Standing Tall for Sweden: Ambassador Annika Markovic

Her Excellency Annika Markovic’s imposing blonde presence reminds one of no less than the Valkyries of Scandinavian legend. But her warm smile and gentle manner quickly melted through any feelings of intimidation during our conversation. And it was an enchanting process indeed to see past the dignified diplomat’s statuesque form and discover the idealist’s heart and adventurer’s soul that beats and stirs within.

Amb. Markovic 3rd from left, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

Unlike the abovementioned battle-maidens however, Ambassador Markovic is a passionate pacifist, which is appropriate considering her role as the representative of the country which gave birth to the Nobel Peace Prize. “One thing I’ve been most interested in here is to help with the peace process,” she shares. “I think there is no other singular issue that could affect the Philippines and its development more. If there will be peace in Mindanao, the whole picture will change. In Europe, the general perception of the Philippines is that it’s a dangerous place and you should go somewhere else to invest. I wish the different parties realize that they have a golden opportunity now and that they should really work hard to try to achieve something sustainable. I just hope to see some progress before I leave the Philippines.”

A Passion for Mediation

The envoy readily divulges that her heart is deeply into doing multilateral work. “I find it very rewarding to be working with different countries, facilitating negotiations to agree on something difficult, working to find a common solution that is acceptable to all so we can move ahead and establish something that is a good basis for the future.”

Despite her lofty position, the ambassador remains very humble about the role she plays and the influence she wields. “You try to see what you can do to prevent war from breaking out and supporting peaceful development, to assist in alleviating poverty and to really try to help, make this a better world,” imparts the envoy. “These are big words and I know that what I can do as a human being and as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps is very limited. But at least I can feel like I can make my small contribution to achieve something better for all.”

Ambassador Markovic initially determined and developed her knack for diplomacy during her stints in the Swedish foreign ministry and when she was posted to the Swedish mission to the UN in New York. But she admits to have always been very interested in other cultures and other people. “This job gives me the opportunity to travel around the world, to learn and see things for myself,” states the ambassador. “I’m very interested in foreign policy, how countries relate to one another. What you realize very quickly is we can have so much in common even if we come from different corners in the world. The Philippines and Sweden are very far from each other, but we are very much alike because we have the same basic values. It’s easy for me to relate to what is going on because there is a common ground,” she affirms. “I think my most interesting discovery during my almost 4 years in the country is that our contacts are so broad and extensive: from the grassroots level to political parties and business. It’s been very rewarding to be part of that and to help establish a closer relationship.”

One of the challenges that the ambassador admits to facing here in the Philippines is building a better understanding of the European Union, and the 13 member countries that are here working together as a group. “The individual countries are very well known, but that we form something bigger is not,” she relates. Her embassy has been trying to help explain and promote the European Union to the Filipino people by participating in the Cine Europa Film Festival and in European trade exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the ambassador acknowledges that the challenges are what keep her career interesting and fulfilling. “I’ve been really very happy in this job, so I’ve never had any regrets or thoughts if I should have done other things,” she avows. She does confess that some issues are tougher to sort out than others, particularly those that involve her personal life. “It’s always a challenge to be an ambassador, and maybe even more to be a woman and have a family, and get all the pieces together. You have to cope with your family, to make sure that they are happy, that they also have good opportunities. At the same time you have to focus on your job and do well in it, and still save some little time for yourself so you can also rest and develop. I think that it is something that all women who are in leading positions in society have to deal with.”

Family Matters

Complications aside, the envoy reports that the Markovic family is really enjoying their stay here. The ambassador also hopes that this experience of travelling to and living in different countries affords her kids a broader perspective. “In the future when they have to decide what career path to start and what to do with their lives they would think they’re not just confined to staying in their hometown,” she explains. “They know they have opportunities everywhere. They don’t need to be afraid and think it difficult to move to the other side of the world to find a good job.”

She is proud that her children already possess an advantage in learning languages. They learn English in school but at home they speak only Swedish. “We brought a Swedish nanny to the Philippines even if some people were telling us before that there was no need to,” the ambassador relates. “My youngest was only a year old when we moved to the Philippines but he speaks both fluent Swedish and English. And you cannot tell that he has not lived in Sweden. He wouldn’t have been like that if he didn’t have a Swedish nanny. So that was an important decision we made and I think a very good one.”

Ambassador Markovic would like to think that she has stood as an example for her younger colleagues that it is indeed possible to be a woman and an ambassador and still raise a family. “I think they see that and think that: ‘yeah, if she can do that then I can do it too’,” the envoy asserts, sharing more wise counsel for her fellow female diplomats. “The earlier the better I think you have to realize that you cannot be 100 percent on top of everything. You have to lower a bit your own ambitions so that you can live a healthy life. Because if you want to be the best boss, and the best mother, and the best spouse, I think you’re going to get depressed and frustrated very fast. So you just have to realize that maybe you don’t need to be the best all the time. You can just relax and achieve what’s enough.”

Beyond her dual roles as mother and ambassador, Her Excellency proves how gender should pose no impediment to both professional and personal fulfilment. “A very determined policy of the Swedish government is to promote gender equality and give equal opportunities for men and women to develop and do whatever they want in life,” the envoy contends. “So the different competencies that we bring are really utilized and put to good use. I’m not so sure that you can pinpoint specific areas where women contribute more than men. You can’t say that the either men or women are always a certain way. But it’s always good to have a mix.”

Shared Journeys

Even among this group of women ambassadors, the envoy notes that there are so many interesting personalities. “I think we all are individuals and have our own backgrounds and we are what we are right now for different reasons,” says Ambassador Markovic, who then reveals that they all try to get together once a month or two. “It’s a great opportunity to share experiences, talk about the developments of the country, and learn from each other. Sometimes we also travel together and it’s very interesting to see the Philippines from the point of view of someone you don’t normally travel with.”

This is what inspires her message to any newcomer to the country: “Don’t miss out on travelling around the Philippines,” the ambassador emphasizes. “That has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. You find fantastic people who are very instrumental in their own small communities in trying to be advocates for change. You also realize that this country is still quite poor, that there are many challenges to its development and the alleviation of poverty. It’s only by leaving Manila, travelling to the different corners of the country, meeting with the people, and trying to understand what’s going on with their lives, that you’ll see what this whole country is all about and the opportunities and possibilities that are here.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat magazine, 2007.

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Steadfast for Spain: Ambassador Luis Arias

The Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines has always been held in high regard and afforded a lot of attention. As the country’s official link to Spain, the ambassador has to be able to look back on our shared pasts, and also move forward by implementing programs that will benefit our countries’ futures. Modest and earnest, H.E. Luis Arias Romero brings to his position 33 years’ worth of experience in the foreign service.

“At one time I wanted to teach in the university,” admits the dedicated diplomat. “But I decided to remain in the service to represent and serve my country abroad. It was not a difficult reflection.”

He explains how as a diplomat, he is tasked to protect the interests of the Spanish people and to expand the idea of Spain. Fulfilling this function in the Philippines is both a great challenge and privilege considering the more than 400 years of common history and tradition shared between us.

“We have very good relations in the political realm and we do many projects in the cultural realm,” he says. “But there are still many things we can do to improve our economic relations. Spain can contribute so much in the areas of energy, climactic change, and tourism. My government expects many things to be accomplished.”

The ambassador notes that there are many institutions in the Philippines that are very helpful and hospitable, thus lightening his load. And yet he does confess to not having much free time. Rare is the day when he has no social event to attend. But he does try to set aside at least half an hour a day to go swimming for his health and to unwind.

It’s this demanding schedule which has made the busy envoy appreciate the value of time.
“I choose to seize every moment.,” he states. “Everyday is the most important in my life. Every time I’m working in my office, I’m doing something useful for the Philippines and Spain. Every day I feel that I will be able to do more. The possibilities are enormous and the future is optimistic.”

Despite his long years of service, an accomplishment he is most proud of, the envoy remains as enthusiastic as ever. It is his first posting in Asia and he likens it to starting a new career. Costa Rica was his first overseas assignment, and also his first time to go abroad. It was while living in another country that the ambassador professes to having discovered himself. He was then posted to the USA, Poland, Canada, and Belgium. “Each place has its own character and particularities,” he muses. “As a professional, we have to always find the interesting and positive things in any place.”

The envoy remembers encountering Filipinos almost everywhere, especially in the US, the foreign service, and in Spain where there are many who are well-established. His impression of Filipinos is of a very hospitable people, sympathetic and compassionate.

Prior to his arrival, the ambassador talked with many people who had been to the Philippines those with knowledge and experience to share about the country, whether in business or government. He diligently read up on the work of the embassy in Manila for the last 25 years, and began reading the history of the Philippines.

But studying the country in theory was still not quite the same as experiencing the real thing.
“When I arrived here there was a moment to get in touch with reality. Now that you are here you have to start work,” he told himself. I arrived on the 27th of February and on the 28th I was in my office.”

Although he knew beforehand about the country’s 88 million inhabitants, it still made quite an impression on him to actually live amongst them. “It’s very easy to connect with people here. I feel at home,” he declares. “The most obvious influence may be from the US but Spain’s influence goes deeper. It’s a part of your way of life and understanding things. I think another characteristic of Filipinos is that your sense of humor is rather different from other Asians. It’s very familiar for me, a Spaniard. We laugh at the same things. When I talk with somebody or I see the names of streets and places, there are so many things that constantly remind me of Spain or Spanish things. I always have to make an effort to remember that I’m really in Asia here. It’s like being in a Latin American country.”

Despite all that is familiar, there were still quite a few things Ambassador Arias had to figure out and get used to. “One thing I didn’t know about before was Filipino time, the daily timetable,” he reveals. ”Now we are perfectly adapted. I wake up at 6 in the morning then we have breakfast and I’m working by 7:30am. Then at 12:30 we are having lunch. I think it’s a very clever timetable compared to in Spain where we have lunch at 2:30, and dinner past 9pm. Here I feel I have more time to work and enjoy myself.”

The ambassador’s family has also apparently eased into their new situation with aplomb. “My wife is very happy and very positive. There are many activities to do here and she’s collecting many friends,” he shares.

“Our 26 year old son likes Asia very much and is very happy to have us here. He has been working in Beijing and speaks good Chinese. In fact he visited Philippines years before we came. Even now he e-mails me places to go. He wants me to use the jeepney. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult for me than it is for him though!”

The envoy was finally able to carry out his son’s suggestion on a trip to El Nido. “I used the jeepney once from the airport to the port where we rode the banca. I think it’s a very ingenious way of transport,” he concludes. The trip also whetted his appetite to further explore the country. “When we were flying over the islands, I could see the reality of the Philippines. I definitely have to travel more, to go to the Visayas and Mindanao where we have many projects of cooperation, and for me to be able to talk properly about the entire country.”

The envoy is obviously quite dedicated to his work and role. “When I eventually leave the Philippines I want to have quite a bit of knowledge about the country and its many different people. I’d like to be remembered as an ambassador who has done his best to extend the friendship, good relations and brotherhood between the Philippines and Spain.” And even just over the span of a few months, Ambassador Arias has already been receiving compliments for his approach to the job, high praise indeed for a first-timer.

“I feel that maybe I am changing or the country is changing me,” he reflects. “I’m very happy here and I’d like to really know the country from the north in Batanes to the south in Mindanao. That is my horizon.”

-text & photo by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2007

Windows to Well-Being: Microsoft’s Tep Misa

Image representing Microsoft as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

As one of 12 winners from among 70,000 employees worldwide, Stephen Thomas “Tep” Misa, Small & Mid-Market Solutions and Partners director for Microsoft Philippines, received the much-coveted Chairman’s Award, Circle of Excellence in 2006

His achievement is made more noteworthy by the fact that out of 230 Circle of Excellence Awardees, Bill Gates himself personally handpicks who gets the Chairman’s Awards. “We were just so blessed that the one chosen for Asia Pacific is, for the first time, a Filipino,” Tep relates. “We didn’t expect it. The nominations come from your peers. It’s not something that you gun for.”

Tep planned such innovative Microsoft Partner Programs as the sales-boosting “Kaakbay”, and “IT Ignite” which helped fire up international opportunities for local software houses.

The live awards ceremonies, held at the NBA Arena, were further enlivened by Tep’s far-from-understated demeanor. “The whole court was the stage, all the winners were in the middle,” he recounts. “When I was called we were shocked. I went to the very front, facing the arena that was full of people. The Philippine team was there. All the winners had a red jacket with a badge saying Circle of Excellence Awardee. But we also had a Philippine jacket. And every time we’d go to a global briefing we’d wear that jacket with our flag, Olympics-style. I took off the red jacket to reveal the Philippine jacket. The crowd burst into applause, even Steve Ballmerclapped. Then I threw the jacket to the team. All the other winners just went up to have their hands shaken. I was shouting Philippines! Philippines!”

Aside from work, accepting awards, and caring for his wife Hazel and twins Gio and Chili, Tep channels his boundless energy into triathlons, tennis, and playing keyboards for the Ligaya ng Panginoon Catholic Charismatic Community. “I have 5 mantras to sustain me,” states Tep. “I shall play, rest, work, learn and pray. If I’m a bit lacking in one, my life isn’t balanced. Not even the riches in the world will be enough to compensate for living and enjoying a well-balanced life.”

Cover of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effectiv...

Cover of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Tep feels fortunate to have found his mission in life back in 1998 while attending a course on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He resolved to start making a positive difference in other people’s lives and is grateful that working for Microsoft allows him to do that. “The company encourages people like me to be the best that they can be, to give back to their community, help your country, your partners, big and small companies in big ways and small ways,” Tep affirms. “It may sound cliché but it’s hard to accomplish, to find time for your family, work and community, and time to train for physical fitness. But in the end it’s a very rewarding experience. I perform better at work because of sports. You are sharper, better as a human being, because you don’t win every time. Losing forces you to be humble and bounce back.” But the winner in him busts out when Tep waxes effusive about how he enjoys competing as part of the Alterra Men’s Health team. “Before we were nobodies,” he admits. “Then we started winning. So now people are watching us.”

At a dinner with Steve Ballmer, he asked Tep what he was most proud of for being at Microsoft. Tep replied that it’s not because he’s making good money, not because of the cool technology, but because the company allows him to help other people. “I’m surrounded by great, passionate, talented people who maybe have even more passion than I do,” Tep gushes. “Now the bar is higher. When our country succeeds, as an economy, as a Filipino people, so does Microsoft. We haven’t succeeded if our country has not succeeded.”

Two years ago, Tep decided to just go crazy. He realized how unhealthy he was when he saw an officemate, who weighed over 200 lbs, finish a triathlon. Coupled with the Lance Armstrong story of surviving cancer, this inspired him to do a 180 degree turn in his life in terms of health. He then started preparing for a triathlon, motivated by one major factor: three of Tep’s loved ones, two close friends and his mother-in-law, were all suffering from cancer. Tep thought how fortunate he was to be healthy and have the opportunity to live a good life and not waste it. So he vowed: “From here on, with every step, every swim stroke, every pedal, I’d pray to the Lord that my three loved ones would live one day longer. And that really inspired and motivated me. My two friends are still alive. Unfortunately my mother-in-law, who I love so much, passed away earlier this year.”

And although his wife is still a bit saddened by their loss, Tep has still started to prepare her to be a runner, cyclist and swimmer. “All your frustrations, take it out on the training,” he goads . “Make something positive out of something negative.” Tep hopes his kids eventually adopt his outlook on health as well. He’s already bought them bikes to start them off.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines, 2007

World Pool Champion Mika Immonen: This Finn has Flipped over the Philippines

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi...

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi Cup 2008 in Malta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika Immonen is undoubtedly one of the world’s best pool players. Mika was thrust into the game’s highest ranks when he won the World Pool Championship in Cardiff, Wales in 2001 after a perfect week-long pool-playing streak. He was voted MVP at the 2003 Mosconi Cup in Las Vegas and chosen as the European team captain in 2005. At the first ever Philippines Open in 2003, he came in from behind to beat home-town favorite Efren Reyes and emerge as champion.

His many victories include the 1992 Inaugural EuroTour, 1996 Taipei Peace Cup, 2000 Sudden Death 7-ball championship, 2003 Pro Tour Championship, 2003 National Championship, and the 2004 World All Stars Cup.

As it turns out, Mika’s introduction to the cue and table was kind of accidental. “They opened up a pool room just two blocks from my home,” he relates. “And it was conveniently on the way to school. So on the way back I’d be stuck there. We were going to play ice hockey once but it was an exceptionally cold day so we just went to this new place which was warm and cozy and there were a lot of games and a billiard table. At first I didn’t even play billiards that much, like any youngster I was playing video games at that age. And then as soon as I started playing a little bit, I was really fascinated and got hooked easily. I felt like I had natural talent.”

Mika won his first tournament, a small one in Helsinki, when he turned 16 that same year. Alas, no trophy remains as a memento of that fateful triumph. “The winner got a ham because it was Christmas and there are a lot of tournaments in Finland in December,” Mika explains. “But my family is not into ham that much. We prefer turkey. So I sold it. I made over a hundred US dollars at the time selling this huge ham.”

Mika earliest inkling of the Philippines was while following a game played by pool great Earl Strickland. The legendarily temperamental champion was up against a Filipino and was getting really mad and frustrated, even flinging a few memorable vocal barbs. But Mika didn’t get to actually see Stricklands’ nemeses, Efren Reyes and Francisco Bustamante, in the flesh until 1992 when they played the Challenge Cup tournament in Sweden.

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champio...

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champion, July 22, 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika first visited our country in 2002, the year after he won the World Pool Championship. “I was really pleasantly surprised about everything, by how many people knew me here, the hospitality and the fact that almost everybody speaks English,” he states effusively (for a Finn). “There was literally no language barrier. It was just a nice place to be.”

Thanks to the unifying power of pool, Mika has sort of become an informal goodwill ambassador for our country. “I like that there are so many nice holiday destinations even just a short distance from Manila,” he states. “Like Boracay, Subic Bay, Tagaytay, Baguio. Palawan. I wouldn’t mind having my semi-retirement in the Philippines eventually. It’s my long-term plan. And I can always play pool here.”

Mika can’t seem to get enough of our warm weather, but also more importantly, of our warm reception of him. “The hospitality of the people here is just amazing. It’s really outstanding, I think it’s the best in the world,” he gushes. “Finns have a lot to learn. In restaurants or any service industry I think that Finns should come here first and see what it’s really supposed to be like. Filipinos are proud of their work but still humble. They always seem to want to make the best of the situation, to make you feel comfortable, like you want to come back again. That culture of hospitality really is a big asset of the Philippines.”

Over his many visits, Mika has learned to accept and admire our distinct Filipino quirks and qualities. “Filipinos like to party. They’re kinda laid-back people,” he observes.

“It’s funny this thing that Filipinos do with their eyebrows. In Finland, that is kind of like a flirtatious thing. When a girl does that it sort of means: Hey what’s up? You wanna do something? So I was a little bit confused.” For sure, the Finn’s fervent Filipina fans were all too willing to set him straight on this. But he just takes this all in stride with straightforward Scandinavian stoicism.

“Filipinos are always late,” gripes Mika (after we were 10 minutes late for the interview). “But it’s cool with me. I’m used to it. I almost expect it,” he says reassuringly. He has gotten so familiar with Filipino manners, he’s even started taking a few of them on himself.

“I noticed usually when I stay here for a week or so, I start speaking like a Filipino, I start emulating how my friends talk, the accent. I don’t even notice it. I use the gestures you do here like the eyebrow thing, pointing with lips. I guess I get acclimatized.”

Although Mika may praise us and put up with some of our foibles, there are still a few things he hopes could be improved. “I wish there would be more awareness about the environment,” he states. “Some of the thinking is very short-term. Creating trash and pollution and maybe throwing them in places that otherwise would be very beautiful. There’s a lot of nature here that is really untouched but people are taking some of it for granted. I hope some political power would start focusing on it because that’s part of the richness of the Philippines.”

This declaration reveals Mika’s sincere affection for our country, beyond just being the place from where his respected rivals hail from. “I’ve always dreamed about having a world championship over here. I know it’s good for the country and it’s good for the pool community. If a Filipino does well here it may boost the national pride and confidence. It may trigger some other things. If I don’t win I hope it’s a Filipino.”

“I think this world championship will give a big boost to an already pool-crazy country,” he predicts. “Maybe there would be a wellspring of new talents. A couple of years down the line I can expect a lot of really good players from here. I can already see a very strong next generation.”

When asked what advice he could share with local cue-men, Mika just smiles and shakes his head “They don’t need advice, they’re too good already,” he yields. This is high praise indeed from “the Iceman”, whose steel-cold stare has unnerved many a champion.

“They tell me I look mean on TV,” shrugs Mika. “But I just say that’s the way I play. It’s serious business. Like in any sport I think you can see many characters that are just really intense when they play. They let their guard up. I think I’m a little bit more relaxed in real life.”

“Finns in general are a more quiet people,” he goes on to explain. “They don’t say much. That’s just a fact. Even I know it. I might be in that category. I would like to warn Filipinos that when they meet Finnish people that they shouldn’t be taken aback by this. Small talk is not a part of our culture. It’s just the way things are. I’ve been traveling the last 14 years so experiencing different cultures has affected me in the way that I’m more approachable, or not that Finnish. There’s still a lot of that rooted in me anyway. Sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes maybe it’s nice to be quiet,”

As a parting shot, Mika extends his gratitude to all those rooting for him, whether Finn or Filipino. “I’d like to thank the Filipinos for all their support. I’m very touched by it. I even have this fan club with a yahoo group. So I’d like to say thanks to them for hanging in there. They have a lot of great players from their own country but I’ve heard them say if a Filipino isn’t going to win the tournament then they hope it was me. So that’s very cool.” Thus speaketh the Iceman.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006.

Man in a High Place: HP Philippines CEO Nilo Cruz

Nilo Cruz is a distinguished veteran of the wild world of high-tech mega-corporations. A loyal workhorse for IBM who then turned to running Compaq Philippines, a company he had driven to record growth just before its parent company was absorbed into the HP behemoth, Philippine IT pundits had speculated that Cruz’s chances of staying on top post-merge seemed remote, and so his ascension to HP Philippines chief was quite the stunner in an already surprise-filled saga.

Nilo took this all in his stride without missing a beat. “I never stopped looking back, but I kept on moving forward – so one step forward, two steps backward, review, learn, then move again,” is how he puts it.

It’s this continuous drive to improve himself as a boss that probably makes him such a good one. “You want to further grow, maybe there’s something different in the future,” he stresses. “So you want to prepare for it, but since you don’t know yet what’s coming, you just have to really try whatever you can. It may be products, services, competition, management, new approaches, challenges, whatever is new. If there’s any training in terms of management, I’d like to get it. If I can get hold of it, I will.”

Although most people would think that Nilo has climbed as high up the corporate ladder as one could possibly aspire to, he doesn’t believe in resting at the summit. He feels a responsibility to keep working to uplift the team he leads. “Never stop developing people because they’re the ones that will push you up, rather than pull you down. Aside from my family, they inspire me as well,” he acknowledges.

Nilo is the antithesis of the ivory tower CEO holed up his corner office. “I don’t really stay in my room so much. I’m a cubicle manager, I work with the staff, I share jokes with them, I share problems with them.  They know where I’m coming from. I can be nice but I can also be nasty. But of course, that’s the last thing I want to be.”

Absorbing, interpreting, and sharing knowledge is what seems to be key in the IT biz according to Nilo. “You get training from the companies you work with, you learn from other companies, from other countries. They also try to learn from us because we have a more challenging environment. So over the years I try to apply them. I watch the way the competition works, see how I can learn from their mistakes.”

Nilo was able to spin even the notorious Fiorina fiasco into more of a boon than a bane for HP, somewhat proving the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “Since it didn’t affect our business here, which is my concern, I moved on. But it kept HP in the industry’s mind for a while. So every time I’d go to the doctor’s, or to cocktails and parties, people would come up to me and say that they’d read an article on what was happening at HP, and I’d tell them to check how HP stock moves. And the next day they’d see it go higher. So I’d say: ‘That’s what I’m monitoring more than what I see on CNN or in the press.’”

Nilo remains unruffled by the goings-on at the top ranks of HP headquarters and like all good mentors, is ready to pass on the baton when necessary. “Wherever I am I always try to develop someone who can replace me because I know I won’t be here forever,” he admits. “It’s nice to give back to the company the good graces that they have shared with me and not leave a vacuum. And in fairness to the people who have helped me meet my objectives, I want to make sure that they also look forward to getting a crack at my job. That’s one thing that I’m not going to be selfish about.”

Mr. Cruz’s commitment to HP, or any of his endeavors, really comes across in how he talks about himself and his company. But as the Filipino CEO of a foreign corporation, Nilo’s strongest allegiance is still to his country.

“First you have to remain focused, you have to play a role model, you have to learn how to be a bridge between the country and the regional headquarters,” he explains. “You have to represent your country well, both the business and human resources part.  You have to defend what you believe in, which is unique to thePhilippines.”

As head of the company, he has to make sure that he delivers the company objectives as regularly as possible, quite a challenge given our economic and political situation. But Nilo believes that we all need to rise to the challenge. He relates how at a speech he gave for a commencement exercise, he dared the students to stay here and make a difference. “That’s easier said than done, but you’ve got to make a decision. When you go abroad you either make it or don’t. And if you come back you’ve lost time, you’ve lost momentum.”

He encourages all Filipinos not to go for the easy dollar, to find simple contentment in those so-called greener pastures. “You can’t have it all. You have to accept that. But you can have something better, or something similar. Count your blessings, that’s what I always say,” he counsels.

Nilo hopes to stir the Filipino youth’s entrepreneurial spirit. “You can start small, from a thousand bucks,” he argues. “Those people who are big now, where did they start? They were working students! If you read their histories, they borrowed money to be able to start their businesses and look at them right now.  So if they were able to do it, what is the difference? What sacrifice did they do that our youths aren’t doing right now?”

Nilo singles out for admiration those people who he finds “more balanced”, who spend their time trying to help the country while running good businesses and practicing good governance and social responsibility at the same time.  He wants to challenge more organizations to espouse love of country. “Rather than loving one’s club, region or family, I want it love for the Philippines.  I still have to see – not tourism ads – but messages of loving the country, of pursuing what Rizal died for, or Bonifacio, or the rest that followed.”

However, Nilo also does have a more down-to-earth and not-so-secret pipe dream for himself beyond the business world.

“I’ve been sharing with my friends that one day I’d want to have a farm. I have a green thumb and I like doing gardens.  But I’m only limited to my house garden now.”

So it may not actually be too out of the ordinary to see this CEO trade in his business suit and PDA for a rake and shovel. “They say my skin color’s like this not because of golf. I got burnt in the field.  It’s a joke but it’s true.”

-text by Jude Defensor, first published in Manual magazine, 2006

A View From The Edge

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2005

RJ Ledesma’s wholistic approach to property development is turning things around.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If one didn’t know RJ Ledesma any better, you’d think he was on something. Able to juggle more jobs than you’d think would be humanly possible, there’s something almost super-powered about his multi-tasking abilities. Maybe it has something to do with his enthusiasm for comic books, or the regular power-yoga sessions he attends, or his great devotion to the church and active participation in parish activities. Businessman, TV personality, new age guru, and devout Catholic, RJ somehow manages to keep all his balls up in the air while most people would simply keel over from both mental and physical exhaustion. Whatever keeps RJ up and running, he should package and sell it. And in a way, that’s what he’s trying to do. As one of his many occupations, RJ is also the Executive Vice President of Ledesco, one of the country’s pioneering real estate companies. Of all their projects, the one closest to RJ’s heart, his “baby” so to speak, is the Taal View Heights Nature Villas and the adjacent Buena Vista Nature Park & Country Club, a 26 hectare property in Talisay, Batangas, part of Metro Tagaytay. The development distinctly incorporates elements drawn from RJ’s varied interests and passions, thus making him the perfect front-man for the project.

We discovered a surprisingly speedy route to Tagaytay via the new STAR highway and before long our ears began to pop due to the lower air pressure and high altitude. Having reached the site, the unhindered view of Taal’s majesty is enough to win most people over. But with RJ, a tour of the location turns into something much more than the usual ocular inspection. “We want it to be a multi-sensory experience. You have the tactile experience by actually coming here. And then the auditory experience. You hear the wind, and also the water elements,” he explains.

No doubt made easier by his eclectic social circle, RJ actively attracts talented people to his projects. Pointing to the wooden figures accenting the grounds, he reveals that all the bamboo and arches were hand-sculpted by Amin El-Bahraoui, a very creative half German-half Moroccan sculptor who grew up in Cebu and has done a lot of work in Germany. “He just took all the driftwood in the area, started working on them and came up with all these sculptures. He uses the same paint that you find in old German churches”.

RJ also enlisted the services of green architect Pablo Suarez, who has studied indigenous architecture, feng shui, and other traditional architectural ideologies. Their philosophy is that these ancient principles continue to work up to this day because there’s an inherent soundness to them. “This area has particularly good Feng Shui because in front of you is a body of water,” RJ explains. “Water is a strong source of Qi. At the same time behind you are the mountains and they protect you from the bad elements. So as the good Qi emanates from the water, it is trapped here because of the mountains at the back. So that’s probably one of the reasons why people feel better and more energetic here.”

RJ and his team strove to preserve the innate beauty and energy of the landscape by retaining its ruggedness. “Some designers do it the easy way by flattening the area, so that they don’t have to build terraces or make use of the slope. But we tried as much as possible to use the existing contours. We always try to acknowledge the slope, the view and the wind. We agreed that all the greenery within the vicinity should be retained,” states Mr. Suarez. RJ backs this up with, “Nature doesn’t create straight lines. So all our lines are curved, uneven, organic. It’s appropriate because we’re promoting the organic lifestyle.”

Rene L. Ledesma, Sr., RJ’s father, feels that he is blessed to have a son who is as innovative and motivated about property development as RJ. Among the profit-driven realm of real estate, where the lowest common denominator commonly reigns, the Ledesmas stand out due to their high principles and forethought. “We are part of nature and we are part of this cultural area. We are not only located near Tagaytay, which is very beautiful and popular with tourists, but also historically rich Talisay. Apolinario Mabini was born there, and it is also where the Katipuneros were based for a time. And in nearby Taal you can still see 16th to 17th century architecture among their houses and churches. Much of the architecture of the buildings in our development is inspired by this area. We are doing all this out of respect for the culture and history of the region. We realize that as developers, we are also Filipinos who have to try to live up to our cultural heritage. We are borrowing from the vernacular of the place and making Filipino architecture come alive,” he states.

UNESCO awardee Augusto Villalon acts as the development’s cultural heritage planner and he intends to put up a showcase Filipino heritage home on the site. “Filipino architecture has been around for a really long time. It works very well for our climate and geography. It satisfies our environmental, cultural and spiritual needs. Mainly because it is a kind of architectural envelope that makes the Filipino more comfortable. We’re not as comfortable wearing super western clothes and living in outrageous western environments,” the master architect articulates.

Other developments sprouting all over Tagaytay feature a mishmash of architectural styles from around the world, from Swiss chalets and American log cabins to Mediterranean Villas. This housing hodgepodge results in a rather disharmonious landscape. Pretty soon, if development progresses unchecked, without any guidelines, Tagaytay will end up looking less like the natural and cultural Filipino wonder that it is and more like a tacky version of a Disney theme park or Las Vegas. Taal View Heights is one of the very few developments with a set of strict architectural and ecological guidelines to ensure that the community as a whole succeeds both aesthetically and environmentally.

As a real estate firm, Ledesco’s respect and sensitivity for the land’s natural and cultural assets serves as an example for others. In a country where both the public and private sector can hardly be bothered to consider such esoteric matters as land conservancy, RJ boldly wears his convictions on his sleeve. And he reveals himself to be something of an undercover conservationist, a guerilla defending the land from inside the industry that seems bent on destroying it. “Property development is a legacy business, whatever you build you leave behind for the coming generations. It doesn’t mean that if you develop property you can’t also be ecologically sustainable and culturally aware. It’s not a mutually exclusive thing. Although many have tried to keep it separate or even abhor it. We embrace it,” he affirms. These are fighting words to say the least, and not what you’d expect to hear from your typical developer. We’re fortunate though that RJ is zany enough to think outside the box, but canny enough to pull it off.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Starstruck (Parol – the Filipino Christmas Lantern)

Put Up A Parol and Let the Light Of Christmas Shine

A Filipino vendor selling Parols.

A Filipino vendor selling Parols. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Philippines, Christmas commences when the stars come out.  Not heavenly bodies or celebrities, although we also have our fair share of those, but the colorful, star-shaped lanterns that start adorning every street and household once the “ber” months begin.  The Americans and Europeans might have their snowmen, holly wreaths, and Christmas trees, and we like those symbols too, but only we have the parol.

Years ago, whenever one went Parol-shopping, we used to be limited only to the traditional bamboo sticks and papel de hapon, and the simple five-pointed star shape.  But these days, Parols are crafted from all kinds of materials, from durable plastic to delicate capiz, and come in all sorts of designs, from intricate flowers to jolly Santas.  The common factor among this extensive variety of lanterns is that they all feature some way to allow light to shine through them or illuminate them from within, in order to achieve the glowing, Christmassy look that we all look forward to every year.

During this season, any Christian home without a parol or any form of decoration is thought to look sad, barren, and unwelcoming.  These sentiments impel families to go all out in decking their houses with ornaments and lights, fuelling a friendly rivalry among neighbors to outdo each other in displaying their depth of Christmas spirit.  At night, when the lights start to sparkle, entire streets are transformed into shimmering wonderlands.  Who needs snow when you’ve got lightbulbs?

The provinces of Pampanga and Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon are famous for their lantern-making industries.  The ongoing efforts of this community of craftsmen have sustained an annual competition for the grandest parol.  These prizewinning lanterns feature complex mechanized parts and choreographed lighting schemes, with price tags reaching millions of pesos.  Smaller versions of these elaborate creations may be bought at the numerous stalls along the highway, or throughout the city, or even in the malls and department stores.  But many Filipinos travel all the way to these provinces in order to stock up on their renowned products at the best prices.

Some parols serve a greater purpose besides mere ornamentation.  By purchasing a lantern, you can also help contribute to the funds of a worthy project.  Multi-colored cardboard stars, with translucent cutouts that impart a stained glass effect, are being made and sold by the Kababaihan Ng Maynila Foundation, a livelihood project of the City Of Manila.  Along the Roxas Baywalk can also be found a group of stalls selling parols and other Christmas ornaments and light fixtures who are also beneficiaries of another of the City Of Manila’s livelihood programs.  And elsewhere, many other handicrafts are available for sale whose profits go to supporting a range of worthy charities and foundations.  This way, you can observe the spirit of Christmas twice over, by spreading the good cheer through lively decorations, and also by contributing to a good cause.

A Parol

A Parol (Photo credit: magandafille)

In the parol, we Filipinos have found another way for us to express our creativity, ingenuity, and religious fervor.  Combining indigenous materials and distinctive designs has produced a uniquely Filipino art form not to be found anywhere else in the world.  The lights of the parol also take us back to that one day, when a star shone brightly in the sky, guiding all those who sought a child to give him their devotion.  They are eye-catching reminders of what we are really celebrating and why we should be merry.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved,  first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

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