(First of two parts)
This is a lightly edited version of the Acceptance Speech delivered by the author when he received “MAP Management Man of the Year” on Nov. 23.
It’s significant that you’re giving me this award exactly 20 years after MAP (the Management Association of the Philippines) conferred the same on my father, Oscar Lopez. No one has influenced me and what FPH (First Philippine Holdings Corp.) is today more than him: his values, discipline, love for nature, zest for learning, his passion for social justice and his zeal for health and wellness. He’s a man of few words and rarely ever displays his approval (only his disapproval, and on that we’d get an earful) but he led us powerfully through his simplicity and his example. I’m doubly honored today because he and my Mom are here remotely to share this moment with me.
Let me share with you that the day after the news of your MMY (MAP Management Man of the Year) award, my wife Monina, my son Robert, and I were still in disbelief, refusing to celebrate given it could have been a mistake or a “Steve Harvey Miss Universe” moment which might still be retracted. You’ll find this odd but despite the warmth I’ve always experienced from fellow businessmen and the business organizations I belong to, I’ve always felt like an outsider or outlier in the world of Philippine business. Part of this likely stems from a lingering regret I’ve harbored that I never finished my Harvard MBA. After I prematurely left campus in 1988 and joined my father in the task of rebuilding a near-bankrupt FPH, I thought I’d return to complete my studies after three or four years in the business world. I never did. This was likely because the situations I encountered at work convinced me that immersion in the world of real-life business was better for my development than interrupting it with another year of school. I never resolved whether I’d done the right thing and spent the last 33 years without the three letters “MBA” embossed on my CV and wondering whether I’d just squandered an opportunity not available to many. After today, thanks to MAP, the three letters “MMY” more than makes up for that and resolves this unfinished goal in my mind once and for all.
To be honest, although I read a lot and always relished the process of learning new things both in breadth and in depth, formal schooling in my youth never worked well for me. While I was never the unruly kid at the back of the class, my Zen-like calm during dull class lectures belied a mind that was distracted and already racing in many directions toward future life plans and adventures. Of course, all that showed up in unexceptional grades and academic struggles. A diagnosis then might have tagged me with a learning disability; the more enlightened today might instead have correctly identified this as a learning difference.
Whatever it was, the world I always felt so at home with was the world of water. I grew up a competitive swimmer and my dearth of academic honors was way compensated for by the profusion of competitive swimming medals and records broken. Water was always my element which later translated to a love for the sea. I ruefully admit though that in my earlier days as a scuba diver, I was also an avid spear fisherman and we’d justify this by claiming that we’d spear only what we’d eat.
Then one day while spearfishing off the Verde Island Passage in Batangas, known as the “Center of the Center of Marine Biodiversity in the World,” I was approached at close range by a solitary 14-foot Great Hammerhead Shark whose curiosity was roused by my spearing activity. Fortunately, I wasn’t on this shark’s menu and had no bloodied fish to defend against this gigantic predator so he casually departed after deciding we had nothing exciting to offer. But at the sight of something this magnificent, this powerful, and this beautiful being, my steel-shaft speargun didn’t only feel like a toothpick pointing at an armored tank but also that it didn’t belong there. I retired the speargun forever after that dive and exchanged it for an underwater camera instead.
My ensuing years with an underwater camera brought me even closer to the sea I had grown up loving and ultimately brought me face-to-face with a similar-sized Tiger shark in Fiji. There were initially only two of us divers underwater when this monster-sized shark began circling and his very presence warded off all the other Bull sharks, Gray Reef sharks, Nurse sharks, Whitetip, and Blacktip sharks that had been with us the previous four days. That commanding aura defined exactly what an apex predator was. But what I found in that cageless encounter with a shark, infamously branded among the three most responsible for attacks on humans, was something completely different from what I had expected. He was never menacing or terrifying, but more cautious, gentle, and even playful. As he directly approached me for the first time, I could feel his nose glide gently just a foot or so above my head, sort of playing with the bubbles rising from my regulator. Instinctively, I gently lifted my gloved fingers to touch his underbelly as he passed. At that moment, decades of fear inspired by the movie Jaws simply vanished from my mind and my perspective of sharks changed forever. I wrote an article about that encounter which became a magazine cover a few months later. Of course, it helped that my cousin Ernie happened to be its publisher at the time. I never had shark’s fin soup ever again.
A few years later I had a similar encounter, also in the Verde Island Passage Batangas, with a startled octopus that scurried beneath a rock, warily watching me. As we sized each other up from a distance, I stayed with it for the next 20 minutes, edging closer as time lapsed. Finally, as I calmly placed my hand out a few inches from where he was, out came a tentacle gently touching my hand in what looked like an effort to connect, saying, “I think I can trust you.”
The thousands of hours I’ve spent in the underwater world over the last 33 years were priceless. I sometimes wonder whether the majesty and beauty of what I’ve experienced will still be there for my son, and his own children someday, to see and feel just as I have, as even just a 1.5 degree C warmer world (which is the best we can hope for now) will wipe out 70% of all coral reefs; and in a 2 degree C warmer world (although applauded in Paris COP 21), they’ll all but vanish and go extinct. I’m having a hard time getting my mind around the scale of what humanity is losing, and the speed at which it’s happening.
Persistently immersing myself in new worlds was the magic that broadened my perspectives exponentially. But these life-changing insights only unfold themselves for you if you approach those new worlds with respect, empathy, a learning mind, and most of all with an openness to being vulnerable.
Beyond the underwater world, I’ve taken this same pattern of thinking with me as I mountain biked anonymously, and sometimes alone, into off-grid barangays and sitios in the mountains right outside the city. In these communities there are no roads or bridges as we know them. When the rains come, the rivers swell and isolate barangays from one another for hours, or even days at a time. Currents are strong enough to move huge boulders that alter the landscape and routes along the way. I’d bump into troops of fully armed PNP special forces on patrol, fully decked with jungle camo and grenade launchers, with bandoliers of high-powered ammo slung around their chests. Idle talk around town was they were looking for escaped prisoners. Not sure why all the high-powered hardware though. Once, I encountered the lifeless body of a man wrapped in banana tree leaves hastily being carried down the trails from the mountains with nothing more than a bamboo pole. This after being killed in a subsistence mining altercation with his partner.
Life is raw, tenuous, fleeting, and fragile just hours from our doorsteps in Metro Manila. Yet in sharp contrast, the warmth by which I was welcomed into many homes there brought me countless conversations that taught me one very important detail of life under these conditions. And that is, that life thrives amidst poverty and harsh environments because the elements oblige people to build a strong sense of community and caring for one another. Life may be hard, but not necessarily unhappy because of these unseen bonds. I met a Dumagat woman, I’d even call her a true lady, who selflessly chose to raise the five children of a neighbor whose wife died during childbirth. This so he could continue to work in the fields. Helping without counting the cost came naturally to many people I came across. Kindness, gentleness, gratefulness and reciprocity for simple things was everywhere. It changed my traditional economist’s view of poverty, and gave me a glimpse of the richness of life beyond GDP that’s not always measured. More importantly, it speaks of our folly of being trapped in a single narrative. To instead see beyond just black or white, beyond just good or evil, rich or poor, happy or unhappy, and to experience the world through the eyes of others that help us see the millions of shades and colors truly out there. I value those experiences tremendously, as today, we badly need senses that help us respect diversity and differences so we can more deeply understand the web of complex and dynamic systems that we are all a part of. I hope my own learning here never stops.
These last 33 years in the business world, I’ve been blessed with either an active role or a front-row seat to many of our group’s notable and defining moments. Among them:
• The birth of the Philippine natural gas industry with Malampaya, its impending sunset, and of course the eventual birth of a new one involving LNG.
• The privatization and deregulation of the country’s power industry following the passage of EPIRA.
• The acquisition and transformation of world geothermal leader Energy Development Corp.
• The near-death experience of the Lopez group in 1999-2009 when, because of massive debts and regulatory problems, our stock price plummeted to P0.08 per share in 2002 from a high of P15.55 in 1993.
• Then subsequently, the turnaround and success of our North Luzon Expressway toll road project in 2005.
• And, our group’s resuscitation following the sale of MNTC in August 2008 and the sale of Meralco in 2009.
• I was already at the helm during the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda, and our defining response to this and other subsequent natural disasters. This led us to firming up our group’s definitive “no-to-coal” declaration in 2016 which was not easy to explain to shareholders and analysts who wondered whether it made sense to just shut the door, walk away from a profit opportunity, or compete in the power industry with one hand tied behind your back. Despite the doubters, let me say we never wavered and never once regretted the decision, most especially today.
• And of course, most gratifying was building up FPH’s recurring net income at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate of 29% over the past 10-year period.
If you include our family’s recent ABS-CBN challenges, simply from my 33 year timeframe you can see why we’re drawn to the romantic narrative of the mythical Phoenix, which is also the title of our two-volume, 200-year history of seven generations of Lopezes. I have always been moved and inspired by the colorful history of my family and the achievements of my predecessors. It definitely has and always will have a place in my heart. However, the notion of heroically rebuilding again and again from the ashes of a scorched bird is far from my idea of a narrative that should guide our destiny; I don’t believe future generations of Lopezes should romanticize and be trapped by it. I always remind myself that “the fault dear Brutus, may not always be in our stars, but in ourselves…” Learn, reflect with deep honesty, absorb the lessons wholeheartedly, then move on and proceed, always wiser.
However, the real lesson for me over the last 33 years has been that we could not have accomplished the things we did without professionalizing the management of our organizations and empowering these professionals to think like owners. I’m too aware of my own weaknesses, and the limitations of relying on the family gene pool alone to think it could have been done otherwise. I envied their work backgrounds, their experiences with the best global firms, or even just the exceptional discipline, tenacity, and professional creativity they brought to their work. It isn’t simply about attracting and compensating them well. More importantly, it’s about creating, nurturing, and often being very protective of a work environment that enables everyone to become their best selves and contribute toward a collective purpose larger than any of us individually. We sometimes describe our work at the top as that of gardeners tending, nurturing, and protecting everyone’s growth. Sounds passive and docile, but this often requires actively keeping egos and feelings of entitlement in check so that unbridgeable silos don’t take root, and relationships as well as communications are always strong. A lot of this underpins successful and agile teams that grow, solve problems, and create considerable value for all stakeholders together. Like with any garden, forest, or ecosystem, that kind of work requires eternal vigilance and never stops.
Federico “Piki” R. Lopez is the Chair and CEO of First Philippine Holdings Corporation