From cadavers to money, money, money
This bank president used to work on night shifts, watching over dead bodies lodged in a hospital facility just to earn his college degree.
His task was to ensure the cadavers and medical supplies, which were used by medicine students of the University of Santo Tomas (UST), were intact.
“It was an odd job, but it was not difficult because all I had to do was watch over corpses and medical supplies throughout the night,” Joey Bermudez, a long-time banker and currently president and chief executive officer of Philippine Veterans Bank (PVB), tells SundayBiz.
The amount he earned from his first job was not enough to support the lifestyle of an average college student in UST but skipping snacks and walking to and from school, initially helped him get through.
Joey was forced to financially support himself because, after finishing high school in 1972, his father died. With the family’s savings insufficient to cover the education expenses of all three children, Joey’s mother, a housewife, said he was the one who had to stop schooling because his two older siblings would soon be finishing college.
“I agreed to let our family’s remaining money support the education of my brother and my sister. I told my mom I would figure out on my own how to support my education,” he says.
Having worked in his high school’s campus newspaper proved beneficial when he decided to quit the low-paying job that entailed regular encounter with dead bodies.
The above average writing and typing skills he developed as a result of being a campus journalist—he could type at least 120 words per minute—helped him land a part-time, clerical job in a small bank—Manufacturers Bank, referred to him by a friend.
Also, his speed in typing gave him the confidence to join a collegiate typing competition organized by the Philippine Association of Secretaries. He got a grandslam, declared the champion in the electric, manual and professional categories.
His total winnings of P5,000, which he said was worth more than the annual salary he was getting from part-time jobs, helped him pay his tuition.
Memorable tea experience
Later on, he saw an ad for an assistant to the president and owner of a financial services firm—Manila Pacific Co. Joey applied even if he was still an undergraduate.
He was asked to meet his potential boss, Michael Adams, in a Makati City Hotel.
Because it was his first time to enter a hotel, Joey was a bit overwhelmed by the fancy place.
Adams told him to order anything he wanted. Too shy to order, however, he simply uttered “tea” even if he never had tea.
Unfamiliar with how tea should be drunk, Joey opened the tea bag and poured the dried tea leaves in his cup.
“Later on, when I learned how tea is drunk, I realized my boss would have thought I must have come from the mountains,” Joey shares with a laugh.
Joey’s cluelessness in tea drinking and his being an undergraduate proved immaterial in his quest to get the job. Adams, pleased with his unassuming and positive aura that hinted of his hard work and dedication, hired him.
Adams gave him P800 a month as salary, way above the minimum pay at that time. It was a big jump from the P250 a month he earned from his previous part-time job.
“I was very happy when I got the job. When I learned of my monthly salary, I thought I was big time,” he says.
His work involved writing business letters and press releases. Because his boss was lenient and understanding of Joey’s need to sometimes leave the office early, Joey was able to juggle work and school.
He worked for Adams for about a year. After graduating and earning his bachelor’s degree in Accounting from UST in 1976, Joey looked for another job.
During one of the job fairs hosted by UST for its graduates, Joey was enticed by the speech delivered by a representative of investment house Bancom Development Corp. The representative said the company was home to some of the biggest names in the country’s capital market.
Armed with his initial experience in the industry and his education, Joey submitted his application to Bancom and got a job as a research analyst. The company paid him a slightly lower salary of P700 a month.
“I thought it was OK to have a slightly lower salary than what I used to get from Mr. Adams. After all, it was Bancom,” says Joey who wanted to be part of a company that was a major player in the country’s capital market.
Besides, he says, other fresh graduates he knew were offered only P450 a month for entry-level positions in other major financial services firms.
His job at Bancom involved writing articles for the company’s newsletter. He would write articles analyzing trends of the securities markets. To fulfill his task, he would interview various traders, from which he learned significantly about how the markets work.
Joey recalls being assigned by his boss at Bancom to write a research paper about a proposed secondary bond market in the Philippines that was not yet existing at that time.
He was proud of his output, which was completed through interviews with various industry players and tedious research work. Joey believes his paper, which discussed the factors hindering the establishment of a secondary bond market in the Philippines and the elements of an active bond market as seen in other countries, somehow contributed to the establishment of the country’s existing secondary market for fixed-income securities.
“I would like to think that my paper helped form the conceptual basis for the creation of such an exchange that we now have,” Joey says.
It was during his one-year stint at Bancom when he also studied for and passed the accounting board exams.
In 1977, already a certified public accountant, Joey moved to the Commercial Bank and Trust Co. of the Philippines.
“From then on, I have been a banker all throughout,” he says.
The term “banker” appealed to him so much because, he says, his younger self who was quite excited about the future found the word classy.
“I thought the word ‘banker’ had class. People seem to be automatically respectful of bankers because, after all, they are the ones who handle people’s money and so they must be trustworthy,” he says.
Later on, Commercial Bank and Trust Co. was acquired by Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), which became Joey’s employer up to 1984.
His talent and dedication to work pleased his bosses and helped him climb the corporate ladder.
At BPI, he would be given more and more important roles, including in the areas of financial control, corporate planning, investment analysis and financial market analysis.
In July 1984, he transferred to the Philippine Commercial International Bank (PCIBank), where he also held various posts throughout his 14-year stay. His last position at PCIBank was senior vice president and head of the retail banking group.
Eventually, he would be hired by several other banks to fill in higher positions.
He became senior vice president and country head for consumer banking at Standard Chartered Bank in 1998. He served as executive vice president and head of retail and bank branching at Solidbank Corp. in 1999. He also worked as senior executive vice president and chief operating officer at Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank) in 2000.
Then, in 2001, he was hired by Chinatrust Commercial Bank Corp., as president and CEO until 2008.
Naming kids after CB governors
Amused with the term “banker,” Joey used to secretly hope that any of his children—four sons and a daughter—would end up as a banker as well.
In fact, he named his sons after the country’s central bank governors.
His eldest, Jose Miguel, is named after Miguel Cuaderno. His third son, Jose Rafael, was named after Rafael Buenaventura. His fourth son, Jose Gabriel, was named after Gabriel Singson.
The “Jose” in the names of his sons was after Jose Cuisia. His fourth son is named Jose Angelo.
In the absence of a female central bank head, Joey and his wife named their daughter Ma. Christina.
Although he was hoping any of his children would follow his footsteps, Joey says he does not want to force the career to them. He says at the end of the day, all he wants was for his children to choose careers where they will be happy.
“My naming them after central bank governors was a subliminal message. I guess no one got the hint,” he says with a laugh.
His eldest child currently works in the sales department of a Canadian pharmaceutical company, while his second child is about to become a chartered management accountant. The two younger ones are still in school.
His wife and children have been living in Canada since 2008.
Leadership based on teachings of Christ and Gandhi
As he climbed the corporate ladder and prior to his becoming a bank president and CEO in 2001, Joey thought he had to study and read articles about leadership. He thought he had to be prepared just in case he would become head of a bank.
Joey says he had no plans of becoming a bank president. He was quite happy and grateful for the experiences he had gained and positions he held so far, he says.
Part of his preparation was reading a lot of books. He read books featuring the leadership principles of Machiavelli, Zun Zsu, and Ferdinand Marcos, among others.
But what appealed to him the most were the leadership principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ, Joey says. He agrees that the kind of leadership that does not intimidate subordinates was the most effective.
Based on the principles of the two religious figures, Joey adopted the leadership mantra of winning over people through mutual respect and inclusivity.
This means, he explains, that he does not want to ostracize people in the organization who perform poorly, who do not obey company rules, who contradict his views, or who simply do not like him as a boss.
Instead, Joey says, he believes part of his job is to win the hearts of those kinds of people through proper communication and inspiration.
“My job as a CEO is to find not only the strength but also the weaknesses of employees, and to help them overcome the latter for the benefit of the organization,” he says.
“If I am not able to do that, then I am a failure,” he says.
He cited the parable of the lost sheep where a shepherd who was tasked to take care of 100 sheep left the 99 in search for the one that was lost.
“People work for a leader whom they respect and who inspires them,” he says.
When there are important corporate decisions to be made, he accommodates suggestions of his subordinates. If their suggestions seem wiser than his, he is humble enough to implement those, he says.
However, when his view seems to be the wiser, Joey says, he talks with his co-workers and communicates to them the factors supporting his suggestion in a manner that is not pushy but respectful.
Migrating to Canada and entrepreneurship
In 2008, Joey, his wife Ester, and their children migrated to Canada. The decision to migrate was in pursuit of a goal the couple had set years back.
“In my mid-30s I remember suggesting to my wife that we should migrate to a country where health care system is good,” he says.
“I thought that because of the way we had been working and living—working until late at night and not paying attention to the food we eat, we might be sickly when we get old,” he says.
The decision also was prompted by the couple’s desire to expose their children to a first-world environment as a means to boost their independence and competitive skills, he says.
“With globalization, competition has become tough, and so my wife and I thought it was wise to help hone the skills of our children by exposing them to another environment,” he says.
Prior to migrating to Canada, the couple put up a microfinance company in the Philippines, Maybridge Finance and Leasing Inc., which serves the funding needs of small businesses. When the family got to Canada, the couple put up a subsidiary that eventually became their main source of income there.
In Canada, most of the company’s clients are Filipino workers, many of whom are caregivers.
Joey says the microfinance company has the objective of contributing to efforts at addressing the problem of inaccessibility of banks loans to OFWs and small entrepreneurs.
Joey says he is proud that the company, through loans to small businesses, is able to help achieve the goal of OFW borrowers to ensure sustainability of their incomes even after their work contracts expire.
“Helping people fulfill their goals of operating their own businesses contributes to their empowerment as individuals. In turn, this gives the company a sense of fulfillment, he says.
The difference of a Filipino microfinance company, like Maybridge, from any regular bank is the depth of personal relationship with clients, he says.
For instance, Joey remembers being asked and obliging to attend the high school graduation in Nueva Ecija of the daughter of one Maybridge’s OFW clients.
Because Joey was at the Philippines that time and because the girl’s Canada-based parent could not attend the graduation, Joey was asked to accompany the girl in receiving her graduation certificate on stage.
“You have to do those kinds of things for your clients. Otherwise, you are just any other lender,” he says.
Late last year, Joey got an invitation to join the Philippine Veterans Bank as its president and CEO.
Although he already was quite happy in Canada, Joey says he found it difficult to turn down the invitation by former Finance Secretary Roberto de Ocampo, who currently serves as chair of PVB. He says De Ocampo is one of the people he admires.
“This job at the Veterans Bank is another thing that was unplanned but has come its way to me,” he says.
Taking on the offer of helping PVB become a bigger player in the banking industry, Joey has come back to the Philippines. He plans to stay here for a while to help the bank achieve its medium-term targets and then eventually go back to Canada to be with his family.
In the meantime, his wife is taking charge of the family microfinance business in Canada.
For Joey, the banking sector has a crucial and noble role to fulfill—help the Philippines achieve “inclusive” economic growth.
Although the Philippines has become one of the fastest growing Asian economies, having registered a growth rate of 7.2 percent last year, it remains to suffer from one of the highest poverty rates in Asia. Still about a fourth of the country’s population live below the poverty line.
If only more banks will take the risk of lending to micro and small enterprises, he says, poverty reduction could accelerate and an inclusive economic growth would be achieved sooner rather than later.
Joey says banks should put up more branches in the countryside and should adopt rules that make loans more accessible to micro entrepreneurs.
“Banks should attack the problem of exclusivity of economic growth to its roots,” he says.
Joey says the goal of PVB to cater more to the needs of the countryside is one of the things about the bank he is proud of. The bank has 60 branches nationwide, 45 of which are in the provinces, he says.
“Through the locations of the branches, one would see which banks are serious about wanting to help in the development of the countryside and which ones are only going for profits,” he says.
PVB is focused on lending to small businesses in rural areas and to OFWs, markets that are not satisfactorily served by other banks, he says.
While most banks are scared to lend to OFWs who want to put up their own businesses, Joey says his experience says otherwise.
“I have a personal experience, which is backed by statistics, that shows OFWs are far better borrowers than white collar executives,” he says.
PVB also has a strong lending program for local government units (LGUs). The bank particularly lends to LGUs to help fund development initiatives, such as establishment of schools, hospitals, roads, etc.
“The terrible reputation of LGUs in the past is no longer true. People would say you are lending to crooks. But you know, Veterans Bank has a lot of LGU clients, and they are not crooks. In fact, they are very competent,” he says.
Zeroing in on poverty
One reason for the still high poverty rate in the country despite the robust economic growth is the bias against micro and small enterprises, Joey believes.
For instance, he says, some banks require enterprises trying to secure loans to present purchase orders from large or multinational companies before the loans are approved.
For this reason, suppliers wanting to get funding from banks do not bother to accommodate supply requirements of small businesses and cater only to the requirements of large companies.
Also, many large and multinational companies observe a 90-day payment term, and apply this rule even to suppliers that are small in scale, Joey says he finds it scandalous that some big companies effectively force smaller ones to finance the operation of the former.
“There are flaws in the supply chain that make it very difficult for small businesses to succeed,” he says.
To squarely address the problem of economic growth that ostracizes the poor, Joey says all sectors of society must be called to action.
Big businesses should not be selfish and should help smaller ones develop; banks should not help perpetuate the biases against small businesses, he says.
“Those who enjoy market power should use it judiciously. If you are not scared of power, you are bound to abuse it,” he says.
Achieving inclusive economic growth is not an easy task. But if everyone would do his fair share, Joey believes, the robust economic growth that the country currently enjoys would eventually be meaningful not only for the rich but also for the poor.
Having experienced how being poor felt like, it is no surprise that this bank president has made it his advocacy to help uplift the lives of people through a channel he is an expert in—finance.
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