The few who have no dealings with investment banker Roberto “Bobby” V. Ongpin, both personal and professional, probably know him just based on what they read in the newspapers. These few may even hate his guts.
Bobby may be controversial but he was an astute businessman, a technocrat who had a vision for the Philippine economy, and an authoritative news source who had mellowed in his latter years after being known in the business and government circles for his fiery temper.
My first encounter with Bobby was back in the early 1980s when he was appointed by the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos as the nation’s trade and industry minister. I was a business reporter with Manila Bulletin at that time and news coverages during the Martial Law years were difficult and a struggle for obvious reasons. But Bobby still found time, usually on a Friday, to brief regular beat reporters about the burning trade and industry issues at that time.
Bobby did not immediately leave the country when People Power led to a change in government in February of 1986. He had to man the fort (as any other Cabinet official) at his Board of Investments office, until his successor moved in. His term was about to end but he still found the time to join business reporters for a few drinks at a cheap bar just behind the BOI building. The reporters bade goodbye to Bobby after several rounds of beer and his favorite whisky—and his usual cigar.
Bobby soon moved to Hong Kong and shuttled between the crown colony and London to resume his investment banking career. He did not leave the Philippines after all―he busied himself inviting foreign investors to come to the Philippines and experience the new business climate.
I would later find out in the late 80s that some of the scoops I wrote with Philippine Daily Globe had the fingerprints of Bobby Ongpin all over them. For one, he had touched base with Hong Kong-based Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok Hock Nien and convinced the latter to put up the first two Shangri-La hotels in the Philippines―one in in Mandaluyong City and the other at the corner of Ayala Avenue and Makati Avenue.
Yes, Bobby did go back to the Philippines and hauled several foreign investors to his beloved country. He was instrumental in the sale of the shares held by Saudi Aramco in Petron Corp. to London -based Ashmore Group in early 2008. I personally asked Bobby if he brokered the deal. He confirmed it, which later became the subject of one of my column pieces.
He would acquire and transform penny ante stocks into a holding company engaged in internet gaming and eventually property development.
With the Ashmore Group as partner, Bobby built up Alphaland Corp. and concentrated on high-end developments. I wrote on October 8, 2015 about Alphaland’s aggressive property projects and compared his company with Ayala Land Inc. of the Ayala Group.
Bobby appreciated the column but he showed humility and grace when the piece I wrote, in his words, effectively put Alphaland in the same league as Ayala Land.
“While I appreciate this compliment, I would like to point out that Alphaland is in no way in the same league as Ayala Land. Compared to Ayala Land’s market cap of about P530 billion, Alphaland will be but a fraction of this. I am also a great admirer of Ayala Land for their bold and aggressive moves in various niches in the property market in the Philippines,” Bobby told me in his letter.
Alphaland’s targets, said Bobby, “are quite a bit more modest and as we say, Alphaland is unique.” “We do only very high-end projects targeted to our niche market. Thus, we have the Alphaland Southgate Tower and Mall, which was the old derelict Silverio building at the entrance of EDSA, Balesin Island Club, the Alphaland City Club and Makati Place on Ayala Avenue Extension.”
“I do appreciate your kind words but we can never hope to be in the same league as Ayala Land.”
Bobby and Alphaland later developed the Alphaland Baguio Mountain Lodges, a master-planned development of 350 lodge-style log homes on a 100-hectare property just nine kilometers north of Baguio City on Ambuklao Road.
Bobby’s taste for high-end living property projects, in my opinion, reflects his taste for the good life. He earned his spurs and was never a crony nor an oligarch as he was unfairly described.
He once gifted me one Christmas season with a bottle of virgin olive oil that he proudly said was grown and refined from his grove in Tuscany, Italy. He waxed poetic in his personal note, taking pride in the produce of his 800-year-old Italian villa.
Bobby must be smoking his Tabacalera cigar now and holding a glass of Johnnie Walker Black. He could also be crooning Arthur “Dooley” Wilson’s “As Time Goes By.”
Requiescat in pace, Bobby Ongpin.
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