ObituaryTransition

Manuel ‘Manolo’ Lopez: ‘He has the capacity to make each one of his employees feel special’

He belonged to the vanishing breed of Filipino tycoons who are people-centric, and who put a premium on Filipino values—and show it

Manuel Lopez in a portrait by Wig Tysmans

In 2015, Ambassador Manuel Lopez and wife Maritess, beside their BenCab, at Kudan (Photo by T. Sioson)

Former Philippine ambassador to Japan Manuel “Manolo” Lopez passed away January 12, 2023. He was 80. He was chairman of Rockwell Land, and until 2009, was chairman, CEO and president of Meralco. Lopez was the fourth of five siblings in the second generation of the Filipino clan that helped shape Philippine industry and business (power generation and distribution, media and entertainment).

But over and above his distinguished titles, perhaps how Lopez is best remembered is how he was a people’s leader—not only did he manage business, he forged ties with his employees. Among the core values he nurtured as a businessman-steward was “malasakit.” Not only did he know the people who worked for and with him, he also tried to make a difference in their lives. This trait was manifested as well when he was ambassador to Japan (2010-2016) and the country suffered the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. He and his wife Maritess went around Tokyo to help the Filipino population. Beyond his wealth and social stature, the eulogies echoed one message— Lopez was a good man.

Ambassador Lopez and wife Maritess (Photo by Wig Tysmans)

He is survived by his devoted wife Maritess, children Maita and Jorge, Beaver, Mike and Chris, Mark and Connie.

We are running below a profile of Manolo Lopez from the author’s book, i’m afraid of heights (or why i can’t social-climb) published in 2012.

2010

ALTHOUGH he looks like he’s feeling under the weather, he’s been up early in the morning for an eight o’clock meeting, and yes, he’s trying to adjust, in his words, to “this pace.”

Manuel Lopez looks downcast as he says “pace”, but except for that split second, he is his affable upbeat self.

At 68, he stepped down as president of Meralco last June, after the Lopez clan gave up control of the leading public utility firm in the country—the family’s crown jewel since after World War II and, as it turned out, the lightning rod for which the family suffered many political shocks through the decades.

Manuel Lopez in spring 2015, then Philippine ambassador to Japan, shown beside a BenCab painting, in Kudan, the Philippine embassy’s official residence in Tokyo. (Photo by T. Sioson)

What does it feel like for one of the country’s foremost businessmen/industrialists to retire?

“I won’t be happy retired,” he says as soon as we’re seated in his den filled with BenCab’s seminal works. Not only has Lopez been the country’s foremost collector of BenCabs since the ‘70s, he, his wife Maritess and the National Artist have also forged a life-long friendship.

“Lopezes don’t retire,” he says, candid as usual. “Geny was the same. We die with our boots on.”

“Geny” is Eugenio Lopez, Jr., the late oldest brother of Manolo, as Manuel Lopez is called by family and friends. Geny was the media tycoon and industrialist, Martial Law prisoner and the head of the Lopez conglomerate until he died in 1999 at 70.

Framed souvenir picture in the Kudan living room, of the Lopez couple in Japanese kimono (Photo by T. Sioson)

Ambassador Lopez with President Benigno Aquino III in a file photo (From FB of Mike Lopez)

As it turned out, Manolo Lopez is far from retiring­—Inquirer has learned that President Benigno Aquino is appointing him ambassador to Japan.

In the meantime he will stay on as Meralco chairman. He has also been elected chairman of Lopez Holdings Corp. (formerly Benpres), the holding firm of the family’s businesses which include First Philippine Holdings, First Gen and ABS-CBN. He seems eager and in high spirits heading towards such responsibility. He likes to visit the various companies and be a hands-on head. (In Meralco, he remains on top of the corporate social responsibility thrust, the Manuel M. Lopez Development Center (MMLDC) in Antipolo which was his brainchild, and the vast Lopez employees’ cooperative Mesala.) Of course, the pace in the holding company is different from that of the operations of a giant public utility firm.

“I wake up in the morning raring to go, then Maritess tells me, wala kang meeting,” he says light-heartedly.

The people in Meralco were rather profuse in saying how the man had taught and shown them ‘malasakit’

Lopez has worked most of his adult life (more than 30 years) in the family-owned Meralco—that’s a good number of years that yielded not only a fortune but also perhaps more important, friends and followers among the people who worked with him and for him. In the weeks leading to his retirement last June, the people in Meralco—across ranks—were rather profuse in saying how the man had taught and shown them “malasakit” and how they would miss the man.

“He has the capacity to make each one of his employees feel special,” said Leonisa C. de la Llana, Meralco First Vice President and Customer Retail Services, in the Meralco News supplement.

“He is a natural leader who can make his people and his company do even what at first seems to be impossible tasks, such as the refund and the (post-)typhoon power restorations,” de la Llana said. “The employees’ trust in him has been tested several times in the most productive, bizarre, difficult circumstances—buying ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) shares…changing the very way we do things here…”

‘I’d like to feel that I have contributed to improving the quality of life of our employees’

Asked in the Meralco News supplement what he would consider his most meaningful contribution to the firm he ran for 24 years, Lopez himself said, “I am very happy what ESOP has done to the lives of employees and their families…I’d like to feel that I have contributed to improving the quality of life of our employees. We now see employees sending their children to private schools…Many employees and their families now go on regular vacations. It’s a nice feeling.”

It’s apparent what Lopez would miss—interacting with people. “I enjoy the hours I spent with them not only on official basis, but also just chatting with employees, having coffee with them and listening to their many kwento,” he told Meralco News last June.

“This is what I like—where you sit down with them, you break bread, drink with them, listen to their jokes…When people are relaxed you get to interact with them more genuinely…it is not that they are always ‘yes, sir…”

Lopez belongs to the vanishing breed of Filipino tycoons who are people-centric, who value relationships even in the business context, and who put a premium on Filipino values—and show it.

When he first joined Meralco in 1965 as a young management trainee with a minimum starting monthly salary of P160, he worked in the field and in the branches with meter readers, bill collectors, and doing branch teller job.

“I stopped short of going up the electric poles,” he recalls during our interview.

But as he rose through the ranks, starting in public relations, followed by the sports unit, a stint which saw the Meralco basketball team as the champion team in a basketball-crazed country—basketball legend-turned-senator Robert “Sonny” Jaworski was a Meralco cager—Lopez found himself more and more in a position to shape the corporate culture. This was when he would harp on the values of “malasakit,” honesty, integrity and hard work. The visitor to the MMDA training Center would see these core values written on prominent posters.

Lopez belongs to the generation of Filipino businessmen/industrialists, who believes “malasakit” (loosely translated, caring beyond official task/duty) is a core value that could benefit even the bottomline. His is a generation that built and expanded many a business empire but whose business ethic and values might not necessarily pass on to the next generation.

How do titans like him pass it on to the next generation?

“We remind them (about values),” he says, “little stories about their grandparents, get to know the genes, where they come from…I think the next generation will be okay—they’re educated, bright. They know what it is to be in default, when you owe lots of money.”

Then he talks about what he believes is historically unique to the Lopez clan. “We just had our planning session… (it was taken up) why we haven’t grown as much as (the other business clans). That’s because we take a stand politically, and when we do, ayan na, babawian na ang Meralco. Now that we’ve given it (Meralco) up, ano naman?…

“But then if we looked the other way, that’s not the style of my father or even Geny, even my grandfather who was shot in Iloilo because he fought against ‘jueteng’…Fighting like Don Quixote…But there comes a time you have to slow down.”

Inevitably, his mind goes back to the Martial Law years—the life-defining chapter in the clan’s history. He recalls older brother Geny’s hunger strike, visiting Geny at V. Luna Hospital. In those years, the Lopezes were, in society/lifestyle jargon, “out.” And Manolo, the younger of the Lopez’s brood, felt it, even in, or especially, in his social life.

‘But the Martial Law years made us strong’

“Well, I had friends who stayed away, who, you knew, would have alibis to avoid being seen with the Lopezes,” he says. “But the Martial Law years made us strong.”

Now that an Aquino is back in power, are the Lopezes back in the political saddle?

“Gusto lang namin level playing field,” he says. “We don’t need patronage. Our projects can stand on their own.

“…. I like to see this as a fresh beginning (for the Lopez Group). The image may not be sterling, but it’s a fresh beginning.”

Asked what his thrust is for the Lopez Group, he says, “I’d like to say growth, but we have to do it within our means, no reckless expansion. Yung parang the sun will never set. Tama na yon…We can get partners or team up with foreign groups. Go overseas.”

What would be his wish for the next generation? “That it would stay focused,” he says, “That it would not get into projects we don’t have resources for­—and never to forget corporate social responsibility.”

This grandfather of seven (eight as of this writing), during some Christmases, would bring his grandchildren to impoverished communities so they would see another world and young as they are, be made aware of one’s responsibility toward the less fortunate.

In 2015 at Kudan, Ambassador Lopez beaming at the portrait of his wife Maritess (Photo by T. Sioson)

Like his older brother Oscar, the scholar and historian of the clan and now the chairman emeritus of the Lopez Holdings and First Philippine Holdings, Manolo has been supportive of Noynoy even before the latter could declare his candidacy for the presidency. Manolo and wife Maritess had strong ties to former President Cory Aquino.

“Cory was a personal friend who was always there through personal crises,” Lopez recalls.

When Cory died last year, Manolo made public his grief by mobilizing a few hundreds of Meralco employees on a march

When Cory died last year, Manolo made public his grief by mobilizing a few hundreds of Meralco employees on a march from the Meralco compound on Meralco Ave. in Ortigas to the La Salle Greenhills campus on Ortigas Ave., where the wake for the former president was being held.

At the funeral mass at the Manila Cathedral, Manolo stood out in the crowd of the country’s Who’s Who because while the men were mostly in barong or business suit, he was in yellow Cory shirt.

He was not particularly close to the son­ for the simple reason that they don’t belong to the same generation. He didn’t have much interaction with Noynoy when Cory was still around because as Lopez remembers it, at dinners, Noynoy didn’t sit down with the older folks but just hung out with the others. But even then, Lopez had been a Noynoy supporter since day one, even as the clamor for the son’s candidacy was just building up.

“I believe in him,” Lopez says. “His sincerity, his pure heart, no selfish agenda. So right away, I rallied my friends (to support Noynoy).”

However, it is not these political connections that give Lopez a sense of pride at this point in his life; rather, it was his life-long stint in Meralco.

He likes to be remembered as the Meralco CEO who, he told Meralco News, “has made a difference in the lives of our employees. I will still be here for another 11 months and if at any time I can be of assistance or service to our over 6,000 employees, they should not hesitate to write me or email me.”

He was with Meralco since 1965, left it in 1973 upon the declaration of Martial Law, rejoined it in 1986 when he was borne on the shoulders of jubilant Meralco employees as he entered the Meralco building. “So eight years plus the 25—that’s 33 glorious years,” he recalled in Meralco News. “That is really quite a lifetime, di ko makakalimutan yan…As my wife would like to tell our friends, ‘Yan si Manolo kapag biniyak mo ang puso niya, makikita mo naka-tattoo diyan pangalan ng Meralco, hindi pangalan ko.’”

He considers Maritess as ‘my conscience and my memory’

He considers Maritess as “my conscience and my memory.” They’ve been married 46 years.

He’s particularly proud of the fact that he’s leaving behind a high employee morale—the Employee Satisfaction Index (ESI) is at an all-time high of A or A-. Aside from the highly motivated work force, the operations are also high in the evaluation, with the system loss percentage reduced from a high 18.11% in 1985 to 8.61% in 2009. Service reliability indicators are also high.

Known as the “MML era” (Lopez’s initials), his management, which covered a quarter of Meralco’s 107 years, has been known as the era of rebuilding and transformation of the public utility firm.

Lopez belongs to that generation that is genteel and considers it in bad taste to draw media attention to themselves, which is why he has always been low-key. At the height of the crisis involving Meralco refund, when he was urged to go on high profile in media and even be the face of the business, he nixed the idea, rather amused, and told us, “That would be fake because that’s not me. Even my friends would see through that.”

However, it has been apparent how in recent years he has learned not to shun media or even the TV cameras. Yet, few people know of the private side to Lopez—how he is a man of interesting hobbies.

In 2015, Ambassador Lopez and wife Maritess welcome guests to Kudan—Virgie Ramos (standing, far left), Annie Sarthou, National Artist BenCab, and the author. (Photo by T. Sioson)

He is a highly respected collector of Philippine paintings—from the masters, which have been in the family for generations, to contemporary artists. He began collecting Bencab 35 years ago, when he chanced upon the artist’s work in Chicago and was drawn to its “subversive” (he is quoting the reviews of Bencab then) content.

“I like that he has social meaning, especially during Martial Law,” he says, “and how he carried that social commentary even over to his life in London.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s he was passionate about orchids and produced coffeetable books on Philippine horticulture with the renowned expert Helen Valmayor. Curiously, orchid collection drew him closer to the leading orchid collector in the country then, Doña Purita Enrile, the mother of his brother’s jailer, then defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile.

Not known to many, Lopez was fascinated with breeding species—dogs, fish, cocks (he’s known for his fighting cocks although he’s no cockfighting aficionado), orchids, birds. “I liked to know how to produce better species,” he now says of that interest.

While he has the passions and interests of a man of great means, he’s a simple, affable man—no airs—who’s very accessible to his staff. He is the Filipino businessman you wish you could clone for future generations because—as they say, they don’t make ‘em anymore like they used to.

In the mid-’90s, at the Eugenio Lopez Center in Antipolo, the Lopez siblings pose for posterity before the famous quote from their father, Eugenio Lopez, Sr: from left, Oscar Lopez, Eugenio ‘Geny’ Lopez, Presy Lopez Psinakis, Manuel ‘Manolo’ Lopez (Photo from author’s file)

About author

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After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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