Jaime Zobel de Ayala: The Artist as Businessman
- Dina Sta. Maria () - April 9, 2006 - 12:00am
The family name, of course, is inextricably linked to the country’s premier business district and one of the country’s oldest business houses. But his name has, of late, been associated more often with the arts, primarily photography.

Jaime Zobel de Ayala retired from the Ayala Corporation last Friday, stepping down as chairman. He leaves behind a company that, like art, will long outlive its chairman.

Zobel–known by the acronym JZA–is not one to take sole credit for the success of the 172-year-old conglomerate. He is quick to acknowledge the role of professional managers, employees, partners, and stakeholders in the company’s success. But he certainly steered Ayala through one of its fastest growth periods, and one of its most challenging.

Today, the company has investments in real estate, banking, telecommunications, information technology and electronics manufacturing, water services, automotive dealership, and international operations–all companies could be considered leaders in their respective industries.

Zobel’s retirement comes close to 50 years after he joined Ayala in 1958. He was all of 24 years, newly married, and armed with an architectural science degree from Harvard when he accepted his father Don Alfonso’s invitation to be part of the company.

"People think that there are sacrifices involved (when you’re asked to work in a family business). But I didn’t feel compelled. It was always in me that it was what I wanted to do after I got out of college," muses Zobel.

His father "very wisely" put him under the wing of his cousin Enrique and uncle Joseph McMicking, who is largely credited with the development of modern Makati and from whom JZA earned his corporate education. As an executive assistant on a P400 monthly salary, he took down notes at management meetings and gradually learned the ropes of the business.

It was when he was placed in the training section of the insurance companies that he underwent "the more serious part" of his early corporate education. "There they taught the principles of insurance. I joined the class and then became an instructor. That was my launch, where I started being just one of the boys," JZA recounts.

He would return to the insurance business after a five-year hiatus when he served as Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the Scandinavian countries from 1970 to 1975. He was appointed president of Filipinas Life and found himself talking to jeepney drivers and housewives about the benefits of investing their "diyes-diyes" in life insurance and taking the best agents on out-of-town trips.

"Ayala molded my character as much as I helped mold it many years later. (Climbing up the corporate ladder) taught me humanity, approaching people from completely different contexts," Zobel reflects.

In dealing with people from all walks of life, he grew to appreciate the legacy of the family business even more: "If we have remained in business for over 150 years, it has been because we have cast our lot with that of the people we serve, instead of just taking them as clients and customers."

At 50, he succeeded Enrique Zobel as chairman and president when the latter retired in 1984. He placed great confidence in Ayala’s senior management, radically changing the corporate culture from one where executives shifted among companies in the group to one where each was responsible for the leadership role given them.

"It was a style of management that fit me," he says. "I like to work with people and that was the prime objective of all my managerial years: teamwork. I trusted the people I appointed and they were very talented and supportive. They themselves felt very proud that at last they were able to have something they could call their own. We started off on a new era so everybody was kind of gung-ho."

And as his own father did, Zobel invited his sons to join Ayala as soon as they earned their advanced degrees and, again as his father did, he let them get their training in the different subsidiaries with key officers as mentors.

His elder son Jaime Augusto–now called JAZA–recalls the time when he and brother Fernando began to assume areas of responsibility and take a more active role in growing Ayala’s businesses.

"A lot of the comfort we felt and that ability to think long-term was precisely due to my father’s style," JAZA, Ayala Corp. president since 1994, says. "He was tolerant of mistakes as long as they did not repeat themselves. He likes to buy into a vision and stays quite focused on the long-term goal. And so he’s been instrumental in our keeping that long-term horizon at the forefront of our decision making."

Jaime Zobel de Ayala’s stewardship of the Ayala conglomerate will be remembered for three things: for successfully steering Ayala through the tense, final years of Martial Law; for the spin-off of Ayala Land in 1988 from an internal division to a separate business entity, now one of Ayala’s core earnings drivers; and for the decision to keep its telecom-munications business, centered on Globe Telecoms.

A regional newsmagazine once commented that Ayala’s success can be attributed to its ability to bring in strategic partners "to invest and help manage (its) companies." Another publication noted the "rare mix of adaptability, financial conservatism, and increasingly transparent governance" that the company has demonstrated over the years. The company is also known for its strong corporate governance and social responsibility.

"The strongest and most valuable legacy that we’ve received is really the amount of trust that stakeholders have in the brand and in the company," says Fernando, who shares management of the conglomerate with his brother. "For him, the behavior of the company and the managers, the way we handle partners, employees, and other stakeholders has been a very, very important legacy."

As he turns another corner in his corporate life, Zobel leaves behind a vibrant business in the capable hands of his sons and a cadre of professional managers.

"We at Ayala are ever mindful of our responsibility to the future," Zobel says. "We do not only make and sell products; they must be products that enhance the quality of Filipino life–be it clean water or a dependable car. Filipinos are a hardworking people, and their labors deserve to be rewarded by the best that companies like ours have to offer. I think that’s the most important thing–that people have confidence in us."

After two decades at the helm of Ayala, what does he intend to do in the next twenty years? "Retire gracefully," he smiles. "I don’t really know. I set goals shorter now than what I used to before."

As he has been doing in the last few years, after "retiring" as president in 1994, Zobel will now have even more time for other passions like photography and travel.

"I’m thinking in terms of five years and five years…renewable," he laughs. "It’s been a good life."

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