Interviews by DOM GALEON
Portraits by NOEL PABALATE
It’s not often that you get to pick some of the most brilliant minds in the country today. And, when it comes to brilliance, one very concrete proof is, perhaps, running a business and making it grow. Whether in retail or in property development or in the business of print or in banking and technology, it takes outstanding leadership to push a company forward into the future.
And what does Stores Specialists Inc. (SSI) Group president Anton Huang, Alliance Global Inc. CEO Kevin Tan, National Book Store managing director and Anvil Publications president Xandra Ramos-Padilla, and Unionbank Philippines chairman Justo Aboitiz Ortiz have in common? They are movers and shakers in their respective industries.
If you were to speak to the graduating university students of 2019 ready to enter the real world, what is the one most important reminder you’d want to share with them?
XANDRA: I just like to remind them that, once they start out, to remain humble. Continue to ask questions and learn as much as they can. When I started working in National Book Store, my lola would always ask our partners to teach me, she would say, “This is my granddaughter, turuan niyo naman, wala siyang alam.” And to this day, in fact just last December, she said it again.
So it’s this attitude of continuous learning that, I think, allows us to improve ourselves and be open to what’s new. Even today, I love to read books, meet people and learn from them, and like interviewing people also.
I think lifelong learning is one of the keys to success.
ANTON: Change is constant! It is one’s own resilience and adaptability that drive one to succeed and stay relevant. So be open to change, be open to a world of endless possibilities, and create your own reality—your new normal.
KEVIN: I would like to tell them three things. First, is to always be patient. Success does not come overnight, and be prepared to fail a few times before you can succeed.
Number two, to always remain humble—humble enough to learn new things, humble enough to accept failure, humble enough to learn from your failures and to learn from other people.
And last but not the least, of course, is to never stop learning. No matter how successful you are, we all have to keep learning. There are lessons to be learned everywhere. Learn from everybody—from everyone, young or old. No matter how successful you are, you should never stop learning.
JUSTO: That you cannot win in any game, including the game of life, playing by somebody else’s rules. So rule number one, own the future, make your own rules.
And I think maybe the second thing I would say is a quote from John F. Kennedy, which I hope was properly attributed to him. He says something like, I’m paraphrasing: We’re too comfortable with opinion that we don’t bother to think many times.
I think this was scientifically proven or talked about by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner for Economics, although he was not an economist, he was a psychologist. And he wrote a great book called Thinking, Fast and Slow. So most of us think fast because we don’t have the energy, we don’t have the synapses to make every decision rationally, and go through all the utility, the pros and cons, etc.
So my second message to graduates is that it’s important to unlearn a lot of what we learned in university—unfortunately, because it took a lot of time, effort, and money. We need to continue to learn, relearn, and learn anew. And that we need to have the humility to be able to accept, particularly as we progress in life, that what we learn or what we were invested in may no longer be relevant in terms of predicting outcomes.
So these are a lot of cognitive biases formed by a lot of opinions, except for hard science, that at the end of the day produce shortcuts in how we think. And those shortcuts in how we think, as the world is evolving very quickly, no longer produce the predicted outcomes. So we need to continue to unlearn, to have the humility to unlearn what we spend so much time, effort, and money learning. What we learned from society, what we learned from the church, what we learned from school, what we learned even from our parents need to be constantly challenged.
What are you most excited about—because we just entered the new year, no?—so what are you most excited about for the country as we move forward?
XANDRA: I’m always excited to see what new trends and interests emerge. You know, Filipinos are very creative. They embrace new books, new passions—like calligraphy—and we just have to be in tune with what people are interested in now. This way the National Book Store can continue to be a partner in every Filipino’s lifelong learning, creativity, productivity, and self-expression.
ANTON: The business landscape continues to evolve. The retail sector continues to thrive and the evolution of the industry is what excites me about the future. Shopping habits have drastically changed, putting us in a position to again be flexible to these changes. It’s exciting and interesting to see how our country and our people are adapting to this digital transformation. We have been instrumental in shaping the taste of the Filipino consumer and putting meaning to the concept of “lifestyle” for the past 30 years. It’s exciting to see how we will continue to do so through this evolution.
KEVIN: What excites me the most about our country now is our government’s “Build, Build, Build” program. I think this is one of the gaps that we are we are missing. With this program, we can fill this large infrastructure gap. I think this is the missing link in our economy. We have quite a lot of fundamentals working for us. We have a very young, big, and educated population. But what we do need is the proper infrastructure to be able to take our country and make it globally competitive.
JUSTO: I’m excited about the people and how technology can empower people.
I think that, as a country, maybe from colonial times to the American times, even through the Commonwealth, we were led. As a people, we had elders, we had leaders whom we thought were better than us and we followed them. But I think we’re getting to a stage where technology allows Filipino people to take charge of their own destiny, to empower them to make things possible, and to know what’s available out there through social media and communications technology, to interact with other people across the world, globally. And all of that combined is very empowering and very powerful. And I think that, in the future, this individual person, Filipino people, young people, who have access to technology, will make a difference in and of themselves, without too much dependency on the leaders of the past.
What’s the greatest lesson you have learned while you were still struggling to find your place in the world, and who did you learn it from?
XANDRA: Well, many years ago, I was working in the US. I felt that was a good place for me because I was on my own, independent. There were not too many Filipinos and Filipino families where I was. So I was learning a lot and forging my own path. I had to figure things out, including how to put gas in my car, how to deal with winters, how to scrape off snow from my windshield. Then my family asked me to come home and join the family business because they said that my MBA was their puhunan and so they needed to get their investment back.
That helped me find my own place in the world and it taught me one of the most important lessons: To put family first.
Sometimes you have to go far to realize that where you belong, where you could really make a difference, is home. That’s a lesson I took to heart and continue to live by to this day: To treat people like family, to put my family first—with my own family and also with National Book Store because our team culture is that of a happy family.
ANTON: The greatest lesson I’ve learned would have to be from my grandparents who paved the way for me and for millions of Filipinos to have a world of possibilities open up. If not for their vision, we would not be in the unique position to elevate taste, ignite desire and inspiration, and empower every Filipino to live a life that’s well-curated. And staying true to this mission of offering only the best in lifestyle experiences and thereby enhancing the lives of every Filipino is probably the greatest lesson I continue to learn and live by every single day.
KEVIN: I learned this from my dad, and he said it in a certain way. But I also got this quote from somewhere else: “Blossom from where you are planted.” It means that you do your best from where you are—you strive, you work hard, and you achieve it while you remain planted to the ground. I think it’s his way of saying that you have to maintain the utmost humility in everything that you do.
Second lesson that I’ve learned is to always surround yourself with positive people who can inspire you and who can motivate you to become a better person. I think that, as you go through life, you will meet a lot of people. But it’s important that you choose the kind of friends that can really make you a better person.
JUSTO: I think, in the beginning, the biggest lesson that I learned is to have a vision and to pursue that vision. Obviously, as I stated in answer to the first question, it needs to be revised. But the basic foundation of who you are and why you do what you do needs to be established on day one.
Your life is a journey, a process discovery. But it’s not aimless. It’s based on a vision. And once you have a vision, then you know how to get back on track. So whenever you’re off track, or distracted, or have an obstacle and you need to overcome that, your vision brings you back on track because you have a rudder, you have a North Star. I think that’s very critical—that you need to be able to have that vision and to be able to persist, to know what capabilities you need to acquire. And whenever you’re off the track, you know how to get back on it.
I don’t think it was one particular person who taught me this. It was a combination of different people—my parents, even peers, school, models in society, leaders. I think, over time, the people that persistent and persevered did so not because they were just bullheaded about things, but because they knew where they were going, they knew what they wanted, they had a vision of their life.
We wear many hats and reinvent ourselves many times over, as we grow or as need dictates. But if there’s one legacy or thing you want to be remembered for, what would it be?
XANDRA: I would like to be remembered as a good compassionate leader: That I helped people discover the best of themselves and become that. I want people to remember the passion I have, not just for managing and growing the business, but also for our many advocacies and our vision for the country. We’re raising a nation of readers and we can all pursue our passions. National Book Store is somehow enabling that.
KEVIN: I would like to be known as the person who can add color, flavor, and character to traditional things. For example, when we have our townships. Our townships are basically just live-work-play edifices. But what I’d like to do is introduce innovation, new ideas and concepts that ignite the energy of these communities—to make them vibrant and exciting. That, I feel, is somewhat my contribution to the group and to our various businesses.
JUSTO: That I created leaders. I said this in my retirement speech. I hired people smarter than me, better than me. And my belief of a leader is not the one that creates a whole bunch of followers. But really, I judge myself as to how good I was at creating leaders. And I think I had a pretty good score, in my own self-assessment.
That’s how I went along my career, hiring people smarter and better than me so that they can uplift me in my leadership, for as long as I allow them to do what they were meant to do.
In this ever-changing world, how do you plan to keep yourself or this project you have been working on relevant?
XANDRA: Well we work hard to innovate and adapt to our customers’ needs and provide them with everything they need, from the latest books to arts and crafts to stationary and tools for organization and productivity. But we have to keep up. We have to read a lot, we have to listen, we have to travel, to go to trade shows.
At the same time, of course, we shouldn’t forget our advocacy, which is that not everyone has access to books and school supplies. So we also work hard to distribute Project Araland Project Aklat kits, we set up these libraries in schools across the country.
ANTON: We keep ourselves attuned to change and we embrace it. The shopping behavior of consumers has drastically changed over the years. Filipinos are more discerning now than ever before. There is a premium put to experience and satisfaction. We now have to make customers savor each moment of the shopping journey. Our organization has remained resilient by accepting these changes and finding ways to adapt — whether through new technology that provides convenience for the shopper, new processes that allow seamless transactions internally, or even introducing a new mindset to the people that causes a paradigm shift in the company culture.
KEVIN: I believe in innovation and technology, and how, in this day and age, it can transform and redefine a business and influence people’s mindsets. I also believe in investing in the youth and providing them with the platform and the resources so that they can achieve their dreams. This next generation will be the ones to lead and shape our country.
JUSTO: Like my answer to your question earlier, it’s very important in business and we did this long ago: You need to have a purpose.
The founding fathers of most of these businesses did so, not only because they saw an opportunity—although in some instances that were the case. But those companies that had sustainability had three things.
A study found that the average life of a company was under 50 years. Those that failed did so primarily because of hubris. They got so big, they got so profitable, they were so successful that they now develop these cognitive biases, these experiences, this sort of institutional memory of how things should be done and continued, and probably without a purpose.
And I say that because the ones that succeeded did three things: One, obviously, because they were innovative. But the other two things were the most difficult.
Two, is they had a purpose. And three, they were willing to reinvent themselves—this is a little bit more than innovation. It’s changing the fundamental character of your business but without changing the purpose, sticking to that purpose.
In our business today, we cross this line to digital, which is what’s being called for in the Fourth Industrial Age. My acronym for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is FIRE. So we’re about to walk into a fire, and when we cross that, we need to fundamentally change ourselves. If we stay back, which is an option, then there’s a possibility that we won’t exist, that we won’t be able to compete.