MANILA, SEPTEMBER 14, 2006 (STAR) By Ching M. Alano - They were best friends having the best time of their lives. Willy Ocier and Jerry Tiu Ė then in their 20s, both smart with dapper good looks to match; classmates at Xavier High School and, at time or another, both studying at De La Salle University and Ateneo de Manila University Ė were restless and raring to fly. Playing basketball together in school, Willy was known as Thunder ("because I was the noisy one") while Jerry was called Lightning. They were an inseparable pair, like two peas in a pod. They even double-dated and their wives were classmates Ė Willy married Geraldine Yu, whom he met on a blind date, while Jerry married his neighbor, Lianne Alandy.

In college, after classes, they would drive up to Tagaytay on separate occasions to unwind and soak in the cool mountain breeze. Willy remembers bringing his dates there back in those days when he had very little money and a pocketful of dreams.

"The fresh air was free in Tagaytay and there wasnít anything there except for a little shack selling buko juice for P3," Willy shares a cherished boyhood memory. "It was so nice! You could stay until the evening just soaking in the ambience. Those were the cheap thrills of my youth."

Fast-forward to two decades or so later: Willy and Jerry, still the best of friends, whose friendship will probably outlast time, are literally on top of the world, living their dream in a mountain enclave called Tagaytay Highlands. Jerry sits as president of Belle Corporation and Tagaytay Highlands Clubs, running club operations, while Willy is vice chairman of Belle Corporation, in charge of developing projects, among other things. Yes, J. Tiu is also into publishing, he owns the Mega Group.

"Jerry is also better known as the father of Chris Tiu, the basketball player of Ateneo, while Iím Chris Tiuís oldest basketball teammate," Willy says in jest.

"Back then, there was nothing to do in Tagaytay," Willy recalls. "There were no facilities, no activities; the comfort level was zero."

Today, in this masterfully crafted 1,500-hectare leisure resort community thatís just an hourís drive south of Manila, you get a view of the best that natureís awe-inspiring canvas can offer: the placid Taal Volcano Lake to its south, the cloud-shrouded Mount Makiling to the east, and the serene Laguna de Bay to the west. Picture all that while youíre enjoying five-star amenities and facilities.

But Willy canít stress enough, "Weíre not here to destroy, weíre here to preserve and, in fact, enhance the environment. Weíre here to work with Mother Nature."

Looking at the lush greenery as far as your jaded eyes can see, you guess that Mother Nature couldnít have been more pleased. Fact is, itís a geomancerís dream. "Itís just perfect because feng means wind and shui means water, and in Tagaytay, you have both Ė a body of water thatís the Taal Lake and the cool breeze that Tagaytay is famous for," gushes Willy.

Better known as the founder of Tagaytay Highlands whose vision shaped this exclusive mountain haven, Willy gives us the lowdown: "The land cost about P120 million but to make this project work, it cost us another P120 million to lay out the water system Ė a seven-kilometer pipeline from the lakeside to Tagaytay Highlands. Actually, we helped Tagaytay flourish because of the water. And if you look at some pictures before of this property, it had no trees, maybe just one or two. Today, weíve planted hundreds of thousands of trees. And we will continue to plant more."

Willy was only in his late 20s and working as a stock broker when he started scouting around for properties in Tagaytay. "Stock trading ended at 12 noon and the in the afternoon, there was nothing to do," he relates. "So we just drove up here and looked for properties. I wanted a property that was big enough, not just a five- or 10-hectare property. I visualized it as a property that could contain amenities so that people like me and anybody can come up here not just for a day but for two to three days, play golf, stay in the hotel. That was the guiding force."

Willyís company called Tagaytay Highlands but listed as Belle sold the concept of a leisure golf course. "We sold this project based on brochures because there was no Tagaytay Highlands yet Ė no roads, no water, no developments. All we had was a brochure that promised certain facilities. Sales were very good because at that time, there was the Pinatubo eruption and the following year, there was the Baguio earthquake. So the north was kinda ravaged as far as the leisure market was concerned. And Tagaytay, being closer to Metro Manila, became the boom town.

People came to buy houses in Tagaytay. "Like the captains of industry and business leaders who choose to retreat to the Highlands quietly on weekends," says Willy.

Of course, while they maintain an office in the posh Ortigas area, Willy and Jerry come up to the Highlands not just on weekends. Certainly, this hardworking, daring duo is doing something they love and they get paid for it, too.

So whatís a typical day like for Willy and Jerry?

Willy: "Itís work and play."

Jerry: "Work and work."

Willy (with a poker face): "Jerry loves to work. Weíre both hardworking, but Iím more hardworking. We both play golf, but Iím a much, much better golfer than Jerry."

They love traveling as much as they love sports. "No, no, we donít travel together, we canít stand each other," says the naughty Willy. Indeed, what keeps this partnership ever strong is that from day one, the two have agreed to disagree.

Willy adds, "Sometimes, we travel via the Internet, books, and magazines, where we get a lot of ideas."

What is their dream place?

Jerry: "My son Chris, whoís been around Europe and the US, told me that the best place is Salzburg. When I asked him why, he said itís the culture, ambience. Iíve only gone to Vienna."

Willy: "Iíd like to go to Salzburg, Austria because a lot of our friends have said itís a perfect, romantic place. So in my mind, thatís an aspiration. Like Tagaytay Highlands. For the ordinary Manila resident, itís an aspiration to be able to own a home and club share in Tagaytay Highlands. Thatís why we keep our operations at a five-star level, we give attention to taste and detail. Our market is one that wants to spend their money wisely, as an investment."

These are people who work hard and play harder.

Coffee, tea or tee? "Richard Bigler, who designed our 18-hole golf course, is the same guy who did the Sundance resort of Robert Redford in Salt Lake City," says Willy. "When he came, he suggested the use of a cable car facility because he said the only way to make this golf course work is if your work it up like a ski resort. He suggested a system that would ferry golfers from the lower to the higher points. Until today, itís the only cable car system imported from Switzerland and Germany."

Jerry and Willy get a lot of inspiration from traveling. The Saratoga Hills, for instance, is a concept patterned after the Saratoga Springs in the US.

Inspiration, aspiration, and a lot of perspiration have gone into the making of Tagaytay Highlands. Many architects and interior designers have collaborated in the evolution of Tagaytay Highlands. Willy hastens to point out, "But Tagaytay Highlands is a Filipino product using Filipino labor and indigenous materials (except, of course, for the red cedar from Canada and the pine from Finland and New Zealand)."

Tagaytay Highlands has generated jobs for the local people, almost a thousand of whom now work at the Highlands, Midlands facilities and more than 20 specialty restaurants. "Itís a prestige to be working at Tagaytay Highlands," notes Willy. "In fact, this week, weíre sending one of our pastry chefs, Philip Baltazar, to Switzerland on a one-week seminar, heís one of only three chefs invited from the Philippines."

The big secret to Tagaytay Highlandsí huge success is really no secret, says Willy. "We simply keep our employees happy. Because when theyíre happy, our clients are happy."

Belinda Lim-Herrera, VP for marketing, Belle Corporation, relates, "We get Filipino visitors from New York who schedule a trip to the Philipines every so often and among themselves, if you return to New York without having visited Tagaytay Highlands, youíre not in."

A lot of people have married and honeymooned in Tagaytay Highlands, like celebrity couple Claudine Barretto and Raymart Santiago. Others have opted to stay, like one Italian guy married to a Filipina and one guy from Finland who built a Finnish house at Plantation Hills, a residential farm development where you can only build on 25 percent of your lot and the rest is for planting.

"The beauty of Tagaytay Highlands is that the lifestyle weíve promoted and pioneered is the concept of active retirement," says Willy. "Even if youíre only 30 or 40 years old, you can retire on weekends, which is what Tagaytay Highlands is offering."

Do Willy and Jerry see themselves as retiring soon?

"No way," agrees this indefatigable duo. After all, itíll take some 50 more years for Tagaytay Highlands to be fully developed.

And certainly, this dynamo of a duo continues to dream higher and higher or whatís a heaven for?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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