unabridged profile of ricardo penson

photograph by jovel lorenzo

photograph by jovel lorenzo

ricardo “dick” penson was the only independent senatorial candidate in the last elections. his main platform? Krusada (Crusade) Anti-Dynasty. to those not in the know, political dynasties in the Philippines are as commonplace as Denny’s in the U.S.

he lost–presumably because mr. penson does not have as big a political name recall as ejercito, or revilla, or binay (shudder).

i consider myself a good judge of character, and when i sat down for an afternoon with mr. penson in his weekend home in antipolo, i felt myself drawn to this powerful yet strangely down-to-earth man. (may i add that he is, so far, the first and only high profile interviewee who called me direct–no secretary, no assistant–to ask me if we could move our interview a few hours earlier. i was so nervous, i think i choked on my cornflakes.)

here is the unabridged version of my profile on mr. penson. the shortened version of this came out in Asian Dragon magazine, july 2012.

cheers.
*******

DREAMER, DOER
For someone heading what could be the most revolutionary infrastructure project ever in the Philippines, along with other high profile business ventures and interests, Ricardo Penson likes to keep things low-key, on the level, and optimistic—even during times of extreme frustration

By Regina Abuyuan

There’s not much on the Internet about Ricardo Penson, which is ironic, considering the massive ventures he’s involved in, how many interests he has, and his venerable family history. As chair of Ausphil Tollways Corporation, Philco Aero Inc., and Penson & Company Inc., he’s into infrastructure development, public-private partnership (PPP) project development and sponsorship, airport design, construction, and sustainable bulk water projects, among others. He also has a film production outfit, RP Studios (co-owned by good friend, actor Robin Padilla). The lives of his parents are the stuff grand Hollywood classics are made of. He claims he’s not as busy as before, but one can tell, chatting with him in his weekend home in Antipolo—“do you like it? I designed it myself”—Ricardo Penson is not one to laze the day away. This is a man born to get things done.

Which might explain his frustration regarding a project that’s taken up most of his time for the last decade, Ausphil Tollways’ proposed revolutionary North Luzon East Expressway, a “road, water catchment, and power generator rolled into one,” describes a recent newspaper article. What will be Asia’s first “green corridor” will cut travel time from Quezon City “by a third, collect water that can provide a week of Metro Manila’s needs, and generate electricity of up to 120 megawatts.”

This road will have zero carbon footprint, its low friction turbines that will be installed under the aqueduct line will save the country millions in energy generation, and the efficiency in travel brought about by the road itself will save P1 billion (according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) in “gas and oil maintenance at 69,000 vehicles yearly.”

But despite it being declared a tollway project in 2009 and for all its merits (it’s also been awarded the Green Infrastructure Award by Asia Infrastructure, 2004; and cited as a transformational engineering project, World Infrastructure Summit in Paris, 2011), the project has yet to push through.

“In his first SONA in 2010, PNoy explained why a project like ours takes 10 years to be approved. That was two years ago,” Penson says with a shrug. “I think here in the Philippines there are two types of infrastructure investors—one with deep pockets whose only intention is to make pockets bulge from profit, and not so much the national interest; and those with the good ideas and with national interest but not very deep pockets. And it is the one with deep pockets who gets the deal. Everything is paved for them, they throw money like crazy. And if it is the smarter proponent to get the project, the one with deep pockets will block you eventually and take over the project.”

For Ausphil, Penson has had to fight battles internal and external–“Trojan horses that have caused me another year in delay and cost me, personally, P25 million, and externally, trying to convince government bureaucracy for approval. But first and foremost my intention was to protect shareholder value,” he says. And while San Miguel Corp. came along midway and allowed his shareholders—including his parents and some close friends; Penson himself plunked down his life savings into the project–to make about 25 percent a year on their investments, battles still had to be fought. “There’s just so much graft, especially in our judiciary system,” he says, shaking his head. “Even if you have a lawyer, if the fiscal and judge are set out to railroad you, you’re finished. Tapos ka. Tapos ka.”

More mentions of intrigues follow, of political, personal, and legal nature. It’s the sort of litany that leaves one sighing, and then laughing—because really, what else can you do when you’re a David going up against Goliaths?

“A True Entrepreneur has a heart bigger than his pockets. But a frustrated entrepreneur has a lot of frustrations in his heart,” Penson says.

Growing Up
This “David” was born in 1952, a dragon year, to Cecilio Halili Penson and Nena Lagdameo. “I was raised in a house with 10 children. My mom was the housekeeper. My dad was the breadwinner. I had a happy childhood, except it was only when I was making my own money that I realized—my poor dad; I only have one kid, he had 10—ang lakas sa gastos. When my oldest brother was in grad school in America, my youngest sister was in nursery. Only later did I find out my mom would put 500 pesos in my dad’s wallet and he would budget that.”

Not that they were impoverished—far from it. His father’s family owned Halili Transit and Halili Beer. Cecilio finished secondary school early, went to U.P. and graduate school, and therefore was a shoo-in to run Halili Enterprise, which dealt in softdrink manufacturing, ice-making, transportation (a fleet of 1,200 taxicabs and 600 buses–“in the 1950s, Manila was yellow with all the Halili buses (plying the streets),” Penson describes), and the distributorship of Ford in Luzon. And he did exactly that, upon the urging of his uncle Fortunato Halili, then governor of Bulacan.

Uncle and nephew would fall out years later, however, when Cecilio saw that the company was making enough money and suggested that they give the employees a raise. Fortunato refused. “They had an argument, so my dad, with the help of a labor lawyer, organized a union. So he got fired,” Penson relates, laughing. “My dad, I think, was the biggest influence of my life.”

Cecilio proved he could survive outside the family business. He became managing director of Union Carbide Asia, then went on to become the first Filipino president of Getty Oil. He became a manager for 7-Up for a brief time, when they were setting up in the Philippines, and he was Lucio Tan’s consultant when Tan set up Asia Brewery.

“He was a very, very loving father,” says Penson. “But he instilled in us self-reliance, independence. You can cry your heart out, he’ll listen to you and give you the right words to hear and comprehend, but he won’t give you money.” The older Penson was gentle, but tough.

Waivers were big in the family. “You can go to any school you want, but after your schooling, you sign a waiver. You’re on your own,” Penson says. The tuition for his own business education in Wharton, for example, was split between a scholarship (Penson is the first Filipino FedEx scholar) and his father’s largesse. “Tinapos ko rin in 18 months (so we could save); we could only afford part of it.”

The big lesson in managing finances happened after he graduated. “My dad got me a supplementary AmEx card. I went crazy. I was going out with this girl from New Jersey. I said I’d take her to Bermuda. So I chartered a Lear Jet…pagdating ng bill: 12,000 dollars! I’ll never do that again!”

He ended up using his sign-up fee for Xerox to pay for the bill. “Paid my dad, and after, cut the card.”

Penson speaks very highly of his father, who, aside from being a successful businessman, was known for his many advocacies. Again, the mention of a waiver: “I never inherited money—in fact, my parents made us sign a waiver na wala kaming claim sa assets because my dad chose to have other people (benefit); he sent 1,600 students to college, some of them are top lawyers now. He leased the watershed in La Mesa so that no houses would be built there. So when he died, he was allowed to be buried in La Mesa Eco-Park.”

Cecilio was the country’s first Likas Yaman Awardee, way before environmentalism became a trend. “Without the help of government, he planted over a million trees,” says Penson. In memory of his father, Penson and his company built a 25-million swimming pool in La Mesa—the only saltwater public pool in Metro Manila. Knowing this, it’s easy to understand the trace of bitterness in his voice when he mentions Bantay Kalikasan, the current stewards of La Mesa Park, how his father’s burial marker was defaced, and how the pool is being currently used—but that’s another story.

Another well-known advocacy was Cecilio H. Penson’s Prison School, which he started in 1978. A blog by Penal Superintendent IV and author Venancio J. Tesoro, Philippineprisons, mentions fond memories of the old man jogging to the medium security camp in New Bilibid Prisons and inviting the inmates over to a corner, notebook and book in hand, for a talk on life. “The inmates would love every minute of his lecture,” writes Tesoro. “He was no ordinary speaker. He spoke from the heart.”

“My father believed that most crimes are committed out of need–those people didn’t have anything to feed their children for example–and not because they were inherently bad,” Penson says.

After a bit of frustration—perhaps very similar to what his son might feel many years later—he, with the help of Tesoro, managed to bring his “crusade” to the maximum security part of the prison. Lectures became a formal college program for the inmates of New Bilibid Prison. For a time, Penson even taught management to the inmates (this was when he met Robin Padilla). The educational program was given international recognition for community service by Rotary International, and more than a decade later, a CHP (Cecilio H. Penson) Memorial School was established in the Davao Penal Colony.

Dick Penson’s mother is just as extraordinary. “She was a disciplinarian, she also came from a big family. My dad fell head over heels with her.” (Indeed, in Tesoro’s accounts, Cecilio would always gush about his lovely ‘Doña Nena’).

Penson has a somber story to describe his mother: “After the war, and they were liberating the towns, my grandfather who was Lorenzo Tañada’s law firm partner in Quezon, was killed by the Makapili. My mom–she was the oldest of 10 children–had to witness my grandfather’s death. The following day, she saw the killer using the handkerchief that she embroidered my grandfather’s initials on.” Penson’s voice fades; he dabs his lips with an imaginary handkerchief. Clearly, this story has been narrated more than once. “My mother is a strong woman.”

Dreamer, Doer
Penson’s careers span telephony robotics, defense, renewable energy, transportation, engineering, investment. At one point he even tried to run for Congress.

“I’ve always gone for my dreams,” he says. “My dad used to call me a dreamer.” But he’s a doer, too. “I have a bucket list. A list of things I want to have and do: a house on top of a mountain or a hill overlooking the city, avoiding the pollution. Always wanted that, surrounded by trees.” He acquired one a few months ago, the one he proudly shows off now, the one he designed himself. “It’s irregularly shaped,” he says, pointing around the walls, “because we didn’t cut any trees. Weekends, I’m here. I wake up, I can walk around. I watch the smog in Manila, and I wonder why would anyone work there?”

He started his list in 1985, updated it in 1992, and most recently, in 2000.

He adds: “But I always made it a point that I will not buy anything I want if I cannot afford to pay for it in cash. Because things you ‘want,’ you’ll keep on wanting. It’s what you ‘need’ that you will do everything to get, even pay in credit—and sometimes, you can convince yourself you don’t need it anymore.”

To achieve balance in his life, Penson says he needs a “semblance of getting away” (hence his weekend home), and acknowledges the need to feed his creative side, an appetite he satisfies with side projects like independent film making and having his own football team, the Penson Stallions, who placed fourth in the first year they made it to the United Football League.

He mentions Pinoy Mate by RP Studios (“RP—it could stand for Ricardo Penson, Robin Padilla, Republic of the Philippines, whatever”), that’s due to come out later this year. “It’s a documentary drama comparing the Australia and the Philippines economy in 1948—we had almost similar economies. What happened? What formula did we use, did we not use? It’s a comparative analysis of moral fiber, society, economic gains of society. Robin and I lived there at the same time, we got divorced at the same time. Our wives became friends, we became friends.”

He also mentions a movie in the works, a docu about Lapu-Lapu. “He didn’t just get lucky killing Magellan; it was really a battle. They really set a time and place to fight. Our research spans Portugal, Spain, Australia. We found in Brazil auctioned-off letters between Magellan’s entourage and Lapu-Lapu’s representatives.” It sounds ambitious, Dick Penson-style. “We only do feel-good documentary films, films that make you proud to be a Filipino.”

Turning 60, his squabbles with government agencies and certain business Goliaths—“I don’t want to fight Malacañang; I don’t even want to fight City Hall!”—have made him choose to slow down. But not give up.

“Having a son later in life is my motivation.” Ricky is 10 years old. “He is my gauge for Ausphil. He was conceived when Ausphil was incorporated, so he’s as old as the project,” Penson says, laughing. “He’s turning 11 this year. I might not be around much longer for him to enjoy my company, but I want to give him the peace of mind that I will leave enough for him that he can do what he wants to do with his life, but not too much that he won’t do anything.” Just like his dad die for him.

“In the Philippines, I think it’s true about they say, that prophets are never appreciated in their own hometown,” he remarks, turning pensive again at the thought of NLEE. “But whatever I have, I worked for. Nobody can point a finger at me.” He addresses his detractors: “What do you have to show for? What did you work for?”

Though his tone is somber, it’s hopeful. “I never give up hope. Hope springs eternal. I’m sure someday, we’ll find our shining moment again. If it’s true that the Philippines has lost it, we would be worse than Bangladesh. But how can you say that when there are 96 million of us? The thing is, we’re just too regionalized. We should think more collectively.”

“What I’m trying to say is, if a small guy like me can make it…” he pauses. “Lahat tayo may hardship, we all have our crosses to bear. It took a long travel for me to bear the cross I think I had to bear, and it was only maybe 10 years ago that I told myself, enough of this cross, I don’t have to prove myself to anyone except myself. From here on, I’ll prove myself successful to me first. I don’t need to impress anybody.”

And what is success to Ricardo Penson, the man who strives to achieve so much? “Success to me is peace of mind. You feel calm, you can sleep well at night. Success is when you see that you made it to a better place than all those who tried to pull you down. It’s a process. Sometimes you stumble and fall. Don’t worry about not getting up. Because when you get up, you get up higher and higher and become more careful. The higher you fall from, the more painful the fall, so you start creating your own secret nest egg and make sure you don’t fall anymore.”

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