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Lifestyle Business

Century Properties founder Joey Antonio on his success secrets, business heroes and dreams

BULL MARKET, BULL SHEET - Wilson Lee Flores -

One of the most dynamic realty developers in the booming Philippine realty industry now is Century Properties Group founder and one of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s special envoys to China, Ambassador Jose “Joey” EB Antonio. He is the successful developer of Essensa condominium in The Fort, which was designed by world-famous architect IM Pei. Among his ongoing, large-scale projects is the 3.4-hectare Century City in Makati (with affordable condos like Gramercy Residences and Knightsbridge Residences), and the 17-hectare Canyon Ranch community in Carmona of Cavite province.

His newest venture is the six-hectare, nine-building project called Azure Urban Resort Residences near the Bicutan Exit of the South Luzon Expressway in Parañaque, on the land of self-made tycoon Jose “Pepito” Alvarez of Columbian Motors, and for which he signed up top showbiz stars Ruffa Gutierrez and Piolo Pascual as celebrity endorsers. We recently had an exclusive two-hour interview with Ambassador Antonio. Excerpts:

Your most beautiful project is Essensa condominium in The Fort, where the late Philippine STAR columnist Josie Lichauco lived and where she told me she’d like to show me her late dad’s painting collection.

Josie Lichauco was a personal friend because she was the teacher of my wife, Hilda, at Assumption. One of the students in her class became president of the Philippines, called Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

How was Josie as a teacher?

She was strict.

Was Essensa your best project as a developer?

There are two projects that I am most proud of: Essensa in Fort Bonifacio and The Centurion in New York City — it’s a residential building.

How did a Filipino developer do a project in one of the world’s greatest cities?

My third son Robbie used to work in New York; he was there for nine years working for a management consulting firm and then a venture capital firm.

We were up against the major developers there. But you know why America — despite the present economic problems there — is still attractive to foreign investors? There’s a level playing field in the US. It doesn’t matter whether you’re American or non-American, you can do business there as long as you follow the rules. That’s why I believe America still has hope; that’s why they are still attracting a lot of foreign investors.

How can the Philippines be like that — a truly level playing field with less corruption and less palakasan?

To arrive at a state of good governance, there should be absolute governance in dispensing our laws.

I heard that your father, Ramon Antonio Jr., is in charge of the Human Resource Department at your company. Is that true? Is he your boss at Century Properties or does he work for you?

He assists us. He was head of the foreign exchange department of a bank. I told my father in 1985 when he retired, instead of just spending time at home doing nothing, why don’t you help me with my business? Before the retirement age was 60 years old; now it’s 65. My father’s 84 and he’s still in good health.

His longevity seems to corroborate the belief that not totally retiring is good for a long life.

Yeah, would you live long if you stayed in the house? If one is accustomed to work, then you stopped and just stayed at home, you’d die! My belief is if you retire, you will expire!

That’s exactly what John Gokongwei Jr. told me. That’s also what Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said when he visited the funeral of Indonesian President Suharto.

Did Gokongwei say that?

Yes, that it’s good for longevity and good health to not totally retire from everything. Look at SGV Group founder Washington SyCip.

Wash SyCip is on the board of our company.

What about your mother, how old is she? What is her name?

My mother is Virginia Barata Antonio. She’s 82 years old.

What are your parents’ longevity and health secrets?

Simple living, positive outlook and no stress, or minimal stress (laughs).

What important lessons did you learn from your parents?

My mother taught us how to budget. Our father had limited income, so every month when his salary came, she’d do budgeting in the real sense. She’d use 10 envelopes where she would put the money — for example, P200 for the Meralco electric bill, P50 for the Nawasa water bill, then the maid’s salary too. Money was really allocated.

Wow, your electric bill was only P200? When was this?

It was in the mid-1950s.

Where was your hometown?

We’re from Manila. Ermita, across the Ermita church on MH del Pilar Street. They used to live in a one-story place, simple.

Do you have any stories about your grandparents?

My grandfather, Ramon Antonio Sr., was the first Filipino vice president of the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) at the time when BPI was dominated mainly by Spanish people. Even the deposit slips of the bank were in Spanish, not English.

He was the first brown-skinned vice president of BPI. Before, if you were not a coño kid, you couldn’t be a top official at BPI, San Miguel, Tabacalera, Victorias Milling and others. They were all run by Spaniards before.

Was your lolo a Spanish mestizo?

No, he wasn’t mestizo, but he was very good in Spanish and even taught Spanish in school. He was actually the one who mentored me.

In what way?

He emphasized the importance of education and hard work. During summers in the early 1960s, he used to make me work as a messenger clerk at BPI. I would bring quedans (warehouse receipts) of the sugar mills to the Central Bank. The quedans were used by the sugar mills as collateral for BPI loans. During that time, the sugar industry was one of the biggest industries in the Philippines.

Where was BPI located then?

It was in Plaza Cervantes in Binondo, kaya alam ko yung mga masasarap na mga kainan diyan sa (that’s why I know those delicious dining places in) Binondo, from Rosario to T. Pinpin Street, from Ongpin to Juan Luna Street.

So your lolo was a big positive influence on your future success?

Yes. In fact, when I took my master’s at the Ateneo, it was my lolo who insisted that I take it. That was in 1966, and my tuition then was P1,000, the equivalent to about P200,000 now. It was a full-time master’s in business management (MBM) program, forerunner of the AIM. There were only 21 graduates then, matinik yung mga professors namin (our professors were very sharp). Our dean was Aurelio Montinola.

The father of present BPI president Aurelio “Gigi” Montinola III?

Yes, the father of Gigi. I was his favorite. He’d always wrap his arm around my back.

Where did your grandfather study, where did he learn Spanish and banking?

He was an accountant; he studied at the prewar Jose Rizal College.

That’s where my late father also studied before the war, as well as his classmate, Chinese community leader Ralph Nubla of PBCom, Antonio Roxas Chua of the future Pacific Bank, the son of prewar tycoon Dy Buncio, and Bienvenido Tantoco.

Yes, that’s also the prewar school where Chester Babst went and Fabella, who became Central Bank governor. I think also Andres Castillo.

So your lolo was smart?

Maybe he was just lucky. (Laughs) No, in fairness, he was very intelligent.

According to my research you were a smart student in your youth. You graduated with cum laude honors from San Beda College.

(Laughs) Cum laude is the bottom of the honors in school. There’s summa cum laude and magna cum laude.

What motivated you to excel in your studies?

The reason? I didn’t want to burden my parents with my tuition expenses, so I studied hard to get a scholarship.

How and why did you go into the real estate business?

I love reading biographies of successful people, like JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and others. In the Philippines, I read about people like prewar tycoon Vicente Madrigal, who started in coal but ended up in real estate. What struck me from all these readings was that perhaps nine out of 10 of the most successful and wealthiest families derived and continue to derive incomes from real estate. Of course in recent years, the world’s wealthiest is Bill Gates of information technology (IT). IT has surpassed real estate, but real estate is still very important and a strong catalyst of economic development.

How did you start your firm?

Century Properties started out as a broker in 1986, in real estate marketing. We sold everything. We would sell houses in Makati villages. Eventually in 1987, we had our first development called Le Grand on Valero Street, Salcedo Village, Makati — 12 stories with 52 units.

When was this?      

1987, and it was totally sold and was profitable. I wish to tell you that in my first realty project, I borrowed money from Henry Sy’s Banco de Oro at their first branch in Cubao, Quezon City.

BDO, which today is the biggest bank in the Philippines?

Yes, the BDO of today was then a savings bank.

Did you tell Henry Sy this?

Yes, I always tell Mr. Sy that I owe a lot to him.

Is that the reason you have a photo of you with Henry Sy, together with GMA, on your office wall beside the HR Ocampo painting?

Yes, that photo was taken during the 1997 launching of our Essensa project, and GMA was then still a senator. Henry Sy used to attend all the launchings of my projects because he was interested in what I was doing. Ang sipag talaga ni Henry Sy! (Henry Sy is truly hardworking!)

Do you still keep in touch with him?

Yes, in fact, just two weeks ago during the Chinese Lunar New Year, I visited his house to personally give him a gift. He is 86 years old. We had lunch together and I asked him this question: What else do you still want to accomplish in your life? You know what his reply was? “I’m always open to a good deal (laughs).” Henry Sy’s incredible; he is exceptional. For me, Henry Sy is one of the people whom I truly admire.

Any advice you got from him?

Yes, he was also the one who told me that your children are like the fingers of your hands: they are not all equal, but they all come from the same hand and everyone is needed by the others. If you lack only one finger, how can you do things or even just hold a spoon? He is right. Those are words of wisdom.

What about the other legendary taipan, John Gokongwei Jr.?

I worked with Gokongwei when he first established Robinsons Galleria. I was his marketing arm. I even trained his son, Lance, in real estate when he started working after he came back from the US.

What are your impressions of Lance?

He is very sharp.

Any other Gokongwei anecdotes?

I would often see Mr. John — or big John — in his suit, but always carrying his checkbook.

Why would he always carry his checkbook? Isn’t he supposed to be thrifty and not prone to overspending?

(Laughs) That’s why. Maybe he was watching his balance, always, guarding against it becoming less! He was watching his billions (laughs).

By the way, all your four sons did well in school — three went to Wharton and one went to Stanford. How did you raise your kids so well that they are humble, unlike some spoiled brats of other tycoons who crave publicity without real achievements or disobey their parents?

It’s not me. I have to give it to my wife, Hilda, in rearing the kids. She was the one who said their studying abroad was non-negotiable.

* * *

In the middle of the interview, Antonio’s cell phone started ring-ing and he excused himself, saying it was Robinsons retail chain boss and Philippine STAR columnist Robina Gokongwei-Pe calling. They chatted about his invitation for the Gokongweis’ Topshop, Robinsons Supermarket and Handyman to open at Century Properties’ new mall project in the former International School campus in Makati, now called Century City. It will be completed in 2012. He asked her whom his office should contact regarding the invitation. He said that the mall still had no name, but joked that he’d probably call it “The Friends of Robina Mall.”

Antonio said to Robina, “Turuan mo ako ha, wala pa akong alam sa retail. (Teach me, I still have no knowledge of retail).” Robina replied that when it comes to retail, the Sys of SM are the best and he could learn from them. Antonio asked, “Nakikialam pa ba dad mo? (Does your dad still help run the business?)” and laughed at Robina’s reply. Antonio ended by saying, with a laugh, “Regards to your husband, Perry, kuya ko iyon (he’s my elder brother).”

* * *

What did Robina say when you asked if her dad still helps run the businesses?

Robina’s answer? “Sobra, as in…” May “as in” pa siya (“Very much, as in…” She even said “as in.”) (laughs)

Gokongwei, his wife, siblings and kids are all so humble and hardworking.

Yes, they’re simple. Maybe the people who typically made it through hard work and those who started from scratch —literally — many of them still maintain their humility.

How did you come up with your company name Century Properties?

After the martial law years, after the Ninoy Aquino assassination in 1983, I went to California in 1984 because there was no business here. All people opened dollar accounts and repatriated their money out. Bank interest rate was 30 percent per annum! Those were difficult years. I trained with the Century 21 realty firm in the US, and I got inspired by this company, which even became a public company. That’s where I got the name for Century Properties.

What are your success secrets?

Maybe I was both aggressive and also conservative. It was all also timing.

Any special business strategy you follow?

I remember what Warren Buffett once said: “Be greedy when people are fearful, and be fearful when others are greedy.”

In the Philippines and the world today after the US economic crisis, is this a time to be fearful or greedy?

Now? Me, I’m optimistic but at the same time, I measure the risks very carefully. The words to describe it are “cautiously optimistic.”

Going back to the idea of being fearful, is the heated and possibly fractious election on May 10 a cause for some fear?

The election causes anxiety, because of the uncertainty of the conduct and the outcome.

Who among the candidates would be best to be the next Philippine president?

(Laughs) I prefer not to make comments on politics. All of the candidates mean well for the country.

Since Century Properties Group is doing well and you have four good sons helping run your business, would you someday run for public office?

(Laughs) Never!

But it seems everybody wants to be a politician nowadays, from showbiz stars and religious leaders to some of the kids of tycoons.

I don’t know about them. (Laughs) I sincerely believe I can serve our people by doing what I know best.

What are your hobbies?

Photography and travel. I have four cameras for different occasions and purposes.

What are the top three best places you’ve traveled to?

No. 1, Africa. My family went to South Africa last December. We went on a safari, and there in the jungles one realizes that we’re just one very small speck in our planet. The jungle is so vast.

Next best travel destination?

No. 2 is New York City. Yeah, it’s my second home. It’s a place where one gets an abundance of art, culture, food and fashion. In such a small place, it has everything, and everything is walkable.

What is your No. 3 favorite?

Paris! Aside from it being a center of fashion, I admire the French very much. They know how to live (laughs). We Asians work, work, work, but the French will say, “Let’s have a drink.” Sosyal, dinner is three hours, di ba, while we hurry up for a bowl of soup!

What is your dream for the Philippines?

You know, our per-capita income is only US$2,000 per person now. I’d like to see more people join the middle class. Well, if you look at our society, in politics, the biggest voting population are the D and E segments.

What percent of the total population is classified as poor by your reckoning?

I think 65 percent of the population consider themselves poor.

President Arroyo appointed you as special envoy to China in May 2005. What are your thoughts on the rise of China and how Philippine society can benefit from this?

When I was appointed special envoy, I formed immediately the Philippines China Business Council composed of all top Filipino-Chinese businessmen. Our president is Henry “Big Boy” Sy Jr., our vice presidents are Lance Gokongwei and Butch Campos, our treasurer is Alfred Ty of Metrobank Group, our secretary is Jimmy Bautista of Philippine Airlines representing Lucio Tan.

On the rise of China, I believe there are three areas the Philippines can benefit from this phenomenon: No. 1, tourism; No. 2, mining, because they need all the raw materials for their booming industries; and No. 3 is agriculture. My wish is for the incoming president to look at opening the execution of the Build Operate Transfer (BOT), for investors to come, because the government has limited resources to build more bridges, highways, ports, etc. There is a need for more partnership between investors and government, in order to accelerate economic development.

If you were not in business, what profession would you be in now?

(Laughs) If not in business, I’d be a photographer or a priest.

Are you religious?

When I was young (laughs). I almost entered the seminary when I was 12 years old.

So you are a religious person?

I just practice the Golden Rule (laughs). No, no, no, joke only! What I mean to say is that religion and our faith are both good and bad. Sometimes we are too dogmatic in our ways and we should be more flexible.

In what way should we be flexible?

For example, on the issue of birth control, we Catholics should be flexible. The main problem of the Philippines is we have too many people. Do you know, by 2015, we will be 100 million people? Look at the national problems. No matter how much you earn, there’s not enough to feed or clothe or educate if we have too many people. There should be a conscious program for population control. Otherwise, no matter how much this country develops, it will never be enough.

Your celebrity endorsers are actress Ruffa Gutierrez and actor Piolo Pascual. What is your comment regarding the recent public spat between Kris Aquino and Ruffa Gutierrez?

(Laughs) I really don’t interfere in celebrity talk…

All right, no interfering or taking sides; what about just a comment on this most recent controversy?

I think celebrities want controversy (laughs). That’s the way they keep their names in the headlines.

* * *

Thanks for your letters, all will be answered. E-mail [email protected] or Facebook.

BUSINESS

CENTURY PROPERTIES

HENRY SY

LAUGHS

ONE

PEOPLE

STILL

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