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The trials & triumphs of the Lopez family |

Sunday Lifestyle

The trials & triumphs of the Lopez family

- Domini M. Torrevillas -
Before the advent of electricity, there was one ritual that never failed to fascinate young Eñing (nickname of Eugenio Hofilena Lopez) and his siblings in the early 1900s: The mayordoma, at six p.m., would place all the lamps in the house on the dining table and check if each lamp had enough kerosene to last until 10 p.m. Never mind if the children went to bed earlier at eight.

Methodically, the mayordoma – equipped with scissors – would make sure that the wicks were trimmed to just the right size, so the flame would not emit needless smoke if the wick was too long, or the flame would be too small to illuminate a room if the wick was too short.

That done, the mayordoma would go from room to room bringing the lighted lamps until the house – from a distance – was bathed in a fine golden glow.

Whether Eñing knew it or not, lighting up corners in the life of almost every Filipino has been what the Lopez family has been doing through six generations – through generating and distributing electric power to illuminate homes, factories and offices; through television broadcasting to light up people’s minds and lift their spirits; through telecommunications to link up one with another, through superhighway construction to pave the way for progress in people mobility; through building integrated communities to suit 21st century lifestyles, and through other ventures that tap commerce and technology to make our lives comfortable and productive.

What we in this generation know is that the Lopez family is the powerful clan that presides over the largest broadcasting network of ABS-CBN, runs the Manila Electric Company (Meralco), and manages a number of electric power generating plants.

Some of us are also familiar with more high-profile personages in the family:

Fernando Lopez became Vice President of the Republic, a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Don Eugenio emerged as a powerful business tycoon presiding over a tri-media conglomerate that struck fear in the hearts of erring politicians. It was also he who assembled a team to do the improbable at that time: buy out American control of Meralco, and then recruited the best and the brightest in Filipino managerial talent.

Geny (Eugenio Jr.) became the critic – and then the prisoner – of a dictator. After years in jail, he escaped from prison. At the opportune time, he succeeded his father and took the reins of the group.

And Geny’s brother, Oscar (who almost became a priest), under a different dispensation, took over the helm of the business empire – and began a steady reconstruction of existing businesses, reinvented management in some corporations, and initiated a daring entry into unfamiliar territory.

At the sidelines is the storied romance of a strong-willed and beautiful daughter, Presy, with an engineer from Greece. The Greek engineer resigned from Meralco in the name of love, while the love-smitten daughter, inconsolable, took a one-way ticket to Greece to be reunited with Steve Psinakis, over the initial objections of Don Eugenio. The passion of the Greek did not only surface in love, but was also manifested in revolutionary fervor when he joined a group to resist a dictator in the land of his beloved.

On Manolo’s shoulders fell the arduous task of turning Meralco around after it was milked by Marcos’s cronies led by presidential brother-in-law Kokoy Romualdez. With a bias for speed, consummate athlete and nature lover Manolo (who was named after his godfather, former President Manuel Roxas) used speed and single-minded focus to raise the firm from the doldrums.

Youngest brother Robby, art patron and philanthropist by vocation, brought the Lopez Group toward social action programs that touched people’s hearts and minds.

Today, as Oscar Lopez said in the foreword of the book, Phoenix: The Saga of the Lopez Family, he is about ready to pass on the reins of running the businesses to the next generation – notable of whom are Gabby (Eugenio Gabriel Lopez III), who is chairman of ABS-CBN, and Piki (Federico Daniel Lopez), president of First Gas Power Corporation.

In the storied lives of the Lopezes, one thing emerges: Their work is their life. Work and life are in one flawless tapestry, one enriching the other in a healthy balance. Gabby spent most of his time in the office during the first few years of building ABS-CBN from the ground up circa 1986 to 1990.

Piki puts it this way: "When I got married, it didn’t take my wife long to realize that for family members in family-owned firms, work isn’t something you can just leave behind at the office. You take it home, it goes to bed with you, it’s present even in family get-togethers.

"Work and family, for me, are indistinguishable. Creating a home life that is happy and supportive is an integral part of my work and enables all of us to deal with the stresses and strains of the business."

This devotion to work has actually characterized the work and life ethic of even the earlier generation of the Lopezes, dating back even to the 1800s.
Founder Of The Lopez Clan
It all began with Basilio Lopez, born in early 1800s, a very successful merchant in Jaro, Iloilo, of mixed Filipino and Chinese blood. Early on, he had the knack for buying lands when others would be satisfied with their own little corner as their "world."

Known to have founded the Lopez clan, Basilio did a daring act: he resisted – and succeeded – in not changing his family name "Lopez" to comply with a Spanish edict that anyone from the town of Jaro should have a surname starting with the letter "J."

In fact, Basilio, the patriarch, was prominent enough, not only to preserve his name, but more so to become cabeza de barangay (district leader and tax collector) in 1842 and then to become gobernadorcillo or mayor of Jaro in 1849. And he was prosperous enough to have sent several of his sons to Manila universities.

One of such sons was Eugenio Jalandoni Lopez (1839-1906), the fourth of 16 children of Basilio and Maria Sabina Jalandoni. Of the brood of 16, ten would grow to adulthood to become successful entrepreneurs, merchants and plantation owners.
Eugenio & Benito
The first Eugenio left his law studies at the University of Santo Tomas in 1859, and entered into entrepreneurial ventures by acquiring and developing sugar lands in Negros and Iloilo.

"He saw in the new frontier of sugar planting a chance to do something extraordinary in a place where few men had ever gone before. A taste for pioneering was a trait he would pass on to many of his descendants," biographer Raul Rodrigo said.

But Eugenio was one who was also willing to part with considerable sums and mortgage haciendas to advance worthy causes. "Like his contemporaries Marcelo H. del Pilar and Jose Rizal, Eugenio was inspired by many precepts of the French Revolution. Unlike them, he did not have the benefit of education in Paris or Madrid. He spent the past 15 years taming a brutish, inhospitable wilderness" in Iloilo.

Early in the years of the Lopez clan, Eugenio and his brothers were engaged in philanthropy and social work. This prompted a fellow Ilonggo, the patriot Graciano Lopez Jaena, to later write: "What grateful memories awake in the hearts of the poor at the mere mention of (Eugenio’s and Claudio’s) names!"

Now we come to Benito, Eugenio’s son from a brood of 15, who grew up with renowned heroes in Philippine history. When he was studying law at the UST, one batch behind him was Emilio Jacinto who was "juggling law classes and propaganda work for the revolutionary newspaper Kalayaan. After the revolution, Benito became politically active joining other young men at the time, notably Sergio Osmeña, Juan Sumulong, Ramon Avanceña, and Galicano Apacible. But Benito also had something else in mind. He wanted to tie the knot with a beautiful lass from a prominent family in Guimaras – Presentacion Javelona Hofileña, affectionately called Asion. The union of Benito and Presentacion would later be enshrined in the name Benpres Corporation, the Lopez Group’s holding company.
EñIng & Nanding: Brother-Partners
Benito had only two children, Eugenio (Eñing) and Fernando (Nanding). Eñing was six and Nanding was three when their father died. And so they were left to the care of brother Vicente who, fortunately, shared the values of Benito – hard work, devotion to truth, and stoicism in the face of suffering.

At this time electrical power began to arrive in the Philippines, although in a limited way. Eñing went to Ateneo and graduated cum laude, and then proceeded to the UP College of Law. Nanding, on the other hand went to Letran and graduated with distinction, and thenceforth took up law at UST. After college, Eñing went to Harvard, the first generation to study abroad (to be followed by his two sons in later years).

Eñing was the consummate businessman, while brother Nanding had his heart in serving in the government. So while Eñing was building his business enterprises in Iloilo - from sugar refining to air transportation, from newspaper publishing to radio broadcasting – Nanding ran for mayor in Iloilo and won.

The two brothers thus proceeded to have their appointment with destiny on different routes. And in a country where business and politics mix, the two brothers would find themselves supporting each other.

Support also came from their wives. Nanding married Maria Salvacion Javellana, nicknamed "Mariquit," while a bit later Eñing married Pacita Moreno, fondly called "Nitang." These women proved to be strong women, occasioning a remark from a family friend, Claro M. Recto that "the Lopez women are tigers, while the men are lambs."

That may be a facetious remark, because Eñing, particularly, is both visionary and courageous. While his provincemates contented themselves staying in Iloilo and Negros, Eñing decided he would fulfill his destiny when he would move to Manila. Once he did that, he just extended his enterprises in the then emerging financial capital. In due course, he bought the Manila Chronicle, and in a much later year, he assembled a team to buy out American interest in the Manila Electric Company (Meralco).

The 1950s to the ’60s proved to be a period of ascendancy for the Lopez family due to the shared leadership of Don Eugenio and Don Fernando. In 1957, for example, Eñing acquired Alto Broadcasting and the franchise for Channel 3. (These were later combined to become ABS-CBN.) In 1958, Nanding became Senator.

In 1961, Eñing’s right-hand man, Roberto Villanueva, began formal talks with Albert Tegen in New York for the sale of Meralco – and thus in 1962 the purchase agreement was signed, enabling the Lopezes to take over the largest Philippine public utility which was then worth P244 million.
The Lopezes Under Martial Law
With the combined tri-media power and corporate muscle, the Lopez Group proved to be a strong ally and a formidable critic – or foe. Former President Carlos P. Garcia was close to the Lopezes, never forgetting that, once Fernando Lopez gave way to Garcia for nomination to the vice presidency in the Nacionalista Party.

But the Presidents after Garcia – Diosdado Macapagal, and then Ferdinand Marcos – had a number of reasons to decimate, if not oppose, the Lopezes. Left to their own democratic – and not so democratic ways – these heads of state could not succeed in their goals. It took the iron grip of martial law, declared by Marcos in September 1972, to physically take over the businesses of the Lopezes, notably Meralco.

A simple chronology of events leading to the takeover shows the elaborate Marcosian handiwork. On May 29, 1972, for example, the Public Service Commission (the precursor of the Energy Regulatory Commission) approved 36.6 percent rate increase for Meralco. After the declaration of martial law in September 1972, the May 29 rate increase was unreasonably rolled back to 20.9 percent (calibrated to disable Meralco from paying its obligations).

With lightning speed, the 2nd Engineering Brigade headed by Col. Francisco Gatmaitan physically occupied the Meralco compound.

The pressure play of Marcos began. A month after the martial law declaration, Marcos sent Kokoy Romualdez to the United States and told Don Eugenio to endorse martial law and to support the Marcos dictatorship. Expectedly, Don Eugenio declined.

Noting that the Lopez patriarch could not be persuaded that easily, Don Eugenio’s eldest son, Geny, was arrested on November 27, 1972, on charges that Geny, as well as Serge Osmeña, conspired to assassinate Marcos.

In October 1973, at the Meralco stockholders’ meeting, Marcos-appointed representatives asked Don Eugenio and all those affiliated with the Lopezes to resign from the Meralco board.

To complete the takeover and make it look legitimate, Marcos issued a directive in October 1973 that anyone holding more than 10,000 shares in MSC would have to sell such shares to the Meralco Foundation, Marcos’ newly invented corporate mechanism to complete his control of this prime corporation.

With Marcos’s promise that his son Geny would be released, with failing health, Don Eugenio, in November 29, 1973, under duress, signed an agreement in Honolulu – selling the 27 percent stake of Benpres in MSC – for a measly amount of P10,000 as a downpayment; the rest to be paid through a doubtful "pay when able" scheme.

Once Meralco was completely under his control, Marcos used the powers of his absolute rule and asked the Board of Power (another Marcosian creation) to approve an unprecedented rate increase of 135 percent on March 4, 1974.

In Fort Bonifacio, Don Eugenio’s son and heir-apparent was still languishing in jail. This despite the earlier promise of Marcos to release Geny upon the surrender of key family properties – ABS-CBN and Meralco.

Knowing that there was no way Marcos would release his son Geny, and noting that he had to counter Marcos’ disinformation, Don Eugenio finally broke his silence on what actually happened in the takeover of Meralco and ABS-CBN in 1975.

In October 1977, Geny and Serge staged a successful escape from prison, a feat that became a blockbuster movie and that made a celebrity out of the daring duo.

The daring escape closed a dark chapter in the life of the Lopezes, at the same time it opened a whole new era where the Lopezes would yet again stage a comeback and play their major role in the country’s post-Edsa economy.

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