Lifestyle Business

The 10 most powerful businessmen in the Philippines

- Wilson Lee Flores -
"The price of power is responsibility for the public good." – Withrop Aldrich

"Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true."
Honore De Balzac

As the country’s most dramatic, cost-liest and hopefully not the most chaotic election for political power in years nears its crescendo, we recently conducted our annual informal survey of tycoons, bankers and corporate executives on whom they consider as the 10 most powerful business people in the Philippines.

To be a wealthy tycoon is not the same as being a powerful tycoon, in the same way that possessing political power does not necessarily confer greatness on a political leader.

Henry Sy may have made it to the cover of America’s Time Magazine and was cited as an Asian business colossus, but Sy doesn’t exert direct political influence on government or on political leaders.

John Gokongwei Jr. may be one of Asia’s wealthiest industrialists and very knowledgeable in history, but he is like most of Asia’s ethnic Chinese taipans who traditionally stay apolitical. During the martial law era, when almost all big business groups had to deal with the Marcos regime, Gokongwei kept strictly out of the political loop.

Here are the 10 most powerful business people in the Philippines based on our informal survey:

1) The Lopez clan

Despite financial difficulties in several companies of their diversified business empire, this politically astute Ilonggo family wields tremendous political clout with the country’s biggest and robustly profitable television and radio media group centered on ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation. In fact, a corporate official even once jokingly said that the "ABS-CBN Party" is actually stronger than the hodge-podge coalitions such as Lakas-NUCD or Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP). The country’s two leading vice-presidential bets Noli de Castro and Senate Majority Floor Leader Loren Legarda made their mark as ABS-CBN TV broadcasters before entering national politics.

Eugenio "Gabby" Lopez III of ABS-CBN is supporting President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in this election.

2) Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr.

The enigmatic chairman of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) has not publicly endorsed any presidential candidate. Though his NPC has members supporting both President Arroyo and rival Fernando Poe Jr., the movie actor has a longer history of alliance with Danding, and was his active campaign supporter during Danding’s ‘92 presidential bid and was celebrity endorser of his beer products. Despite political foes criticizing him as a Marcos and Estrada crony, Danding has impressed even his bitter critics by the strong financial success and aggressive international expansion of San Miguel Corp.

3) Mike Velarde

Rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches Mike Velarde is more well-known as a religious leader of the massive El Shaddai Catholic charismatic movement, but he still continues to dabble in business. Assisting him in his family’s various business ventures is his entrepreneurial son Franklin Velarde.

Unlike presidential bet Brother Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord Movement who was once a communist youth leader and who has since rejected Marxism, or the Iglesia ni Cristo boss Eraño "Ka Erdie" Manalo who is no businessman, Mike Velarde started out as a real estate developer. Is it true he is still brokering unity talks between Poe and Ping Lacson?

4) The Zobel-Ayala clan

This Hispanic clan has survived the Philippine revolution against Spain, the Philippine-American War, the bloody Japanese military occupation and other crises. They are entering the 21st century stronger than ever in the most strategic industries such as telecom (Globe Telecom), banking (Bank of the Philippine Islands and BPI Family Bank) and others. They remain the biggest landlords in the Makati financial district and have recently teamed up with immigrant taipan Jose Yao Campos of Unilab to gain control of the massive Fort Bonifacio project.

Although Jaime Zobel de Ayala once served as Ambassador to Great Britain during the Marcos regime, he eventually became closely identified with the People Power regime of President Corazon C. Aquino while his cousin Enrique Zobel backed Marcos.

5) Gozon and Duavit familes

The Gozon and Duavit families control the aggressively expanding television and radio group of GMA Network Inc., which is now seriously challenging ABS-CBN’s No. 1 position. Though chairman Atty. Felipe L. Gozon’s brother-in-law Menardo Jimenez relinquished management to him and the Duavit family in 2001, the Jimenezes still retain substantial shareholdings. Jimenez is a director of San Miguel Corporation, officer of many corporations and his eldest son, PLDT official Menardo "Butch" Jimenez Jr., is being urged by top business people to someday run for high public office.

6) Manuel "Manny" Pangilinan

The big boss of the country’s largest telecom firm Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) recently led several leaders of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) and SGV Group founder Washington SyCip in a high-profile meeting with Fernando Poe on their proposed policies for whoever will become President after the May 10 election. After surviving a headline-grabbing corporate war with John Gokongwei Jr. for control of PLDT and disposing the Fort Bonifacio project at a huge sacrifice, Pangilinan seems to have reconciled with the clan of Indonesian taipan Liem Sioe Liong (Sudono Salim) and retained his top post in Hong Kong-based First Pacific conglomerate. With Pangilinan spearheading First Pacific in investing in PLDT, it may eventually become a major success.

7) The Aboitiz clan

Despite their low-profile, Cebu’s prominent Aboitiz business clan is national leader in electric power, controls the biggest shipping giant WG&A and has investments in banking and other strategic industries. The Aboitizes are perceived to be staunch backers of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. During a top-level meeting of the President with the leaders of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. last year, Manila’s four Chinese-language newspapers published photos of then Trade Secretary Mar Roxas and Endika Aboitiz present at the Malacañang meeting. Despite the clan’s roots in the Basque region of Spain, they have close ties with the Chinese community and Aboitiz scions studied Mandarin in Beijing and Taipei. An Aboitiz executive joked that due to the Chinese-style of doing business, their surname should be "Amoytiz" – referring to the old British-style spelling of the city now called Xiamen in south China. GMA’s Presidential Social Secretary Bettina Araneta Aboitiz is the wife of tycoon Sabin Aboitiz.

8) FIRST GENTLEMAN Jose Miguel Arroyo

"Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society," said Michel Foucault. He might as well be explaining the perceived strong political clout of lawyer and First Gentleman Mike Tuason Aroyo, who has been a fiercely loyal political campaigner for his wife President Arroyo.

Unlike businessman Dennis Thatcher who stayed quietly out of the limelight during the tenure of his wife British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mike Arroyo is often in the forefront of his wife’s controversial political battles. The President’s younger brother, ATR-Kim Eng Capital Partners Inc. managing director Diosdado "Boboy" Macapagal Jr., is said to be her most trusted confidant, but the extremely humble Boboy has discreetly preferred to stay out of the limelight and supports his sister behind the scenes. A summa cum laude graduate of De La Salle University with a degree in BSC Accounting, as well as a master’s degree from the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), Boboy served as Finance Undersecretary under President Aquino.

9) Luis "Cito" Lorenzo Jr.

Although former Trade Secretary Mar Araneta Roxas, former Finance Secretary Lito Camacho and Energy Secretary Vince Perez were known as the three wealthiest cabinet officials of President Gloria Arroyo, perhaps now the truly wealthiest tycoon in her cabinet is Agriculture Secretary "Cito" Lorenzo.

Unknown to most people, Cito Lorenzo’s family is one of the world’s biggest banana/pineapple exporters and does huge volumes of trade with China. Said to be one of the favorite students of GMA in the Ateneo, this Wharton graduate and devout Catholic has a lot of admirers in the business community who are urging him to someday run for Senator. His late grandfather was once political kingpin of Zamboanga City, his late father was the Ateneo’s famed basketball star Moro Lorenzo and his late aunt Mayor Maria Clara Lorenzo Lobregat was an ally of Danding Cojuangco.

10) Lucio C. Tan

Although the taipan of Philippine Airlines, Fortune Tobacco, Philippine National Bank, Asia Brewery, Tanduay and other firms has maintained a low profile – especially vis-à-vis politicians in recent years – Tan is still perceived to be influential due mainly to his legendary generosity towards political campaigns. Tan is considered the senior leader of the local Chinese business community today. His best friend Bicolano transport tycoon Robin Sy is now also president of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc.

According to Lucio Tan – who was in Xiamen City, south China during Holy Week – he was busy with educational charities. He mentioned that young people in the Philippines should learn Mandarin, because the rest of the world is doing so. Plus, China offers lots of economic opportunities. Tan, whose nickname is "Capitan" to peers and even rivals, declined to comment on the May 10 election.
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Jean De La Bruyere once warned: "We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly."

We do not seek to praise or disparage these top 10 most powerful businessmen, but this writer hopes that they shall wield their political clout and other power to push far-reaching economic, political and other reforms that will make the Philippines a vibrant democracy, and the most efficient globally-competitive economy.

Power is not a privilege, not a source of pride and shouldn’t be misused to amass wealth, but is a social responsibility. We agree with British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who once declared, "Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People."
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Thanks very much for your messages. You may write to wilson_lee_flores@hotmail.com or wilson_lee_flores@newyork.com or wilson_lee_flores@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 14277, Ortigas Center, Pasig City.
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