none of us is as good as all of us.” He knew we had different strengths and weaknesses, so he insisted that we all work together. I’m glad we followed his advice.

My parents and siblings, Victor and Nene. I wish they were here to share this moment with the rest of our family.

Our board of directors — both past and present — for their invaluable time and wisdom. Their guidance over the years has made our family better stewards and managers.

I would particularly like to thank Cesar A. Buenaventura (CAB), the first civil engineer of DMCI. As my mentor and vice-chairman at DMCI Holdings, CAB showed me that engineers can be great managers in whatever industry they choose to be.

Our professional managers whose determination and hard work allowed our companies to survive many challenging times. Know that I appreciate you all immensely.

The thousands of DMCI workers who — day in and day out — perform difficult, demanding, and sometimes dirty work so we can deliver quality products and services on time (well, at least most of the time). Thank you for everything!

Our creditors, clients, and other business partners — particularly, Tessie Sy-Coson and the team of Nestor Tan in BDO — Ed Francisco and Walter Wassmer. Thank you for not pulling the rug out from under us when the going got tough, and for always giving us the financial backing we needed to grow our businesses.

And to the countless, nameless others who trusted and supported our companies all these years— Maraming, maraming salamat sa inyong lahat (Many, many thanks to all of you).

My story is nowhere near done. I think I have enough gas in the tank to start a second career. In a few years, I may just surprise all of you. With more idle time, I hope to foray into agriculture and create sustainable value in the countryside.

But I think I’ve taken enough of your time. So, I’d like to end my speech by sharing some life lessons from my 50 years as a management professional. I hope that these lessons will find their way into the consciousness of our next-generation leaders and managers.

First, play to your team’s strengths.

When we were building our business portfolio, we didn’t have much financial strength. I had to be cautious in our investments. I would always ask myself: Do we have the organizational competence to make up for our small balance sheet?

As leaders and business managers, we need to have a clear understanding of our organization and what our people can do. I firmly believe self-knowledge and humility lead to better decision-making. That’s pretty much the reason why we’re not in the hospitality or entertainment business. Hindi namin kaya ngumiti buong araw (We are not capable of smiling the entire day).

Second, strive for a win-win outcome.

In 1997, we issued preferred shares to raise P2.4 billion for our expansion plans. Unfortunately, the coal, construction, and real estate markets took a nosedive, and so did our profitability. We struggled to meet our payment obligations, and this caused an uproar among our shareholders. It was Bobbit Panlilio, then PCIBank COO, who got us through that difficult period.

Following his personal advice, we formulated different repayment options for our shareholders. In doing so, we did right by them and escaped corporate bankruptcy.

To this day, I remind our people at the DMCI Group: When you invite others to a party, make sure that everyone eats. Whether in business or in social gatherings, wala dapat nagugutom (no one should go hungry).

Third, spread the sunshine.

I thank Dr. Bernie Villegas for teaching me this lesson. He was responsible for instilling a spiritual character into my work. Through him, I realized that making a profit is not the sole objective of business. Instead, business should be a catalyst for shared prosperity. We should do what we can to bring sunshine into the lives of our fellow Filipinos.

I don’t consider myself a religious man, but I believe that your work can be your prayer.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is my story, so far.

With the urging of Dr. Villegas, I hope to pen new chapters about my second career and agricultural initiatives. I look forward to sharing these with you someday soon.

Thank you for listening.

And to the Board of Governors led by President Babes Singson, as well as the members of the MAP Management Man of the Year Search and Judging committees, my sincerest gratitude for this distinct privilege. I believe that this is the highest recognition that a Filipino management professional could ever receive, and I am humbled to be this year’s awardee.

 

Isidro “Sid” A. Consunji is chair and president of DMCI Holdings, Inc.

map@map.org.ph

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