, May 25 , 2004
By Wilson Lee Flores  -  One of Asia’s most remarkable billionaire tycoons was the late Colonel Enrique Emilio Jacobo "EZ" Zobel, who died at age 77 on May 17. At the prime of his life, Zobel was the swashbuckling polo-playing leader of the Hispanic Zobel-Ayala clan, the diversified Ayala conglomerate and the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI). He played a key role in developing the Makati financial district. Outspoken, a non-conformist and a dreamer, Enrique Zobel’s name was even mentioned in the early ‘80s as a possible President in the post-Marcos era.

Enrique Zobel piloted his four-engine Jestar plane 15 times around the world. In 1984, Zobel deployed 12,000 Filipino workers and National Artist for Architecture Leandro "Lindy" Locsin to build huge projects overseas – including the world’s biggest palace owned by his polo playmate, the Sultan of Brunei. After he became paralyzed from the neck down in ‘91 due to a horse-riding accident in Spain, he told this writer: "Don’t pity me, take pity instead on those in government who are paralyzed from the neck up."

A few years ago in his sprawling one-hectare Ayala Alabang residence discussing his memoirs project, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. The straight-talking Zobel replied, "When you’re dead, you don’t give a damn. It’s the end of the book. It’s like turning off the lights – it’s dark. The important thing is how many people you can help while you’re alive – kung hindi malilimutan ka na."

Unknown to most people, despite having been a scion of a rich haciendero clan whose forebears migrated from the Basque region of Spain, Enrique Zobel personified some of the rugged individualism and tough-minded entrepreneurship of rags-to-riches taipans John Gokongwei Jr., Henry Sy and Lucio Tan.

Unlike his first cousin Jaime Zobel de Ayala and his two sons who all studied at Harvard University, or his Soriano kin like Andres Soriano III who studied at Wharton, Enrique Zobel studied agriculture at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). While his kin spent their childhood in British or Spanish private schools, Zobel as a 14-year-old boy survived Japan’s brutal military occupation by going into the karitela business with his father’s polo ponies. His dad Jacobo Zobel was then a soldier in Bataan when young Enrique drove horse buggies from Malate to Escolta, charging 10 centavos per passenger. Due to much of his youth spent in their family’s hacienda in Catalagatan, Batangas, he spoke flawless Batangueño Tagalog.

Zobel’s unique case of having been a rugged scion was almost similar to two other rugged billionaires who are sons of wealthy tycoons – San Miguel Corporation (SMC) chairman Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr. and Metrobank Group chairman George S. K. Ty. Unlike his cousin Pedro Cojuangco of Hacienda Luisita who studied in Harvard and nephew Antonio "Tony Boy" Cojuangco who studied in Stanford University, taking up advance business courses, Danding studied agriculture at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. Classmates said his academic grades suffered, since he often traveled to Manila to court girls. Danding later continued his studies at California State College in San Luis Obispo. Danding is a tough-minded entrepreneur who has gained a reputation for being decisive and street-smart. He is also a daring agriculture pioneer, turning his Negros haciendas into vast orchards unlike so many Negrense hacienderos who still plant only sugarcane.

Coincidentally, when Enrique Zobel clashed with his cousin San Miguel Corporation (SMC) chairman Andres Soriano Jr., Zobel sold the Ayala Group’s huge SMC shareholdings to fellow agriculturist Danding Cojuangco who became SMC vice-chairman.

When Soriano died a year later, Danding assumed chairmanship of SMC. It was also this controversial SMC divestment that caused Enrique Zobel’s displeased aunt Mercedes Zobel-McMicking to take away his managerial control of the Ayala conglomerate and pass it on to Jaime Zobel de Ayala in ‘83.

Although a son of the wealthy textile, real estate and flour tycoon Norberto Ty, it is amazing how George S. K. Ty has exemplified the drive, ambitions and rugged individualism of self-made men. An elderly industrialist said that due to the important contributions of George Ty’s stepmother Salustiana Dee Ty to the family’s fortune, his father Norberto bequeathed much of their businesses to his half-brother the late Wellington Ty. In fact, most of the Ty family businesses were named after this half-brother, such as Wellington Flour and Wellington Shirt Factory, among others.

The Wellington Building in Binondo was Metrobank’s original headquarters, but this once famous building is now eclipsed by the massive Tytana Building beside it, which George S. K. Ty named in honor of his own mother. Despite being a rich man’s son, it was the personal efforts, vision and aggressive determination of George S. K. Ty that transformed Metrobank from its small stature in ‘62 when he was 29 years old into one of Southeast Asia’s biggest financial conglomerates.

Ez On Lee Kuan Yew, On Idle And Working Rich

Enrique Zobel said that the political leader he admires the most is Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew. He explained, "Lee Kuan Yew is very straightforward, super honest and he always knew what he was talking about. In a way, Lee was a dictator. In the Philippines today, dictator is a bad word, because we had a bad one, but Lee Kuan Yew was a great leader."

A critic as well as friend of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, whom he openly supported in the ‘86 snap election, Zobel hoped that the ailing and controversial strongman could still push reforms. He criticized President Cory C. Aquino, who was supported by his cousin Jaime Zobel de Ayala, saying, "I knew from the beginning Cory was going to be a disappointment."

On how young business executives of the Philippines should think, Zobel said:

"A lot of young executives think only of the Philippines. We have to think about Southeast Asia, about China. Think global. Compete with the world. Here, you invest and compete only with your neighbors. Look at China, no minimum wage there, no unions, no labor strikes – they’re very competitive. Here, we’re always trying to copy Western styles, particularly from the US, but we are not Westerners. Also, young people here study in the West, but we are not the West. Our culture is Asian. You can get some ideas from the West, but blend them with our Asian culture. Maybe you’ll last longer in business. If young executives learn only from the West, I think 50 percent of them will not exist in the future and new and better ones will come out. My cousin the late Andres Soriano Jr. personified the businessmen from the old school. Today, the younger generation is too Westernized."

In February ‘70 in a speech before the College Editors Guild at the height of leftist youth activism, then-Ayala conglomerate boss Enrique Zobel didn’t mince words when he differentiated three kinds of rich – "the profligate, idle and working rich." He said: "In the category of the profligate rich, you will find the corrupt politicians, together with their corruptors and cronies, who have amassed fortunes in just a few years in office. Then, we have the idle rich who sit on their wealth without mobilizing it for gainful employment and the creation of economic opportunities. Those who live off the fat of the land and the sweat of the peasants. Lastly, we have the working rich – the merchants, traders, and industrialists – popularly known these days as the ‘dirty capitalists.’ Motivated by profits, dint of hard work and by foresight, they stimulate production, create employment, and increase income, thus contributing to the progress and development of this country."

Zobel further explained, "Let me speak about the working rich – the successful businessman, the industrialist, the merchant. He owes no one an apology for turning out a profit. For the businessman’s socio-economic service lies in the very process of making a profit. Production is improved, employment created, and income increased. It is to the interest of the business sector that the poor be elevated in status to form a larger buying public."

Enrique Zobel may have lost control of a multi-billion peso business empire he helped to build, supported a losing presidential candidate in the ‘86 snap election and suffered paralysis from the neck down, but he remained a wealthy tycoon. He made a name as a philanthropist. Up to his last years, Zobel never lost his zest for life, his entrepreneurial flair, the vigor of his dreams and idealism. Enrique Zobel y Olgado was one of the truly great entrepreneurs who championed Philippine economic and social progress.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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