Pangilinan wants more

By Cecil Morella, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 30 2011 02:49 PM | Updated as of Feb 01 2011 10:33 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Manuel Pangilinan may have embarked on one of the Philippines' most remarkable corporate buying binges over the past dozen years, but he is hungry for more.

Since returning home in 1998 after more than two decades overseas, the investment banker has taken control of the Philippines' major telecom firm, its main power retailer and the biggest water utility.

Also in the 64-year-old bachelor's bulging portfolio are the nation's biggest hospital chain, nearly all its main toll roads, major media outlets, mining companies and Manila's biggest rail network.

Now Pangilinan has his eyes set on road, rail and airport projects worth $3 billion that President Benigno Aquino's new government intends to put out for tender this year on a public-private partnership basis.

"We're looking to fill out our infrastructure portfolio -- infrastructure growth is something that could really add value," Pangilinan told AFP in a recent interview from his Manila office.

His group is interested in taking stakes in other toll roads near Manila, while two state-owned light railway lines and a much older system in the city would also be interesting should they come into play, he said.

"The railways are something interesting for us. I firmly believe the country needs a good railway system," said Pangilinan, adding he would also like to build a new international airport in Manila one day.

Pangilinan's most important positions -- and those through which his investments are made -- are as chairman of Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT) and chief executive of Metro Pacific Investments Corporation.

But a step further back in his corporate structure is the key to his success: his role as managing director of Hong Kong-listed First Pacific Co., controlled by Indonesia's largest conglomerate, Salim Group.

Pangilinan got his big break while working in Hong Kong as an investment banker after a 1978 visit to the office of Anthoni Salim, son of Indonesia's richest man Lim Sioe Liong, who founded the Salim Group.

His sales pitch to arrange funding for a cement project was politely brushed off, but he hit it off with the son, who later became Salim group chairman.

"You have to gain his trust, like most family-owned groups," Pangilinan said of his relationship with Anthoni Salim.

"You have to know how to manage, and part of that learning process is to be able to effectively disagree with him, politely, but (tell him), 'You know, I think you're wrong.'"

In 1981 the two men, who are about the same age, set up First Pacific. Philippine Long Distance Telecom was their first major acquisition in the Philippines in 1998.

Aside from the Philippine ventures, Pangilinan and Salim also own Indonesia's biggest food company, Indofood Sukses Makmur, through their partnership in First Pacific.

Pangilinan, who grew up in a middle-class home the son of a bank manager, said his success could be attributed to his strong work ethic, gained competing against rivals from dynastic business empires.

As in other Asian countries, many of the Philippines' most powerful companies are family-run.

"That's probably my single best advantage, if you can call it an advantage," he said, describing himself as a self-made man and workaholic with a chip on his shoulder because of his humble origins.

"You try harder."

Pangilinan is an arts and economics graduate from the Philippines' prestigious Ateneo university.

He earned a masters degree at the Wharton business school in the United States and worked as an investment banker in Hong Kong for 22 years while his country went to pieces amid corruption and dictatorship.

He relocated back to Manila in 1998 as the PLDT venture got underway, with an eye to picking up bargains after the ravages of the Asian financial crisis.

Despite his perceived Midas touch, industry watchers said Pangilinan's business acumen had come into question over the years.

One spectacular failure came when he bid aggressively in 1995 to win Fort Bonifacio, military land adjacent to Manila's central business district, for 1.6 billion dollars -- an asset he was later forced to sell for much less.

Forays into shipping, packaging, and the analogue telephone business also did not pan out, said Manila stock analyst Lawrence de Leon.

"The glitch of his acquisition of (analogue telecom firm Pilipino Telephone Corp.) was memorable. He got it for a premium and appeared shocked to find out about the size of its debts later on," said de Leon of Accord Capital Equities.

Pangilinan admitted he did not always get things right, but said he learned from his blunders.

He also said that he had initially had a lot to learn about doing business in the Philippines -- long one of Asia's most underperforming economies -- after living and working in bustling Hong Kong.

"When I came back in '98 it was pretty much a new experience. You'd been out 22 straight years so you've been out of touch. It took a while to know how business is done and what the practices are," he said.

However asked what made Pangilinan a success, de Leon praised his work ethic and inner drive.

"I think it's his determination to stay on track and not give up," he said.