The young Eugenio Lopez Jr.
Culture Spotlight

The man who would be ABS-CBN: From “Great Transgressor” to tough but beloved taskmaster

Nothing like a challenge to bring out one’s real character. That’s what setting up a radio company did to Geny Lopez. 
Raul Rodrigo | Feb 27 2020

In this third of a series of excerpts from the book, Kapitan, which tells the story of Geny Lopez and the making of ABS-CBN, we zero in on the business character of Geny which came out in full display after he was assigned by his father to set up the radio company, CBN. Before there was ABS-CBN, there was the newspaper Chronicle and its radio offspring, CBN, or Chronicle Broadcasting Network— both owned by the industrialist Don Eugenio Lopez, and ran by his eldest, Geny who in the late 50s had just been straightened out by a prestigious military school in the US and had just earned his Harvard MBA. 

Don Eugenio stayed away from active management of his media ventures. He chose to delegate them to his eldest child, Eugenio Jr.—Geny. In late 1956, Geny Lopez was 28 and a Harvard MBA. He was lean, wiry, energetic, about 5'9', had a ready grin, a glint in his eye and a manner that was aggressive yet always polite. Of Don Eugenio's five children (Geny, Oscar, Presentacion, Manolo and Roberto), it was Geny who inherited the father's aggressive business instincts, his sharp intuition and his air of command.

But growing up, Geny was so mischievous and high-spirited it was unclear if he would grow up to be the leader of men his father was. In fact, he was always getting in trouble with his father. Reminded of his brother's bouts of mischief, Oscar said: “My brother was the Great Transgressor.”

Geny with his parents Pacita and Eugenio Lopez circa 1929 or 1930.

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“For a while, I was really the black sheep of the family,” Geny himself recalled. “I used to cut classes. I would goof off, and my father would find out, of course, and get angry” During his freshman year in college, Geny had become enough of a disciplinary problem that in 1947 his exasperated father sent him off to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in the US. There, Geny had his energies properly harnessed and directed.

“That was very good training for me—the military training,” he said. “It was very disciplined, very structured, and that was what I needed.” Fifty years later, he still had the ramrod-straight bearing developed from countless hours of guard duty shouldering a Garand rifle. More important, VMI brought out a seriousness and drive that had lain dormant in him.

Geny as a cadet at Virginia Military Institute in the late 1940s.

Oscar said his brother's hands-on, aggressive management style owed a lot to VMI: “I think it comes from all that military school training.” VMI was famous as the school of George Patton and the famed Civil War general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Stonewall was known for a certain kind of generalship a knack for sudden flank attacks, constant aggressiveness, pushing an opponent relentlessly to expose a weakness, a reliance on intuition. Geny was himself some sort of Jackson in business generalship.

When he came back from Harvard in 1953, Geny spent the next two years focused on running the Chronicle as its GM. But his real calling was still to come. Early in 1955, Don Eugenio came to Geny and said: "How about going into radio?" Geny was reluctant; he wanted to focus on the Chronicle first, and he also had no experience in broadcasting. But Don Eugenio, like his son, was not a man to take "No" for an answer. He soon went back to Geny and said: “No, let's get into it.” Don Eugenio applied for a franchise with Congress, ordered all the necessary equipment, and told Geny: “Set it up.” Thus, CBN was born.

Young Geny with his Ateneo freshman college class, 1946-1947. He is in the last row, third from right. 

On June 16, 1955, Congress granted a radio-TV franchise to the Manila Chronicle (RA 1343). By early 1956, Geny set up CBN in the Chronicle Building in Aduana Street, Intramuros, next to other Lopez ventures—Biscom, AFISCO, and later Meralco Securities Corporation. Aduana would be CBN's home for the next 12 years.

Don Eugenio designated Geny executive vice-president and GM of CBN. Named president was Don Eugenio's right-hand man, Roberto “Bert” Villanueva, whose family had been the original owners of the Chronicle. When Don Eugenio bought it in September 1947 he insisted that Bert, whom he had come to like very much, stay. Despite his title of CBN president, Bert, like Don Eugenio, gave Geny free rein in running CBN. Bert focused on arranging financing and scouting new acquisitions; he had little time to deal with the nitty-gritty of radio.

From left: Antonio Araneta, Geny, President Ramon Magsaysay, Don Eugenio Lopez, and Chronicle columnist IP Soliongco in the mid 1950s.

That was exactly how Geny wanted it. The initially reluctant radio tyro began to revel in the challenge. It was at CBN that he came into his own as a manager. The Chronicle was really his father's personal instrument, an extension of his personality and his causes, so Geny could do little more than get a feel for the business and learn how to run a tighter ship. But CBN was a startup, where the rules and strategies were still being drawn up every day. It was an exciting place for an eager hard-charger. “I was determined to be number one,” he said.

Geny knew nothing about radio, but he was eager to learn and had a sharp mind, powerful personal charm and steely determination to succeed. His favorite management tool was a sheet of yellow pad on which he had written every task he wanted to accomplish for the day; he would methodically cross out items one by one, and he hated if by nightfall something was left undone. He ran his people as he ran himself. Whenever Geny gave an instruction, he would often come back five minutes later to see progress had been made.

Geny Lopez at the 10th anniversary of TV Patrol in 1997.

Geny conceded: “My style as a manager is that I drive people hard; I'm a nagger. I know exactly which tasks have to be accomplished or when something has to be done. Then I keep on following it up with the individual who's in charge.”

Geny was a tough taskmaster, his executives agreed, but a joy to work for. One friend said: “Almost everybody that has worked with him has enjoyed working with him. You're always on the go; you have to strive for excellence. There was always a push to top ourselves. Geny likes to push for the impossible.” A man who would take on a media giant like MBC would need that kind of determination.

 

Excerpted from the 2006 book Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the Making of ABS-CBN.