Why the Zobel brothers chose Ricky Razon

Most men wear their watch on the left wrist, but not ports and casino tycoon Enrique “Ricky” K. Razon Jr. or EKR.

EKR said he switched his watch to his right wrist decades ago so that when he drove to his office in Tondo with his left arm out the window, thieves wouldn’t snatch the timepiece. This was back in the 1980s when one could not yet use the air conditioner of a new car when breaking in the vehicle for the first 1,000 kilometers.

His global ports giant International Container Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI) lies at the edge of Manila’s dirty district. Behind the 30-hectare ICTSI compound is an endless sea of slums, home to the country’s poorest of the poor.  Young boys and girls run around this muddy patch of earth while their parents eke out a living. Drug dealings and petty crimes are common in this netherworld.

But Razon, the brash Filipino billionaire of Spanish descent, thrives in this mayhem. As he said, he simply switched his watch to his right wrist. 

He has skillfully snaked through the labyrinthine Manila district as smoothly as he navigated his way to the chaotic world of business, here and abroad.  

These days, of course, EKR no longer drives to Tondo especially with the hellish traffic and his obsession with punctuality. He just flies between his offices — ICTSI in Tondo and the decadent Solaire casino resort in Parañaque — in his sleek orange Airbus Helicopter H155, touted in the aviation world as a “flying limousine.”  

Scroll to continue

But EKR is still the quintessential survivor that he is. “You can’t overcome them (crises), you can only survive them. I always expect to wake up to another crisis,” he said in an April 2019 interview with Forbes.

He is more worried when things are going too well. “If there’s nothing to worry about, then I invent one,” EKR told Bloomberg in 2016. 

It is therefore no surprise that the Zobels would turn to EKR to be the white knight of their embattled east zone water concessionaire Manila Water.

“Ricky is an astute, intuitive, perceptive and agile businessman. We have known each other for some time but this is the first time we will develop a business together. I like to think we quickly understood what value our two organizations brought to this opportunity at this stage in its business cycle,”  Ayala chairman Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, or JAZA, told me when I asked him why they chose Razon.

The fearless tycoon that he is, Razon grabbed the chance to become a major player in the water business, never mind that Manila Water has been the subject of President Duterte’s ire for months now.  As early as 2016, EKR had planned to expand into the water industry to help address a looming water shortage in Metro Manila, people close to him said.

From Syria’s civil war to the tequila crisis

Others see chaos and danger but with his alchemist eye, Razon sees opportunities.

He has made big bets on war zones, bringing his port operations to places like Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. Danger does not stop him. When visiting these hostile environments, he simply tells his driver to speed up.

In Mexico, his business had to navigate the Tequila Crisis, or the sudden peso devaluation.

EKR makes sure he is always prepared. 

“The most important thing is to match your balance sheet, your revenue... with the currency that you borrow,” he once said.

ICTSI, which EKR inherited from his father the late Enrique “Don Pocholo” Razon, is now a behemoth ports operator present in 19 countries and around 35 cities around the world — from Manila to Madagascar.

EKR travels more than 200 days a year, meeting with well-connected people who can help him expand further around the world.

“Whatever my style is, it’s my style,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal, in which he also shared the anecdote about the watch. 

Hatching the deal

While Razon thrives in crisis, JAZA and his brother Fernando do not like thorns in their side. 

One day, at the height of Duterte’s war against the oligarchs, the brothers gathered their key lieutenants in one of the meeting rooms in Tower 1 in Makati, Ayala’s towering headquarters, to discuss the future of Manila Water.

Debts were piling up and there seemed no end in sight for Duterte’s attacks. A suggestion cropped up — to take in a strategic investor who can also be the political white knight. 

The men in the room all agreed that EKR is just the man they need to grow Manila Water globally.

“Ricky is in 19 countries and 35 cities... If he can take over water distribution in 17 out of those 35 cities, imagine how big Manila Water can be,” said an Ayala insider. 

More importantly, EKR is perceived to be the perfect political white knight given his good relations with the Duterte administration.

And so it happened. On the first Saturday of February, a multi-billion deal was signed at EKR’s house somewhere in a posh gated village in Makati. 

A well-respected wise man in the business community believes the Zobels made a brilliant move when they decided to put Ricky Razon in charge of their beleaguered water company.

“You’re right,” I said, and the way that’s translated into Spanish fits perfectly well in this story tienes razón.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

Show comments