Manny Villar on business, politics and Netflix

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - February 22, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Manuel “MBV” B. Villar Jr. takes out his worn-out notebook and shows me his notes. It’s the kind that reporters use – the one with the classic flip top, fits the pocket, has decent writing space and is rugged enough to take a beating.

But unlike mine, MBV’s notebook isn’t filled with interview notes.  Instead, I see lists of names and random jottings.

“What do you need a notebook for?” I ask him.

“I’m an entrepreneur. I like to create, so I write my ideas,” he says. He wakes up early and writes down his thoughts, usually while drinking freshly brewed coffee.

My eyes lit up with excitement. I might actually hear the next big story about the Villar Group – perhaps a new project or another of his many companies going public.  Or maybe, just maybe, the one-time presidential aspirant has decided to run for president again and I might just be the one to break the story.

It’s quite serendipitous that we are sitting in Another Story, a whimsical storybook-inspired dining place with pastel-colored sofas, patterned lamps, and curio finds, located on the second floor of Villar’s Evia Lifestyle Center in Las Piñas.

Evia is a stylish shopping district, I tell him, with its Venetian-inspired facade, an elaborate painting of blue skies and puffy clouds on its ceiling and avant-garde murals on its walls.

He smiles with pride. He loves creating businesses from the ground up, something he believes differentiates him from other tycoons who expand simply by acquiring existing brands.

The Forbes-listed billionaire – the country’s richest on an individual count with a net worth of $5 billion – insists it’s so much more than just about money. It’s about seeing his own idea become big – from real estate to retail; from coffee shops to plant stores; from malls to Sunday markets.

He likes to constantly think of how to satisfy Filipino customers’ evolving needs through “unique and quality” products and services.

“The malls abroad are so nice. So why can’t we do it here?”

A frustrated architect, MBV likes dabbling in design and architecture, and you see this in his malls and developments. His Coffee Project, for instance, has become one of the country’s most Instagram-worthy coffee chains with its quaint and cozy design.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, MBV has learned not to be too fixated on an idea in its original form. He adapts to the changing circumstances.

When the lockdown halted construction in what was supposed to be a new coffee shop in the Villar-owned Crosswinds in Tagaytay, MBV told his team to create something out of the situation and find light even in the darkest hours. The result is the widely popular “The Ruined Project?” – a coffee place with unfinished structures, exposed ceilings and holes on the walls, literally.

On an existential scale, MBV says it was about embracing the situation and growing from one’s limitations.

Manny Villar the politician

MBV, a former politician, says he learned a lot from the COVID-19 crisis. For one, it exposed the flaws of the country’s democratic system, he says.

He can only imagine how difficult it must be for his pal, President Duterte, to be leading the country at this time.

“If I were president, I’m sure I would have a difficult time, too,” he says.

At this point, I ask him if he would consider running for president again. He smiles, perhaps a bit nostalgic. Maybe he remembers the months – and money – he spent campaigning, as well as all the mudslinging – only to lose in the 2010 elections.

He simply says he is now happy running his businesses, quickly jesting that, while he can’t have the top political post in the country, he can be number one in business.

But as with other tycoons, MBV’s empire was not spared from the impact of COVID-19. Still, he is optimistic people will eventually go malling again and back to the cinemas.

“Maybe not now, but eventually it will happen because how can you go on a movie date with just Netflix?” he jests.

It’s not to say he does not enjoy Netflix. He says he likes the same series that I watch – Homeland, Queen’s Gambit, etc.

The next idea

What’s next for MBV? Would he join other tycoons in the NAIA Game of Thrones, the race to bag and redevelop the country’s main gateway?

He does not think so.

“My plate is full,” he says.

After more than an hour, MBV excuses himself. He has another meeting, somewhere in the mall, which he says is his “favorite office.” 

I really didn’t expect to see him that afternoon last week. After all, there have been all sorts of rumors about him since last year, from being sick to quietly flying to the Caribbean to stash away his billions. His camp doused cold water on such grapevine buzz, saying MBV was just either working from home or visiting his different developments.

I thank him for the chat. He leaves, face mask on, notebook in hand. Perhaps he is off to brew another idea. As for me, I got bits and pieces of his continuing story in this charming place called Another Story.

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

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