Sunday Lifestyle

Lucio Tan Jr.: Muscle man in the boardroom

LIFE AND STYLE - Millet M. Mananquil - The Philippine Star
Lucio Tan Jr.: Muscle man in the boardroom
Bong Tan relates how Lucio Tan Sr. taught him to be a good person, and learn from lessons in Chinese history. ‘He is very strict, no baloney.’
Photos by KJ Rosales

Iron Man? ‘Yes, I can iron clothes. Magaling ako maglaba ha, especially when I was a student abroad.’

Lucio Tan Jr. has entered the building.

We hear the sound of a helicopter approaching Century Park Hotel, and Philippine Airlines (PAL) spokesperson and external communications chief  Cielo Villaluna says in her signature mellow voice: “ Bong Tan is here!”

In a few minutes, Bong appears, looking cool and sharp in a battle-green blazer, with an untucked white polo shirt, a snazzy, tiny strip of printed cloth peeping out beneath the buttons. He wears no socks, something I would expect from a guy who seems like a warm person, someone who is not at all stiff, someone who is generous with his smiles and laughter. One thing popping out of the blazer is his athletic form. The abs, as seen through my X-ray vision, look good. This is certainly a man who knows how to keep fit.

And save time. Do you always take a chopper to keep your appointments? I ask, considering that it was rush hour in Metro Manila.

“My father always wants to be on time, he wants to be in his next destination within five minutes,” Bong says, as if explaining how he has absorbed the habit of punctuality — and riding choppers — from his father Lucio Tan Sr., a Forbes lister, the seventh richest man in the Philipines who famously loves riding helicopters.

“My dad, who is 84, has been riding helicopters for the past 35 years,” Bong says. “He has saved the equivalent of seven years of traffic hours by doing so.”

This cool guy is quite a mathematician. Bong studied high school at Dunman in Singapore, then spent two years of intensive Chinese language and history studies at Beijing University before going to the University of California, Davis for his college degree, majoring in civil engineering, minor in mathematics, economics and linguistics, specializing in ancient Chinese classics and Mandarin.

He took his Executive Master of Business Administration program at Kellogg University through a link-up with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Bong’s passion, though, has always been sports, specifically basketball.             

Quinito Henson, the country’s top sports analyst, says: “Bong Tan, the basketball player, has always been known as a lights-out shooter. He is also an ideal team manager. Under his leadership, Tanduay Rum won multiple championships in the PBL in the late 1990s. He is very passionate about sports, and he has this sincere desire to see our athletes excel.”

Cielo says: “Bong Tan is a driving force behind the partnership of Tanduay Rum — Asia’s first and now the world’s largest-selling rum — and 2017 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. This tie-up marks a first of its kind for a Philippine brand to partner with an NBA Championship Team and engage with fans at a global level.”

But I am leaping ahead of my story. How did this civil engineer-mathematician jump from boardroom to basketball — and back?

 Let’s listen to Bong’s story:

Tanduay president Bong Tan, in his cool getup minus socks at the Tanduay Store in Century Park Hotel: A toast to Asia's first rum and the triumph of the Filipino spirit.

Philippine STAR: How was it growing up with your dad?

Lucio “Bong” Tan Jr.: He was very strict, no baloney. He was always busy, never wasting time. He was always teaching us.

What did you learn from him?

Everything. How to be a good student, a good person. What to expect, how to prepare yourself in school, in society, in the business world. How to judge people and understand people.

Your dad’s path to success is an inspiring rags-to-riches story. How has this inspired you?

Dad’s struggles always remind us of our origin. He started working as a bodegero at age of nine or 10. In college, he was working in the chemical division of a cigarette factory. He saw that one ingredient was totally imported. He said: Why do we have to import refined glycerine when we can make it?

So that inspired you to be enterprising. Growing up, did you experience having that entrepreneurial streak?

Oh, yes. When I was a high school student in Singapore in the 1980s, I met this Malaysian guy selling German-made vacuum cleaners that were small but powerful. At that time, vacuum cleaners in the Philippines were big and expensive, maybe P20,000.

His was only about P4,000 so I got two, showed these to my aunt who was impressed, and we sold these in Manila at double the price. We didn’t own PAL then, so I brought them myself, paid luggage dues and taxes. That was my first attempt at business.

Forbes lists your dad’s assets at US$7.5 billion. What does being rich mean to you? What does money mean to you?

Pressure. You have to maintain and grow the business, and you have to give back, learn to share. As Uncle Ben said in the movie Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility...It’s a cliche, but the higher you are, the deeper you fall. We were taught by my dad to be cost-conscious, to be frugal, not to be extravagant.

We have to spend the right way, and at the right time. And that money is never an advantage.

What lessons from your dad have stuck in your consciousness as an adult?

My dad always tells us about history, especially Chinese history which is 5,000 years old.

So if you learn from Chinese history, you’re at least 5,000 years ahead of everyone. You get to study people’s accomplishments and mistakes. Why they happened and why they failed. His idols were mostly Chinese leaders, strategists, tacticians. He is an expert at the three kingdoms of a Chinese dynasty that fascinates him.

And who are your own idols?

Lee Kwan Yew for what he has done for Singapore.  Jack Ma. And my mother (Carmen Tan) for all she has done for my father and for other people.

Proudly 4-star: PAL vice chairman Bong Tan‘s aim is to help and serve the Philippine flag carrier and to preserve his father‘s legacy.

You have two sons who are both double-degree holders. What lessons did you teach them?

Same things I grew up learning. Also, basically, Confucian values. You do to others as if you’re the other person.

Tell us about your life as a student.

 Studying abroad made me learn to adjust anywhere. In Singapore high school, we had a car, but I would bike, bus or walk to school, which was about just 15 minutes away from where I stayed.

In China, I lived in a dorm and washed my own clothes. Magaling ako maglaba ha. I also realized that learning Chinese is useful in the real world. One third of the world’s population is now Chinese, and one half of the world’s population speak Chinese.

Now that your dad is your boss, how strict is he?

Kapitan is still very strict up to now, you have to be disciplined and punctual.

He never announces what time he will come. So I have a room near our workplace just to be sure I won’t be late. My mom is also strict, but not in business. More on how to be a good human being.

What was your first job when you came back home from studies abroad?

I was a tobacco checker at Fortune Tobacco. There are different grades of tobacco leaves and every grade demands different prices so we have to check them properly before processing them into cigarettes.

What were your passions and interests before you worked for the family business? If not a businessman, what would you have been?

Perhaps an artist — I draw— or a musician. I play the piano and drums. But I haven’t touched a piano in years. I was more into classical music, I took a course in college about Mozart.

I like Richard Clayderman, especially his Ballad for Adeline.

When did your love for sports begin?

I was on the Philippine swimming team when I was studying at St. Jude, and was training at Manila Polo Club. In Singapore where swimming pools were then hard to find, I went into basketball.

I read that your ability to score from long range is widely known in basketball circles. Robert Jaworski even offered you to be Ginebra’s top draft pick in 1995. And that you played international basketball in 1996 when Fortune Tobacco was invited to play in Malaysia, beating everyone. Twice, you scored 100 points in a game. What made you shift from basketball to the boardroom? Of course, your dad wouldn’t hear of you playing for a competitor of Tanduay Rum?

My father didn’t want me to be a professional basketball player. Mainly because he needed me to help in the business.

Fast forward, Quinito said Tanduay won multiple championships under your leadership. Tanduay was in the PBA from 1991 to 2001.

Tanduay left the PBA in 2001 with a heavy heart. I love the game and I know there is a lot of value in playing the PBA. Now that I am older — I’m 53 — I form teams encouraging people to go into sports instead of doing drugs. That is my advocacy now. And now we have a Tanduay Batangas team in the MPBL (Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League) formed by Manny Pacquiao to give a chance to grassroots players. Nice to see people having a sense of belonging.

Athlete at heart: Bong Tan is a lights-out shooter in basketball, lifts weights, was a Class A golfer and was once on the Philippine swimming team.

You are really an athlete at heart?

Yes, I am an athlete, I like physical activities. I swim every day, I do the gym. I also play golf — I was a Class A golfer, but it is very time consuming. Athletes eat, play and sleep. But I cannot live like that.  I have to work.

I also have a back injury — spondylolisthesis — or the slipping of a vertebrae at the base of the spine. So sports is just a hobby now.

You are Tanduay president and CEO, chairman of MacroAsia, vice chairman of PAL, board member/director of various firms under the LT Group of Companies.

Tanduay has a history and a legacy that began in 1854. It’s Asia’s first and the world’s biggest dark rum. In a way, it represents the triumph of the Filipino spirit in the international scene.

 I am the founder of MacroAsia. My dad is chairman of MacroAsia, which services the needs of airlines such as catering and passenger handling. It surely came in handy when PAL’s catering department went on strike. So now we supply catering for PAL.

As vice chairman of PAL, what are your dreams and vision for the airline?

First of all, to get PAL out of the red. And to continue my dad’s legacy, to preserve our flag carrier. When Dad took over PAL, there were 17,000 employees. We have streamlined that to 4,000 plus employees which are just right, even if we now have three times more planes.

As to the planes, the PAL fleet is now younger — the current average age of our planes is now five years. We have 92 planes, the youngest of which is five days old — the third of the five Airbus 350 900 orders, delivered last Sept. 18. We are constantly trying to improve service, and we are proudly a four-star airline now.

When will a five-star status happen for PAL?

First we need an expanded airport, and thankfully the conglomerate (Lucio Tan, Andrew Tan, Gokongwei, Gotianum, Zobel, Aboitiz and Manny Pangilinan) is masterplanning it, so yes, it will happen!

We will need government support. There are 11 5-star airplanes in the world, and all of them are government-subsidized, or helped by their governments when the airlines need help with problems.

What problems do airlines in the Philippines face?

For instance, we have to deal with fuel costs, which are beyond our control. Prices can go up 10 times, and go down five times, they are unpredictable.

Then we have tourism industry problems — peace and order, business opportunities, lack of infrastructure, which can provide convenience to tourists, mainly a good airport which will provide a good first impression for tourists. We also have our traffic problem.An airline is only as good as its destination.

Which airports personally inspire you as pegs?

Singapore’s Changi is emotionally uplifting. Korea’s is very efficient. Hong Kong’s is okay though it may appear overbuilt like a museum. Those of Taiwan and Thailand are okay, so are Japan’s Narita, Haneda and Osaka. Our expanded airport may take five years, but in two years you will see the difference, especially in the runways.

Guest of honor President Rodrigo Duterte during Lucio Tan Sr.‘s birthday with (first row, from left) PAL director Carmen Tan, PAL chairman Dr. Lucio C. Tan,PAL president and COO Jaime Bautista; (second row, from left) PAL Holdings corporate secretaries Cecilia Pesayco and Marivic Moya, PAL director Rowena Tan, PAL vice chairman Bong Tan and PAL director Armando Tetangco.

Does that mean we won’t anymore be crippled by delays when an airplane malfunctions, such as what happened recently with a Chinese plane that closed down our airport for two days?

We have two runways — 06/24 which is the main runway and 13/31 — and they intersect. The solution is to improve aviation infrastructure in order to be able to efficiently handle inbound and outbound flights as well as the growing number of departing and arriving passengers.  There is also a need to improve passenger connectivity among the terminals we have in NAIA.

The solution is for business groups (the conglomerate)  to join  forces as what is happening now so we can work together and help address the challenges in the country’s aviation sector.

As a perfectly and logistically-positioned country, like the Philippines, where almost all destinations in Asia are at most four hours away, Philippines should be the perfect hub for both inbound traffic from Asian neighbors and outbound traffic from the Philippines. So we need a very good and efficient airport. And that of course needs full government support.

So these problems give you nightmares? How do you de-stress?

That’s why I have become a wine lover. Wine relaxes me. I do appreciate and collect vintage wine. In fact, I help choose the wines for PAL, especially now that we’re four-star.

You are a fitness buff. What are your top health tips?

Upon waking up, I drink three glasses of warm water with lemon slices. My current antioxidant faves  are the Usana supplements which were invented by a doctor in the USA who searched for a cancer preventive supplement. I now sleep better, with no problems in metabolism. Manny Pacquiao takes them regularly.

No soft drinks, no deep-fried food for me. I go vegetarian two days a week. And of course, eat in moderation. Never eat too full, stop when you’re three-fourths satisfied. Good for preventing a bloated tummy.

What is the secret of success?

Efficiency is the key to everything we do.We only have 24 hours each day. But if you do the things efficiently you will have more than 24 hours. That’s our edge.

Describe yourself in one word.

Lover. A lover of life. Love means many things. Love for a parent, a child, a special someone. Love for an employee who works hard.

With your nightmares drowned out by wine, what do you dream of now?

  To help and serve PAL well, so that it becomes profitable again. Remember that the pride of PAL is the pride of the Philippines.

My father’s dream is for the Philippines to rise to the top again, like it did before when P1 was equivalent to US$2. That is also my dream.

*   *   *

Bong’s dream mode ends when he looks at his watch and realizes he has a next meeting for which he can’t be late.

But first, a toast to Bong’s dreams, with a glass of wine — or should we say Tanduay Rum? That said, his abs and his sockless shoes vanish in the corridor. And so do his warm smile and the sound of his easy laughter.

Lucio Tan Jr. has left the building.

*   *   *

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