The real Bobby Ongpin: He was interested only in the impossible

To see behind the tough, driven manager, you must know a bit about his history

Bobby Ongpin
Roberto 'Bobby' Ongpin in undated photo most likely from his SGV years: He remained sharp and undiminished by age, all the way to his last day. (All photos contributed by author)

Upon the death of technocrat and leading businessman Roberto Ongpin on Feb. 4, 2023, the author posted these two entries Feb.5 and Feb. 6, 2023 respectively in his FB. We are publishing them, nearly unabridged, with his permission.

My Uncle Bobby died. This is a personal announcement, not the family’s official announcement.

Roberto Velayo Ongpin, chairman of Alphaland Corporation, passed away in his sleep last night (February 4) in Balesin Island. He was 86 years old (born on January 6, 1937). He is survived by his wife, Monica Arellano, his children, Stephen, Anna, Michelle, and Julian, and four grandchildren, two of whom he got to play with before he went to sleep last night.

A cum laude graduate of Ateneo de Manila and an MBA from Harvard Business School, he led SyCip Gorres and Velayo to become Asia’s largest accounting firm, and served from 1979 to 1986 as the youngest Minister for Trade and Industry, during which he made many contributions to the development of the country, as well as defended the currency in the wake of the 1983 financial crisis.

After leaving government, he built and rebuilt empires, including making the deals that brought the Shangri-La Group into the Philippines, Tagaytay Highlands, PhilWeb, and culminating in Alphaland Corporation, where he built his crown jewel, Alphaland Balesin Island Club. He has been expanding to the neighboring island of Patnanungan, which he planned to formally open this year.

He worked his whole life, and never retired. He remained sharp and undiminished by age, all the way to his last day.

He refused to publicize it, but since 1988, he has funded thousands of full scholarships to the Ateneo de Manila University, in the name of his brother, Jaime, who passed away in 1987. The brothers had attended both Ateneo and Harvard on scholarship from anonymous donors.

The real Bobby Ongpin
As a manager, he is not interested in the merely possible

(First published in Metro Society in 2012)


I will make no pretexts or pretensions that this will in any way be an objective account of Bobby Ongpin; it couldn’t be. I am his nephew, and I work for him. I’ve known him all my life. Having said that, by sheer volume of observation alone, I might conceivably see some things about him than a detached journalist, meeting him for the first time, might not.

The writing of this article was neither proposed nor sanctioned by him. He simply agreed to it as a concession. Bobby Ongpin is an extremely private person who has no interest in “managing” his image; he has forever refused to retain a public relations team. He cares little what others think of him, as long as they stay out of his way. Many of my fellow executives and I wish he would be more vocal in his own defense, but he remains steadfast in his policy of “this is who I am, take it or leave it.”
Take this article, then, as you like.

Bobby Ongpin has been in business for over 50 years, and has faced a lot worse than mere Senate investigations. “There were even attempts on my life in the past,” he says. “Real ones, not staged,” he adds, pointedly.

When asked what his thoughts are on the ongoing Senate investigation into the Philex deal, in which he was a key player, he retorts angrily, “Of course, I’m going to win this. They can’t have any evidence against me, because there is none. I did nothing wrong. But, I like a good fight, especially one I know I’m going to win.” (He did win the case.)

Already, he has come out swinging, directly attacking the central theme of his persecutors, which is that he is just a front for Mike Arroyo, a.k.a “FG”, the former First Gentleman. “I don’t need a Mr. A, B, C, D, E or even an FG backing me up, for me to be successful. I have been doing investment banking deals for a quarter of a century.”

He has his own theories about the real, political motives behind the investigation, but declines to discuss them. He says, instead, “As the newspapers recently reported, the Monetary Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission gave their imprimatur to my takeover of PBCom (Philippine Bank of Communications). Nothing proves my innocence more than this. As people in the industry well know, these institutions [The MB and SEC] really go through all of your financial transactions with a fine-tooth comb, to make sure that you are someone who plays by the rules. I am, and this proves it.”….

Yet, he is not furious. He is an experienced enough warrior to know that letting emotion guide his actions can be a weakness. He is well aware that some of what his accusers are saying is meant to goad him into saying things he might regret. Instead, in his previous appearance before the committee, he was tough, but calm, responding to questions without irritation. This was a surprise to many who know him, especially those that have worked for him.

The first thing anyone will tell you about Bobby Ongpin, is that he is a tough boss, demanding, dictatorial and even harsh. Some of this is true, and it is an inseparable part of his management style.

This man has a pretty scary bullshit detector

I remember only one occasion where he actually approved of something. We had a new boardroom table made, by Claude Tayag, of recycled wood. For a piece of furniture, it’s pretty impressive, 21 ft long and four ft wide, meticulously finished so that the narra grain practically explodes with light. Most people find it mesmerizing. Bobby Ongpin walked into the new boardroom, and saw it for the first time. He gazed at it for a moment, and said, “This is actually a pretty good table.” He then turned on his heel and left.

That very table is one of the battlegrounds at which Bobby Ongpin attacks the impossible. During management committee meetings, he storms and rages, pointing fingers at people’s faces and sometimes banging the table for emphasis. As if in reaction to the sturm und drang perpetrated on its surface, the table recently developed a large crack, right near where he sits, and had to be repaired— this was supposedly 40-year-old narra that had settled long ago.

If you’re going to come to the table with Bobby Ongpin, you had better do your homework. You better know every number, every fact, as if you had personally carved it into your skin that morning. And it better be a fact, not conjecture. This man has a pretty scary bullshit detector. He rarely asks questions he doesn’t know the answer to.

Not only do you need to be able to answer all the obvious, predictable questions, you had better be ready to answer everything, from every conceivable angle. What will happen if we do the opposite of what you suggest? If this business is so great, why aren’t our potential partners doing it themselves? What is the voting population of the province? How many mobile handsets are there in the Philippines? What language do people in East Timor use to text? What are the odds of 6 out of 45 with no substitution?

He never compliments anyone, heaven forbid that he should ever say “good job”. A merely good job is the least to be expected, it’s just a passing grade; otherwise you have no business at the table. The closest thing to a compliment you might get is if, after you make your report, he just grunts “OK”. In fact, to be mildly called an “idiot” or “fool” by him is, for all intents and purposes, practically a term of endearment. Frequently instead, he unleashes a torrent of invective. “Stupid” is merely par for the course. If he starts cursing at you in Tagalog, you’re really in for it.

One new executive, after barely surviving such a verbal assault, was told by a veteran, “Don’t take it personally, pare. He’s just an old-school kind of manager.” To which the first replied, “I agree, old- school… as in, medieval!” Another said, “These mancoms would be way more entertaining to watch than The Apprentice, if only it wasn’t our necks on the block!”

At some level, I suppose, everyone at the table realizes it is a sort of theater, a role that he plays. This doesn’t make it any easier. But he also makes it clear that he’s not just playing around. He truly refuses to accept mediocrity, to be satisfied with what is merely reasonable. He’s not interested in “good” deals, he insists on “great” deals.

Forecasting modest profits for a business makes him furious

Forecasting modest profits for a business makes him furious— “do you mean to tell me you want to waste all our time and effort to make 20 million pesos next year? That’s stupid! We should be making 20 million pesos per day!” It is his way of demanding excellence, and nothing less.

He is not interested in the merely possible; anyone can achieve that. He is interested only in the impossible. At a year-end meeting of PhilWeb some years ago, he was informed that the company would turn a profit for the first time in its history, a modest one of perhaps P40 million, but a profit nonetheless. He looked around the table, and said, “I suppose you’re all feeling pretty pleased with yourselves. Well, for your information, I am not pleased. Thus, neither should you be pleased. This company should be making a billion pesos a year, otherwise you have no reason to be pleased.” Nowadays, a billion a year, already achieved, is not very interesting to him. He feels it should be closer to five billion.

One thing that even his detractors are forced to admit is that he is a very, very clever man. For those who have seen him up close, his mind is a formidable processing machine, linear and lateral at the same time. He is somehow able to see the big picture and the tiniest details simultaneously, and he has tremendous focus. His memory, likewise, is a steel trap, a hard drive. He will remember something someone said on a different topic three months ago, while they thought he wasn’t listening. He rarely dwells on the past, however. To him, nothing matters but the achievement of the impossible.

He makes everyone work hard, to the point of exhaustion sometimes, but there is no one who works as hard as he does. He does not seem to sleep much, nor does he seem to suffer from jet lag. He will arrive from an 18-hour flight and go straight to a four-hour meeting. He pays no attention to holidays, and fulminates when key people are on leave.

He is unstoppable, and believes all his managers should be, as well. In his world, there is no excuse for absence or failure to deliver, not floods, fire or war. He actually held a management committee meeting at the height of Typhoon Milenyo. The wind was howling so loud around the Enterprise Center that his executives had to shout to make themselves heard.

Another time, one executive had a major operation, and was absent. The next week, he was back, against his doctors’ advice. When he walked into the room, Ongpin said, “O, buhay ka pa pala.”

He will turn 75 soon, and is in excellent physical condition, despite the fact that he claims not to exercise. When he lands on Balesin Island, his latest flagship project, the moment he trots out of the airplane is the beginning of several hours’ hike and ride around the property, with a trail of managers and supervisors in his wake. Everyone is soon panting from exertion, but he doesn’t seem to break a sweat.

He attributes his good health to a spartan diet— he eats mostly fish and vegetables, and avoids rice. He indulges only during important social occasions, and even then, he eats less when the food is rich.

He does have some vices. He constantly smokes Don Juan Urquijo cigars from Tabacalera, and he has a tall glass full of ice with half water, half Johnnie Walker Black Label, every day at 5 pm. He also loves to sing karaoke, which he does not consider a vice, but his children do.

There is another side to Bobby Ongpin, behind the tough, driven manager. In order to see it, you have to know a little bit about his history.

My late father Jimmy, his brother, always made it a point to tell us, his children, that his own family grew up poor. Although their great-grandfather, Roman Ongpin, had been a wealthy and prominent businessman at the turn of the century (Ongpin street in Binondo is named after him), there wasn’t much left by the time their father, Luis, came of age.

Bobby Ongpin has said that one of his key memories of this period was going to bed hungry

My grandfather, an accountant, worked as clerk in a stock brokerage firm. Having seven children stretched the family finances, and the war made life desperate. Bobby Ongpin has said that one of his key memories of this period was going to bed hungry, many, many times.

Nevertheless, Luis was a very hard working man, and by the time he retired, he had his own stock brokerage, with its own seat on the exchange. This was something my father, and I believe my uncle Bobby, are very proud of, and that they hold very dear: that he, and later they, made their money honestly, through hard work and their own intelligence. To them, it was not only the right way, but the only way.

Luis Ongpin and wife Lourdes Velayo, the parents of Roberto Ongpin

Bobby Ongpin

Luis and Lourdes Ongpin and their children

Alfonso Ongpin with Roberto and his siblings

This is possibly one reason he is so incensed at the current Senate investigations into his dealings, because it attacks one of the things he holds most sacred.

It’s a rarity, when you think about it, someone coming from relative poverty and making a fortune, here in the Philippines. A lot of wealth is inherited, and quite a bit is acquired through less than honest means. Making a fortune honestly is, indeed, something to be proud of.

Of course, Bobby Ongpin does not pretend to be a pure rags-to-riches story. He says that he did get some good breaks— but also, that he made the most of them. For instance, he and his brothers were sent to the Ateneo on scholarship. To this day, he does not know who their sponsor was. It is for this reason that he today continues to support many scholarships, through the foundation named after my father.

Many of the thousands of scholars he has put through school don’t have the slightest inkling who he is

He is actually, despite his gruff exterior, quite a generous person, although he has never once publicized this. In fact, he does not like to talk about it at all. Many of the hundreds (by now, thousands) of scholars he has put through school all over the Philippines don’t have the slightest inkling who he is. I know about it only because he has always asked my mother to help him find scholarship candidates, and I now sit on the foundation board.

In the early 1960s, after attending Harvard Business School on scholarship, he got a job offer from SyCip, Gorres and Velayo, another good break. SGV co-founder Fred Velayo is his uncle on his mother’s side, but he didn’t hire Bobby just based on this. His nephew had performed well in school, and clearly had potential.

Bobby Ongpin

Roberto Ongpin in his Beetle in the ’60s

He turned out to be a good choice, in fact something of a wunderkind. He was appointed managing director of the firm, by then already a regional colossus, before he turned 30. Many of his key contacts, and the foundations of his extensive network were formed during those days.

Many people remember the years (1979 to 1986) he worked as Trade and Industry Minister for President Ferdinand Marcos. In fact, it used to annoy him that certain newspapers and TV channels always identify him as “Marcos-era Trade and Industry Minister Bobby Ongpin”, despite the fact that this was 30 years ago.

Roberto Ongpin (second from left) with Marcos, Cesar Virata in Cancun, 1981

Roberto Ongpin as Trade Minister, with George Schultz

Roberto and Monica Ongpin with Cesar and Joy Virata

He never makes it a secret that he admired Marcos. He was fully aware that Marcos was in some ways, dictatorial, although he prefers the term “strongman”. He says that Marcos was in a unique position to make a difference, and did, although he was ultimately undermined by people around him, particularly his cronies.

‘The cronies were, in fact, our worst enemies. We were the country’s front line of defense against them’

Ongpin is incensed when some commentators identify him as a “Marcos crony”. “I was a technocrat,” he says. “The cronies were, in fact, our worst enemies. We were the country’s front line of defense against them.”

The press, at the time, made much of a supposed war between brothers, as my father, Jimmy, was a key figure in the anti-Marcos opposition when Bobby was a cabinet minister. In fact, there was never such a conflict, and each understood and respected the other’s position, even if he didn’t agree with it.

The brothers actually served as a channel of negotiation between the two camps, because what they held in common, first and foremost, was a dedication to the country, no matter who the political leadership was. I remember uncle Bobby telling my father Jimmy, after the assassination of Ninoy, “you may not like Marcos, but just think of the alternatives at this point.”

Jimmy and Bobby Ongpin in childhood

Bobby and Jimmy Ongpin with their wives Monica and Maribel

The Ongpin siblings: Rene, Luis Jr., Deanna, Bobby, Cynthia

Some observers used to depict the two as opposites, but in fact, they were very much alike: extremely focused, highly analytical, and very fluent with numbers. My father, Jimmy, was always perceived as smiling and gracious, and he did make efforts to get along with people he worked with. But he could, on rare occasions, be as hot-headed as Bobby, who people at the ministry called “The Dragon” behind his back. At the same time, the “Dragon” can be the most charming gentleman imaginable, especially when dealing with ladies.

He has said that the death of my father was one of the worst tragedies he has ever had to bear

He has said that the death of my father was one of the worst tragedies he has ever had to bear. “Your father was a really good man,” he told me, “but very idealistic. The difference between him and me, is that I am a survivor.”

Uninformed observers have said, of late, that Bobby Ongpin “dropped out of sight” after the Marcos era, and has only re-emerged recently. Perhaps it was because, after the very public years in government, he saw the value of a low profile. But he has never “dropped out” to the status of a minor player.

For one thing, I remember, in the months after the fall of Marcos, he was a constant fixture at our dinner table, advising my father, then Secretary of Finance, on how to deal with the massive foreign debt inherited by the Aquino administration. As a key player in the previous government, he knew who my father needed to talk to, and the methods of restructuring they had been working on. This, he shared, entirely pro bono, and with no favors asked in return, nor received, except for quite a few bottles of Johnnie Walker Black and an ashtray for his cigar.

In the ’80s, Jimmy and Bobby Ongpin with Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala

He very quickly went back into action after 1986, and soon brought the Kuok-led Shangri-La group to the Philippines, resulting in major foreign investments. Soon after that, he developed Tagaytay Highlands, which was, at that time, entirely his brainchild.

He found he had an aptitude for the property business, which was, to some extent, new to him, although by this time, he was a director of Shangri-La group. As a lifelong numbers guy, he discovered that he particularly enjoyed the aesthetic aspects, of architecture and interior design, decoration, landscaping, and ultimately, the creation of an excellent customer experience.

Bobby Ongpin and his partner at the time, Jimmy Gonzales, were ejected from Belle Corporation, Tagaytay Highlands’ parent company, in a management dispute in 1999. He lost no time in setting up his next big play, PhilWeb Corporation. Although not personally interested in the details of internet technology (he usually has his e-mails printed out and answers them by hand), he knew that the future of business lay there. He was proven right, and PhilWeb is not only highly profitable, it now has the largest market capitalization of any technology company in the country.

In Belle, Ongpin had the experience of working with a relative, for the first time since SGV days. His nephew, Eric Recto (son of his sister Deanna), joined the company as CFO. The experience was positive for him, especially because he felt he could trust Recto totally. It helped that Eric was not only qualified, but experienced.

Shortly thereafter, Ongpin had a major management issue…. Perhaps because of this, he started actively recruiting his nephews, first concentrating on those with MBA degrees. He now has close to a dozen, including myself, working for him in various areas.

It is still not a family corporation by any means, and many of the key managers are not relatives. The two exceptions are Eric Recto, who is no longer an employee, but a partner, and another nephew, Dennis Valdes, who is president of PhilWeb. The others, including myself, have been hired at a level commensurate to their experience. Only one of his children has agreed to work with him. This is his daughter Michelle, who plays a key role as special assistant to her father.

Bobby Ongpin

Bobby Ongpin with daughter Michelle

Bobby Ongpin

Bobby Ongpin with the author’s wife Ana and their eldest son Baston

Bobby Ongpin

Bobby Ongpin with kin

Bobby Ongpin

The Ongpin children

Bobby Ongpin

Ongpin kin celebrating Bobby Ongpin’s 70th birthday

Once he re-established his revenue base with PhilWeb, Ongpin decided to return to property development. He founded Alphaland in 2005, reassembling much the same team that built Tagaytay Highlands, headed by his longtime friend and business associate Atty. Mario “Babes” Oreta. Highlands had a huge “wow factor” when it was launched, but he fully intends to exceed it in every way.

Alphaland has five projects in the pipeline, including Balesin Island Resort, The Makati Place condominium with The City Club and a select mall, Alphaland Tower on Ayala Avenue, Boracay Gateway, an estate-type resort, and Alphaland Bay City and Marina Club. The company’s first completed project, Southgate Tower and mall, is a regenerated structure standing at the corner of EDSA and Chino Roces Avenue.

One thing all of these projects have in common is scale. The smallest one is still in excess of P2 billion. Another thing is what Ongpin calls “uniqueness”, new ideas and different ways of doing things, to deliver maximum value to the customer. “The market is already full of developers who are doing predictable things,” he says. “Alphaland is unique. We are not interested in replicating what everyone else is doing. Each one of our projects is unique, and by design, better than anything on the market today.”

The largest project, and the company’s flagship, is Balesin Island. 26 nautical miles off the coast of Quezon, 30 minutes by airplane from Manila, the 450-ha. island was owned by Ed Tordesillas, a friend and former undersecretary of Ongpin at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Tordesillas had made an attempt to develop the island into a resort in the ‘70s, but had never completed it. On his deathbed, he asked Bobby to take over the project.

Typically, Ongpin came up with a unique approach. Instead of one resort, he would build six, each with a different theme: Mykonos, St. Tropez, the Costa Smeralda [now, instead, Toscana], Bali, Phuket, and “Balesin”, representing a Filipino theme. Each resort would be authentic to the last detail. Top Filipino architects were sent out to photograph, record, measure, and imbibe the feel, of each place. When completed, each resort “village” will serve authentic cuisine from that country, even down to the beer and liquor.

“You need variety to sustain something like this,” says Ongpin. “Each village will evolve through the years, but you’ll always have that range of choices.

When it comes to property, Bobby Ongpin is obsessed with the details. He pores over floor plans, sketching out the revisions he wants. He wades through rooms full of samples, finishes, and swatches. He believes that substance is, precisely in these details. He insists that quality is not a perception created by marketeers, but an actual, tangible thing that customers respond to.

‘We will never waste our money getting famous endorsers’

“We will never waste our money getting famous endorsers,” he admonishes his executives. “We’re not after stupid buyers, we want smart ones. The money we would have spent on endorsers will instead be given back, in the form of quality and value to the buyer.” He believes quality and value are things you should create and deliver, not just talk about.

For instance, every single condominium in Alphaland’s Makati Place project will be delivered complete….

Alphaland’s definition of “complete” is that you can literally move in on the day of delivery. All you need to bring are a bed, whatever chairs you want, and your personal belongings. All closets and shelves are in place. Every appliance is already installed, tested and working, including the air-conditioning, range, oven, refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, all the bathroom fixtures (by Philippe Starck), television (it retracts into a slot when you’re not using it), the lighting (almost all indirect, and motion-controlled), even the motorized drapes. Some units even come with a restaurant-quality in-wall coffee maker and an under-counter wine cave. All units come with a dishwasher.

The whole apartment can be controlled (access, lights, temperature, appliances) from a provided touchscreen pad remote, or from an app you can install on your mobile device….

Many of the customers who have visited the model units are in disbelief. “You mean it comes with this? And this?” One woman said, “It feels like Bobby Ongpin is telling me how to live my life. I barely even have to choose my furniture!” Good thing she liked his choices— she bought a two- bedroom unit.

Despite his obsession with detail, Ongpin is never satisfied— or he is careful not to show it. The closest he comes to revealing contentment is when he says, “this is what I really enjoy.”

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, nearly five years ago, he told his executives, “I suppose you may be imagining that I am by now contemplating retirement. Well, I will have you know, that three different fortune tellers, unrelated to each other, and on different occasions, all unsolicited by me, have told me that I will live to the age of 93. If this is true, maybe I will start contemplating retirement when I reach 85. So don’t relax, you’ve got a good 15 years of me that you still have to survive.”

About author


Rafael Alfonso Salvador García Ongpin, or “Apa” has been a reporter, photographer, news anchor, newspaper and magazine writer and editor, actor, TV host (including the Binibining Pilipinas pageant), and TV producer and director. He was the founding bassist of the Blue Rats blues band and was a partner in Club Dredd, the seminal rock club of the 1990’s. After earning his MBA in 1997, he worked as an executive in the hotel, quick service restaurant, travel, logistics, radio, publishing, gaming, property and software businesses. He is a management consultant, book author, magazine editor and entrepreneur in the boat business. He is married to Ana Ysabel Rapadas, and has three sons.

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