30 years: We made it
On Monday we will mark the 30th anniversary of our company, Wallace Business Forum (www.wallacebusinessforum.com). Very few companies in our business of consulting have survived this long. Most have folded or been folded into a larger organization, a successful ploy itself. But we’ve maintained being independent.
What do I put it down to? Two points: choosing a specialty niche and excelling at it, and people.
I’ve had excellent staff, ones I can trust the business to. Mind you, I drive them hard; I’m uncompromising in it being done right. “Pwede na” will not do. But I don’t stand over them. Micro-management is not the way to run a consulting business—or a country.
My staff know what to do, Bing, my VP, particularly. You’ve got to believe in what you do, and we at WBF all do. We believe we are doing something, in a small way, to help business grow in the Philippines.
I had the choice in 1982, after seven years of running three MNCs here, of continuing an executive career in Australia, or staying here. Estee, my wife, with a 9-month-old son, agreed this was the place to be and friends encouraged us to stay and helped us get started. I’d first visited here back in 1968 as a regional manager and had fallen in love—with a Filipina, of course, but also with a country and its people. I wanted to stay, so stay we did, starting a business out of our small house on Don Miguel Street, San Juan.
My executive career had taken me into almost every sector from mining to food and transport. Export (abaca and rope), retail (Sanitary Steam Laundry with 461 outlets, if you can remember them; Getz with 140 products to distribute), automotive (Nissan), airlines and shipping. Even agriculture in the postharvest arena. So it gave me the base to develop a business.
The thrust of WBF’s advocacy work over the past three decades has been to push the Philippines toward global competitiveness. After the 1986 Edsa revolt, and the subsequent change of government, we were part of a team that pursued the country’s industrialization strategy. This was followed by numerous privatization studies, and many other key engagements all targeted to help make the country’s business environment friendlier.
In the time that we have invested in our advocacy of aiding the entry of more investments into the country, we have come to a conclusion: the importance of the leadership role in the equation. Many lists have been presented enumerating the reform measures needed to make this a better place for business, but these reforms, supposing they are implemented, go so much further with good leadership.
Leadership, as the world has shown, is the key ingredient in how a country develops, or doesn’t (look at the two Koreas as the ultimate example). We’ve had a roller-coaster ride of leaders over the past 30 years, no continuity from one regime to the next.
In a way the turbulence of the time helped our business, because executives needed to know what was going on, and going on was our focus. Martial law was approaching its more oppressive stage. The great promise of the brilliance of Marcos was about to become unraveled as corruption and abuse of human rights took center stage in a play the audience would eventually walk out on in a revolutionary way.
Then came Cory, and business, at least legitimate business, heaved a sigh of relief and got back to trying to grow their businesses. But the pledged societal change wasn’t accompanied by enough economic reform. My friend Jimmy Ongpin died from the frustration of it (I was with him the night before he died and was dismayed at what he told me of the needless fights in the Cabinet).
Eight- to 12-hour daily blackouts as Cory’s term ended put paid to new investment and the departure of some. Then came Fidel Ramos, a military general but ever more importantly, in my biased judgment, a fellow engineer. Engineers get things done, it’s an inherent demand with us. Power was back by the following Christmas. Sectors were opened up—power, telecom, banking. Business came back, the world started to notice.
But Asia went into crisis in ’97 and the Philippines suffered with it.
Along came Estrada and the momentum stopped, while corruption revived and the people kicked him out over it. In a court of law he was found guilty of plunder.
A crime pardoned by Gloria, a woman who had all the promises in the world: smart, intelligent (the two are different), extremely hardworking, well-educated.
But scandal after scandal (we listed 16) brought her down. When she was about to end her term, only 16 percent of the populace supported her, 69 percent didn’t. You can’t lead like that.
Now we have the son of Cory, and decision has yet to be made. But his obsession of cutting corruption, and his amazing success at it, is most welcome.
Meanwhile, Australia went boringly, successfully, along. We’ve lived through some of the most exciting, unpredictable times. And loved it. Fleeing the rebels down Ayala with Monching Mitra and US jets screaming overhead as they forced the Philippine Air Force out of the sky sticks forever in my mind. As does making hundreds of sandwiches in our house in Wack Wack for the revolutionaries on Edsa (Edsa 1), or bundling the kids in the car to join Edsa 2. Where else in the world do you take your kids to a revolution? An ice box of beer accompanied us.
Memories, there are so much that endear you to a country, a country I’ll never leave.
Thank you, Filipinos, for this life and for allowing me a successful business here. Thank you to my clients for supporting me, the government for allowing me to be so outspoken. And my staff without whom Wallace Business Forum wouldn’t be where it is today, a trusted name in its field. One that we expect to continue to flourish for the next 30 years.
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