Modern Living

Fernando Zobel on visionary leadership, the need for agility and what he values about Ayala Malls' merchants

Scott and Therese Garceau - The Philippine Star
Fernando Zobel on visionary leadership, the need for agility and what he values about Ayala Malls' merchants
Ayala Land chairman and Ayala Corporation president and CEO Fernando Zobel de Ayala makes his opening remarks at “Constellations to Tomorrow,” Ayala Malls’ merchant-appreciation event at Seda Lio Resort.
STAR/ File

It was quite a sight: all of the Philippines’ retail and dining stars in one place, delighted to see each other again — catching up, laughing, and networking.

Ayala Malls — represented by Ayala Land chairman and Ayala Corporation CEO Fernando Zobel de Ayala, Ayala Land president and CEO Bobby Dy, and Ayala Malls president Chris Maglanoc — recently flew 180 of their top merchants to Lio in El Nido, Palawan, for an appreciation event that turned into an all-night party.

We chatted with Xandra Ramos of National Book Store at Ayala’s Air Swift lounge while waiting for our flight to El Nido. Rikki and Beng Dee of Foodee Global Concepts soon came in.

At Seda Lio we saw Rustan Commercial Corporation president Donnie Tantoco, Ivan Yao of Lucerne, actor/restaurateur Marvin Agustin, chef Florabel Co-Yatco, and Cecile Zamora of Pepper Lunch. At dinner we were seated next to Ana Lorenzana de Ocampo of Wildflour and her husband, Jay Jay de Ocampo.

Zobel de Ayala with Ivan Yao of Lucerne and Ayala Land president and CEO Bobby Dy

While this kind of Ayala event was previously based around competition and awards, this time around it was more relaxed, poised to assure merchants of a closer relationship going forward, post-pandemic.

We could see that top merchants there felt the love, in a fireworks-filled poolside party themed “Constellations to Tomorrow,” outlining the interconnected nature of Ayala’s food and retail “stars” and future growth.

Merchant Appreciation Night: (from left) Ayala Malls president Christopher Maglanoc; Ayala Land president and CEO Bobby Dy; Ayala Land chairman and Ayala Corporation president and CEO Fernando Zobel de Ayala; SVP and group head of Commercial Malls, Commercial Offices, Hotels & Resort and ALI Capital Junie Jalandoni

We asked Fernando Zobel de Ayala how these merchants are selected and what he values most about them, and he replied, “While financial performance does carry some weight, so do other factors that play crucial roles in ensuring sustainability and forging long-term relationships. These include, for example, shared values and common goals; an openness to collaboration and the corresponding ability to do so constructively; visionary leadership that makes a difference in, and elevates, the retail scene; and risk-taking concept differentiation able to break new grounds and open up opportunities for other players.

“At Ayala Malls, we consider revenue generation as a natural outcome of these factors. They are by no means secondary to the bottom line. This event demonstrates our sincere appreciation to everyone who has been with us through successes and stumbling blocks amid changing regulatory and health landscapes and in the thick of concerted efforts to regain and redefine growth horizons altered by a global pandemic.”

In such a pandemic Ayala faced a choice: whether to be the hardnosed landlord focused on the bottom line or share the burden with their tenants, and Zobel chose the latter, which was much appreciated by their merchants.

As he said during poolside remarks: “Early on in the crisis, (Ayala Land president) Bobby Dy asked me, ‘Fernando, how do we play this? Do we stick to our interests, which might really hurt the merchants? Or do we share the pain together?’ And of course, I said ‘Let’s share the pain together.’”


ustan Commercial Corp. president Donnie Tantoco says, “What makes Ayala different is they not only want to be part of the economy, they really want to be a true part of the community. They want to create that place where the merchants’ lives will be upgraded, more convenient, but also they can grow even more from there.”

After Zobel’s comment about “sharing the pain” the previous night, Tantoco reflected, “I think they were taking a bit more than 50 percent of the pain. They weren’t sharing all of it, but they were taking at least another bullet.”

Going forward, he sees Ayala’s willingness to adapt as a major plus: “We’ve always felt that they know retail enough to know how to find a win-win. Speaking of resilience and survival, they’re genuinely curious about brand evolution, and when they hear a good idea, they adjust. They’re not ‘one size fits all.’ They want to make sure that their tenant doesn’t do mediocre stuff and play it safe.”


Dy noted that foot traffic was up to 92% of pre-pandemic levels at the malls, so we asked Zobel whether retail or dining was more responsible for that.

“Both retail and dining drive traffic to the malls,” he replied. “What we have consistently observed, however, is that the power to draw crowds is directly tied to one’s capacity for innovation.
“A customer’s experience is a central determinant of success in an individual retail space. A business can make itself stand out only by proving that a visit will lead to an experience that is unique and pleasurable.

“In a fast-paced environment characterized by individual experiences more frequently being magnified through social media, being simultaneously innovative and share-worthy has become an essential skill for adeptly navigating the ‘new normal.’ It therefore does not matter whether one is in retail or dining: wherever space enhances the experience, the cadence of repeat visitors is reinforced and amplified.”

One such establishment is Wildflour, whose customer base is vast and loyal. CEO Ana Lorenzana de Ocampo recalls that Wildflour was invited to surround Louis Vuitton’s first-ever flagship store in Manila as part of the revamp of Greenbelt 3. “We were awarded the beautiful and iconic central space in the atrium, and despite all the challenges when the pandemic hit, we, together with Ayala Malls, made Wildflour Greenbelt a reality.” Even amid the quarantine restrictions, “We were able to open our first-ever restaurant in an Ayala development last December, to cap off a strong 2021.”

It’s become one of their busiest branches since, “thanks in part to Ayala and Greenbelt’s unwavering support, especially with helping with the grand re-launch of our trademark Retro Night events, which have been a runaway success.” She’s looking forward to “further growing our partnership in the coming years.”


obel says two of the most valuable lessons he’s learned over the past two years have been the need for agility and the importance of Ayala Malls’ relationship with partner merchants and developers.

“Notice how I chose ‘agility’ instead of the more-often used catchword of ‘adaptability,’” he points out. “Adaptability is already a fundamental concept among businesses; fluid environments and dynamic priorities have made it an essential requirement not to thrive but to survive. The pandemic has shown us that the sheer capability to scan the surroundings and subsequently steer the course of an organization is no longer sufficient. The response to anticipated and unforeseen changes should be swift and decisive.

“Adaptability without agility is well meaning but potentially futile in today’s context. The world now is drastically different from how it was only two years ago, and only those agile enough to negotiate rapidly shifting terrains have a shot at triumph.”

One such enduring merchant is National Book Store, and NBS purchasing director Xandra Ramos told us why: “Ayala Malls is a trusted partner that has helped National Book Store grow through the years. We share a passion for innovating and optimizing the shopping experience, and Ayala Malls keeps giving customers new reasons to keep returning to their malls.”

She spoke of the innovations that have grown out of the past several years, like Ayala Malls Neighborhood Assistance, usage of activity centers for events and pop-ups, and also “new ways of reaching customers through the Zing! Mall, which is making shopping even easier.”

Zobel emphasizes, “Our merchants and us developers are the lifeblood of our malls. Going through the challenges of the pandemic together cemented our bonds of goodwill and trust and ushered us into another era of heightened cooperation. We need to listen to each other more, teach each other more, and learn from each other more.
The pandemic has not waned but reignited a spirit of entrepreneurship upon which we build an even more resilient, recognizable, and socially conscious brand.”

As inspirational speaker Francis J. Kong noted during a pep talk before dinner was served at Seda Lio Resort, COVID-19 actually helped businesses adapt almost overnight in ways that would have taken them years otherwise. The laser-like focus needed to build back and think differently after a pandemic was necessary going forward, and Ayala has shown it is willing to adapt and grow just as swiftly.

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Follow the authors on Facebook and Instagram @scottgarceau and @theresejamoragarceau.


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