Business titan Villar aiming for presidency: interview

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 17 2010 02:49 PM | Updated as of Jan 17 2010 10:49 PM

MANILA , Philippines - Sitting in a cafe in one of the many Manila office buildings he owns, mega-rich property developer Manuel Villar says it is about time the Philippines has its first business-titan president.

Only a resolute captain of industry can haul the fractious Southeast Asian nation out of the economic turmoil it has suffered for so long, the boyish-looking 60-year-old says as he offers himself as the nation's saviour.

"I am probably the only one in (Philippine) history who has this kind of experience," Villar declared in an interview with AFP ahead of the May 10 national elections, referring to his business credentials.

"People in government and in media do not understand. When bank presidents and chief executives of big corporations talk among themselves they look down on politicians... politicians can thrive on hot air alone."

Villar is the nation's ninth wealthiest man with a fortune of $530 million, according to the latest rich list from Forbes magazine.

He has famously risen from a childhood spent in a Manila slum, and he is trying to convince his impoverished countrymen that he can take them on a similar journey if they vote for him.

After a failed brief venture supplying seafood to restaurants, the now father of three drove his own trucks to deliver construction materials in order to learn about the property business.

He studied to become an accountant but he made his big money from what he described as his one "big idea" inspired by growing up in Manila's Tondo slum district -- building small, cheap houses and selling them to the poor.

"It was quite a shocking idea at the time," he said, and he had the entire market segment to himself.

Thirty-odd years later he has sold nearly 250,000 units.

But Villar's life story is not so clear cut and critics charge his rags-to-riches story is too good to be true.

For one he is a veteran politician himself -- entering the House of Representatives in 1992 -- and his critics say he has improperly used his political power to build his business empire.

"We cannot have a nation run by a thief," senate colleague Maria Ana Consuelo Madrigal has said repeatedly since first accusing him in 2008 of getting a Manila road rerouted so it passed through his housing projects.

But Villar casually dismisses the corruption allegations, pointing out a Senate investigation exonerated him last year of any impropriety in the road project dealings.

Aides describe Villar as a loyal but hard-driving chief executive who calls managers at midnight and whose only leisure is watching Hollywood films at shopping malls late at night with his youngest child, a 20-year-old daughter.

"My style is not the flashy type. It's more of a plodding style; quiet, more systematic, all about making calibrated moves. But I get things gone," he said.

After pouring huge sums from his personal fortune into a sustained advertising campaign, Villar is running second in polls to succeed President Gloria Arroyo.

Villar is 11 percentage points behind fellow Senator Benigno Aquino, son of democracy icon Corazon Aquino, in the polls.

But he feels confident he can overwhelm Aquino, a 51-year-old bachelor who rose from virtual political obscurity to become presidential frontrunner amid an outpouring sympathy for his mother when she died last year.

Villar portrayed Aquino as a babe in the woods who knew nothing about running a company or a bureaucracy, or even a family.

"If you have not done anything -- you have not raised a family, you have not been in a position of leadership and then you tell me you want to be the leader of 93 million people -- it's not fair to the people," he said.

Villar declined to go into detail about how he planned to address the nation's maze of problems that include huge state debt, decades-old communist and Muslim rebellion, political violence and corruption.

"To me, what is more important than what we have to do is probably whether we have the capability, the leadership and experience to do it," he said.

Nevertheless, he said he did have a plan for his first 100 days in office that would include borrowing more money, even though the nation's 2009 budget deficit is expected to have topped P300 billion ($6.6 billion).

"It is important to inspire your bureaucracy and the people within the first 100 days," he said. "You have to be creative and some strategic borrowing has to be done."

A key priority for the first 100 days would be to spend half a billion dollars to "modernise all hospitals."

"If you borrow that much it must have a direct impact on the people," he said.

Villar insisted the scale of the nation's economic woes showed why there was "no time for on the job training," in another dig at chief rival Aquino.

"You must hit the ground running and immediately confront the problem," he said.