Special Envoy Jose E. B. Antonio:

The Value of a Handshake during the Digital Age

Special Envoy to the U.S. for Trade and Investment and USPH Society Director Jose E.B. Antonio shares his business strategy during an interview by The Sunday Times. He manages one of the Philippines' largest and multi-awarded real estate conglomerates Century Properties. Businesses are responding to unique challenges from the pandemic that is now entering a third year. Entrusting personal connections, Special Envoy Antonio believes that a powerful handshake in doing business remains important amid rapid technological innovation.

Special Envoy JEBA photo.png


The Value of a Handshake during the Digital Age

By The Sunday Times Editor Tessa Mauricio-Arriola

2017 USPHS Business Meeting in Manila.jpg

21 February 2017 USPH Society Business Meeting in Manila. Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. delivered welcome remarks. Ambassador John D. Negroponte and Ambassador Thomas Hubbard offered their "View from Washington." Panelists from l-r Jose Eduardo B. Antonio, Jose Ma. Conception III, moderator Ebb Hinchliffe, Dr. Cielito Habito, and USPHS Co-chair Manuel V. Pangilinan.

Sunday Times: Ambassador Antonio, how are you, your family and Century Properties at this stretch of the pandemic?

Jose EB Antonio: Thank you for asking that and this opportunity to speak with one of the most widely read and respected newspapers in the country.

My family and I are glad to blessed with good health. The word that I always tell them to remember is gratification. Always be thankful that we remain unharmed by this pandemic.

As for Century Properties, it is doing quite well. Of course, in the first half of the pandemic, the challenge was our inability to construct as fast as possible. We employ roughly 800 to 1,000 workers per building, and because of the pandemic, they could not travel to work. Because No. 1, there was no public transportation, and No. 2, we had to house them if they were willing to work.

We could only do that towards the second half of last year, so I should say, initially, we were caught flatfooted. We didn't know what to prepare. But now that we have adjusted with housing, near or within site itself, we're back to normal.

The other challenge was the importation of raw materials — our construction materials. There was a big job clampdown worldwide, where many of our supplies come from — steel bars to finishing materials. Thankfully, supplies are normalizing again in this second half of 2021.

Then hopefully, the next part, which we are looking forward to like all business, is the revenge phase. The time when we can all bounce back and stronger.

I think the pandemic served as a pause for everybody to concentrate on our priorities. It's been a time to recollect and be inward-looking.

Sunday Times: Before the world went on pause, you were making significant strides in your appointment as Special Envoy for Investment to the US. You were into the role for about three years and five months before the shutdowns. Back then, what was the mood between US and Philippine business relations?

Jose EB Antonio: Before the pandemic, in 2018 and 2019, the Philippines was already on the radar of many corporations in many countries. It's because we had uninterrupted growth for about four to eight quarters with five to six percent GDP growth. So, in short, we were there. It was then when opportunity came about, when many major US companies moved out of China for various reasons outside of my concern as a non-political and non-paid appointee.

What I did after that was to contact these corporations, to at least make the Philippines an option for them. These are companies in major industries, from electronics to sports equipment. I have a list of about 300, and about 100 plus are active in our communications.

You know, you just have to plant the idea that the country is ready to welcome them and their business to get things started. It's because they would rather deal with a country where they have connections rather than go to one that is very cold to them. So you see, relationship is very important, and many of them were already making their decisions back then.

Fast forward to March 2020 when the world's economy and life as we knew it shut down. What became of these significant strides you already made?

We made very good progress with at least 17 major corporations whom we had directly or indirectly contacted before the lockdowns. But then, as you know, history outdid itself, and everything — all plans, expansion plans, etc. — were delayed.

So we are now reviving those talks that we started. But I think the fact that we were already there, with one foot in the door, is already an advantage for the country. We remain on their radar because somebody presented the good aspects of locating their businesses in the Philippines. And as far as I'm concerned, the fact that you are shortlisted is a major victory, especially at this time.

As you said, relationships are the foundation of any business. At the height of the pandemic, when the shutdowns were clobbering even big US businesses — how did you keep these connections going and reach out to these associates?

I was able to keep them thanks to the advent of smartphones. We don't get mails anymore. I take special pride in having the cell phone numbers of these people that I talk to. So we're a text away, a message away.

During the strict lockdowns, I would get a lot of messages asking, "How are you doing in the Philippines," and so on, in the same way that I would ask after their situation there. And I account [the information] I receive because that's more firsthand than the headlines of New York Times. Direct from the horse's mouth.

Communication didn't stop, which is why we remain in the purview of the decision-makers of these big corporations.

Amb Sung Kim Amb Hubbard at MVP Cocktails.jpg

17 February 2020. L-R: US Ambassador to the PH Sung Kim, Special Envoy Antonio, US Ambassador to the PH Thomas Hubbard and US Embassy Officer David Whiting at the reception hosted by Co-Chair Manuel V. Pangilinan in Manila.

Sunday Times: As captain of your own business and as Special Envoy for Trade and Finance, were you ever disheartened by all the uncertainty the pandemic forced on the global business community? If so, what did you have to do to allow that Filipino resiliency to take over?

Jose EB Antonio: One of my rules in life is to manage your expectations so that you don't get disappointed or frustrated. The pandemic was a stranger to us. We didn't know how long it would last, how deadly it would be, how it would impact our lives, our families, our economy. The country was doing negative because there was literally no business going on. It wasn't just us but the whole world was uncertain.

But then and now, I was never disheartened because of that mindset. And like I said, the break served as an investment of sorts with time available to rethink plans and priorities. Doing that even furthered my resolve to keep going.

Febryary 2019 Business Reception.jpg

Special Envoy Jose EB Antonio (second from the left) with Amb Sung Kim, Co-Chair Manuel V. Pangilinan, DCM John Law, President Amb John F. Maisto, Executive Director Hank Hendrickson, Amb Thomas Hubbard, Directors Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, Lucie Du and other guests at the 2019 USPH Society Business Reception in Manila.

Sunday Times: You certainly are and have always been considered a bright choice for the role of Special Envoy to the US, a role you had for China two administrations ago. As a self-made man with humble beginnings, a scholar who went from San Beda to Ateneo and Harvard on scholarships, and ultimately one of the most prominent business leaders in the country, what have these appointments meant to you?

Jose EB Antonio: It was a great honor during the time of President Gloria Arroyo and now President Rodrigo Duterte to have been chosen to assist the government in this capacity. Actually the goal of a special envoy, it's like a blank paper. There are no boundaries. There are no restrictions to what you can do to help the country, although I was focused in both appointments to push for trade and investments for the Philippines.

So in both, I would say we made a lot of inroads but we do not advertise our accomplishments. Some of them were prominent, but the bulk happened behind the scenes in assisting the governments and private and business sectors of those countries to come to ours.

The role is a tall order. It's challenging because it has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include how you're free to move around without the bureaucracy, etc., because you can use actual business-to-business relationships rather than the longer route. Such a relationship is important to allow our counterparts in the other countries to open up and be confident about investing and activating their plans to do business in this country.

Very few people know that many companies abroad are looking for safe havens in terms of business. Not only in terms of investments but also manufacturing and the entirety of doing business. And the reality is that businessmen are more likely to invest in countries where they already have personal connections. Because when they do get down to business, they want to know they can call up at two o'clock in the morning to say, "We have a problem." Like I said, business is personal no matter the era.

Sunday Times: In our country's topmost and elite level of real estate, you stand among business giants who are known for either their Spanish or Chinese roots. While this country has always considered them as full-fledged Filipinos, in some ways, you're the success story that can inspire the rest of the nation they can do it too. How does this make you feel?

Jose EB Antonio: It's gratifying and it gives you more pressure to perform, to step up to the plate and do your best. The pride in me tells me that "kaya naman natin eh," ("We can do It."). We can do it provided we are focused and know about what we're doing.

If you look at the business history of groups and success stories in the country, especially in real estate, which is a very capital intensive industry, you will see corporations either have financial backers or inherited money to invest. Not to belittle any of their accomplishments, but they are doing what is expected of them from the start.

One of my peers, way back when we did business together and started in real estate almost together, is former Senator Manny Villar. We both come from humble beginnings and he's leading the pack right now. So his is a story also. Once, we had a meeting, and after the meeting, he told me, "You know pare, there are only the two of us trying to compete against the best in the country who are brown-skinned!"

Courtesy Call on Pres Duterte.jpg

February 2017 US-Philippines Society Courtesy Call on President Duterte. L-R: President Ambassador John F. Maisto, Special Envoy Jose EB Antonio, SGV Managing Partner Cirilo Noel, the late Honorary Chair Washington SyCip with President Duterte.

Sunday Times: In your storied career, the best proof that establishing relationships is essential in achieving great things is not just the trust and confidence you gained from your local peers and the local market, but the friendships you made with some of the world's most prominent business leaders, design houses and celebrities. What do you think it was in you, and also as a Filipino, that sealed these landmark partnerships for Century Properties and brought valuable business to the country?

Jose EB Antonio: These luminaries and celebrities are also human. At the end of the day, we have the same aspirations, the same goals, and we have the same mindset as far as being successful. So when they meet somebody from another country who is reaching out to them, they welcome them.

So to those who would like to engage that kind of business model, no matter how big your prospective partners are, do not be intimidated because they're also human. That's the first lesson that I would probably love to share with your readers. That challenges and seemingly high mountains can be conquered.

With the end of this pandemic starting to rise in the horizon, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs, big or small, as they get ready to bounce back and take on what you call that revenge phase?

My No. 1 advice is do not waste the crisis because it may not seem like it but it's an opportunity to actually do better. Opportunity comes in various forms and shapes and from basic business sense, this has been and continues to be an opportunity to reboot your business. Into what scale you want to be, regarding the essential things you want and rethinking your priorities.

Ask yourself questions like are you really in the right industry? Where would you like to be years from now? These are the basic questions that one has to answer because we all have different conditions that we live with apart from the general business climate.

From the real estate point of view, the crisis has brought about a lot of opportunities to acquire and develop properties because some people are compelled to sell their assets.

I also think we all appreciated the importance of having a home. A home that is your place because we all had to spend our time at home. Let me explain this based on our actual experience. In the pandemic, our sales philosophy of affordable homes greatly increased because a lot of people revisited and realigned their priorities. Instead of traveling, why don't we buy a home with a monthly amortization of just P40,000 to P50,000? Why should we keep shopping for clothes, shoes and things? Bili nalang tayo ng bahay, diba? (Shouldn't we purchase a house, right?) Families realized what was important, so they learned not to spend uselessly and start investing.

So at Century, the absorption rate of our projects increased, and I think this phenomenon is industry-wide.

And one last thing, the pandemic made me realize that besides food, clothing, and shelter comprising man's basic necessities — and this was a true wisdom up today — there is a fourth addition — the internet. Because with all of us working from home you have to have fast and reliable connectivity all the time.

All things considered, I can say that we are currently in a basic industry where good housing statistics will determine the state of the entire economy. The same is true in American economy. Authorities look at housing stats because if they're good, it indicates that the economy is moving because purchasing power is moving and expanding.

Sunday Times: Picking up on the fourth additional basic necessity that is the internet, how much have you embraced technology to your advantage as a business leader and Special Envoy to the US?

Jose EB Antonio: I'm still in the process of becoming a very good techie. I know the concepts behind it and I don't have to be an IT guy to know it. I believe that in the '90s, the internet and online shopping came along. That was the birth of the Amazons and all that.

This decade we're facing is the age of digitalization and there are two basic things to think about for people who want to study business trends. These are cryptocurrencies and blockchain — the two important concepts that are now gaining momentum worldwide. Of course, there will be winners and losers here as in any industry, but in relation to our day to day life, this actually might — I'm not saying it will — but might change the way we do business and the way we spend money. I find it fascinating.

Sunday Times: So is it safe to say you are all for digitalization?

Jose EB Antonio: I'm excited about it, and remember as they say in doing business or in any profession, we have to change or perish if you don't move with the times.

Some say that everything can be done on your smartphone today, and I have to admit that most things are really just a tap on your phone away.

But again, the basics will always be there in that the internet has helped me to maintain the valuable relationships I have built through the years with a text or video call.

Now a downside is always part of the package. Because as everybody goes digital, people tend to think that there is less need for actual warm bodies to do business. The pandemic even took away the meaningful handshake that starts partnerships and celebrates triumphs.

Everybody has had to rethink ways of staying afloat, and yes, I am all for using what is efficient and embracing ways on how we can improve doing business. But I will still have to say that I consider that personal handshake as important as before.

I was looking at the proceedings of the Asia-Pacific meeting earlier among heads of states. They were all online so there was no personal handshake, no nothing. They communicated what they had to communicate but to me and even as I watched their faces, it was still different. It's as if something was missing especially in proceedings that are so important.

As this palpable excitement seems to grow all the same amid all the changes we have had to endure, how confident are you that the economy will bounce back in 2022 and that more handshakes between the American and Filipino business communities will finally take place?

I'm pretty confident about our prospects for 2022. I think the basics are still good. As a country, we have provided our services in terms of what products will move well after the pandemic. I think each industry will try to repackage its priorities. I think medical equipment, medical supplies, pharmacy, drugs, etc. will occupy a higher position in the priorities of business as they already do now.

But by and large, I think priorities will still be the same. We still need basic education and healthcare. But my parting word is don't lose sight of the trend that's now going on. The trend of digitalization is happening as we speak and it's happening in the big world. So we have to watch out how it affects not only our industry and our work but how it affects our all aspects of our lives. And while this will indicate what products will prosper in the future, it will also help us, like I said make use of what is new and efficient but without forgetting the importance of person to person relationships.

Century Properties.png

Makati Skyline with towering Century Properties building on the right.

Facebook  Twitter