Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jaime Ongpin, The Enigma

This was a well-written commissioned work of National Artist, Nick Joaquin that tells the story of Jaime V. Ongpin, one of those that made history in the Philippine corporate as well as political scene.

Jaime V. Ongpin was indeed a tour de force in the sense that he took an active role in two revolutions. From the non-existentialist perspective, it may be deemed that such was Mr. Ongpin’s destiny: he served as a buttress in the 20th century Philippine Management, and his anima served as an ethical cornerstone in modern Philippine socio-political activism. With all these laurels under his name, one could not help but wonder what could have possibly provoked him to end a seemingly charmed life the way it did. On hindsight, that in itself confirms that Jaime V. Ongpin was truly an enigma.

Reflection on the life and thoughts of Jaime V. Ongpin and how it relates to present day business atmosphere in the country
Mr. Ongpin’s lifetime was a splendid showcase of a whole gamut of stories exemplifying an extraordinary type of leadership that seems to be lacking at this day and age: that of an ethical leader.

On Trustworthiness and Personal Integrity
At an early age, Mr. Ongpin was regarded by classmates and teachers as someone who was consistently trustworthy. Tiggy Barcelona a classmate at the Ateneo says of Mr. Ongpin, “What I remember about him was that we all considered him trustworthy. If we organized a club or society we never looked to him to be president or vice president; we turned to him to fill positions of trust and confidence, like treasurer or business manager.” (Page 49) Father Joseph Gabaldon, one of Ongpin’s high school teachers echoes that observation. Father Gabaldon says, “He had real personal integrity. He would never cheat; he would never copy.” (Page 53).

Mr. Ongpin was able to remain virtuous despite the pressures of business and the temptation of personal gains that came with power. Nowadays, business professionals, managers included easily succumb to the pressures and the temptations so much so that virtues are easily thrown out the window one after the other in exchange of achieving targets, pursuing profits and personal gains.

We see several business scandals all over the world almost on a daily basis. In fact, the prediction is that the most popular costume this Halloween is that of Madoff’s. Not surprisingly, an international study called Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows a very disturbing finding: that in 2008, 62% of the total respondents said they trusted businesses LESS than they had in 2007. This study is being conducted on an annual basis involving almost 20 countries from advanced to emerging economies and taps opinion elites and focuses primarily on the principles of trust applied in businesses. (Source: Understandably, citizens cannot help but cast a suspecting eye and develop distrust towards the way businesses are conducted.

On Bribery, Graft and Corruption
Nilo Rivera, a subordinate at EEI narrated two important events that separated Mr. Ongpin from just an ordinary leader to an exemplary ethical one. The first was when Mr. Ongpin reprimanded him because of a shipment he arranged to be released to avoid surcharges by bribing Customs. Mr. Ongpin preferred to pay the surcharges as according to him, it would go to the government anyway versus paying bribe money that would go straight to the corrupt official’s pocket. Nilo’s exact words were, “He just would not pay a single centavo in graft.” (Page 180)

I have been working for more than a decade now and I have yet to encounter an individual who has not contributed to the proliferation of graft and corruption in this country from the simple MMDA bribery to avoid traffic violations to the more elaborate corporate bribery known in business jargons as S.O.P or facilitation fee most often circumvented by using third party agencies to do the act itself. There are many such instances of graft and corruption hogging the headlines of today among them the anomalous NBN-ZTE deal, the seemingly coercive takeover of the Metro Pacific group with the help of then President Estrada to buy out the Yuchengco’s in the PLDT deal, the tax evasion cases plaguing the tycoons and a whole slew of other instances. In fact, I have heard unethical practices being done even at the barangay level.

The scary part is that this is not merely an observation. It is validated by a Perception Survey conducted in 2007 by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy that polled expatriates in the Philippines about the extent of corruption in terms of it being a feature in influencing overall business environment. It showed that the Philippines topped the chart of the most corrupt countries in Asia showing a score of 9.4 (out of 10)! (Source:

I can just imagine how progressive our country will be if everyone start behaving like Mr. Ongpin who remained steadfast in holding on to his virtues despite the pressure and the temptation of the very competitive business landscape.

The second instance was when Nilo badly needed bulldozers and Mr. Ongpin’s sister, Elaine, referred a friend of hers who has bulldozers to rent. When Mr. Ongpin heard about this, he was livid and told Nilo that he did not want any of his relatives to be doing business with the companies that Mr. Ongpin run.

This was in the 80s. Three decades later, I personally feel that we still have not progressed much as a country specially in terms of dispensing objective business decisions doing away with preferential treatments to kith and kin. Perhaps if we take Mr. Ongpin’s management style, of eradicating the kumpadre system in running businesses, our country might have better chances of elevating our stature to eventually be amongst the tiger economies to reckon with.

Of human touch and genuine care
His ruthlessness could have been easily mistaken as heartlessness but Mr. Ongpin, throughout his career at both EEI and Benguet showed genuine benevolence, generosity and compassion to the people of the company. He may have distanced himself in a way from his employees by not attending employee activities or refusing to stand as Ninong in weddings and baptismals but he was a generous manager and he invested in getting honest feedback from the employees to make his companies the best place to work for. He, for instance, translated good performance to tangible rewards. Consequently, non performance would mean no rewards. To demonstrate his genuine concern for the welfare of his employees, he commissioned his former professor at the Harvard Business School, Steve Fuller, to survey the employees of Benguet to find out if Benguet was managing its human resources with full justice to them and if these human resources are able to contribute to the company not only their labor but also their ideas.

Of all the facets of management, Mr. Ongpin chose to invest management time and company money to advance the cause of the employees. How many managers or companies actually take that initiative and see it all the way through implementation? With all the financial crisis and stiff competition in the marketplace, it seems that nowadays, the one thing that keeps the manager of today awake at night is how to make the sale no matter what. The employee as the most valuable asset is fast becoming to a large extent just lip service to majority in the corporate world.

I say majority because there are other companies that still look after the professional and personal development of their employees such as the tech superstar, Google.

Of Ethical Leadership
But what really enraptured me to the enigma that was Mr. Ongpin was his role in putting an end to decades of suffering brought about by an abusive and inhumane dictatorship. Mr. Ongpin’s ethical leadership qualities all came into play. Perhaps it was because he lived in an interesting point in our history that practically goaded him to do what he had to do or perhaps it was really his strong virtues and leadership that made him a cut above the rest.

If you really think about it, he could have at that point in time chosen the easy road, to keep quiet and let things be. But the leader in Mr. Ongpin took it upon himself to ignite the flame that got the whole world tuned in.

And so, in 1981, with the courage of a true hero and the wisdom beyond his years, Mr. Ongpin wrote to the Asian Wall Street Journal of his utter disgust over the Marcos Administration’s “throwing good money after bad” by bailing out unperforming crony firms. He valiantly put into writing what everyone else was afraid to talk about in public. He not only put it into writing, he made sure that the message resonated by exposing these anomalies through the foreign media.

His expose was not of the typical mudslinging so prevalent in the Philippines but that of intellectually dissecting the issue and the flawed policies attached to it. It was, for Mr. Ongpin, never about the policymakers.

From 1981 to 1986, he tirelessly labored, put his career and life on the line and played a very active role first as a concerned citizen then with the Manindigan!, to the Convenor Group and later on to the EDSA Revolution.

He made use of his personal strengths in his advocacy in freeing this country and restoring freedom. His trustworthiness, intellect, courage and integrity enabled him to pull together several like minded individuals to work together towards reform or revolt whichever way you look at it. He was also the brains in formulating and implementing a grand strategy for the campaign and eventual takeover of an overstaying administration and he was an industrious fund raiser that was essential for them to be able to claim victory.

I cannot but be in awe at how courageous Mr. Ongpin was. Going up publicly against someone so notoriously known for having someone picked up and killed in an instant is something very admirable.

As I close the last page of the book, I start to wonder, does the Philippines have a 21st century version of a Jaime V. Ongpin? Have we now learned to marry best practices of government with that of business and vice versa? How far have we come as a nation after Jaime V. Ongpin and other technocrats of his days took to the streets and risked everything for a cause bigger than themselves?

I wouldn’t know the answer for sure. Perhaps still not too far and perhaps it will be a long and slow process before we actually get to where we want to go as a nation.

But the recent tragedies that awakened the sleeping spirit of Bayanihan and the active participation of the young in social issues especially with election just around the corner, tells me that maybe this country is not, as what many would like to believe, morally bankrupt.

Mr. Ongpin is definitely not a saint but his virtues and principles of trust, integrity, courage, care, wisdom , among other things to me makes him the true embodiment of what a Filipino manager should be.

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