Mariels Alemda Winhoffer is no stranger to bigger roles.
At the age of 12, she was the youngest member of the Philippine badminton team that competed in the Southeast Asian games.
She also became the first seventh-grader to be part of Assumption College’s high-school varsity volleyball team.
In her teens, she also earned the distinction as the first female Taekwondo blackbelt in the Philippines.
“I’ve always been in a position to affect things or make a change,” Winhoffer tells SundayBiz.
Last February, Winhoffer stepped into the biggest role of her life when she was appointed as president and general manager of IBM Corp.—the first Filipina to hold the post.
Winhoffer’s appointment comes at an interesting time for IBM, which celebrated its 100th founding anniversary in 2011. The company also celebrated its 75th anniversary of doing business in the Philippines this year.
Winhoffer’s long-time mentor Sam Palmisano, the man who orchestrated Big Blue’s transformation that included the disposal of the company’s long-time bread-and-butter PC business, also stepped down as IBM president and CEO last year.
Prior to her current post, Winhoffer worked as Client Advocacy Executive for IBM, providing support for global client engagements, serving directly under Palmisano. It’s also worth noting that she was the first Asian American to report directly to the big boss.
Her entire professional life she spent in the United States, first in New York and later in Chicago. She says her first job was at IBM where she interned while taking up Finance and Computer Science in New York’s Fordham University.
So when she was told of her assignment to the Philippines, she knew it would not be a smooth transition, despite having grown up here. The significance of her promotion is perhaps best described by Ginni Rometty’s last tip to Winhoffer: “The job of country manager is the closest anyone can get to doing my job.” Rometty is IBM’s current chair and CEO.
“My life was set in the States. My husband is still in the US. He’s finalizing what he needs to finalize in terms of his business. I had to move my 86-year-old mother and my 13-year-old son Mark to the Philippines with me,” says Winhoffer.
Her three older children are all still in the US. Winhoffer’s eldest, 27-year-old Nicole, is Madonna’s (yes, that’s Madonna of Like A Virgin) personal trainer—but that’s a story for another day.
“Change is tough. But without change, you won’t grow. I can’t tell you enough how much I’ve grown since moving here,” Winhoffer says.
Tough though the change may be, Winhoffer says the opportunity to lead IBM in the Philippines, a position that lets her contribute significantly to the country’s development, was too good to pass up.
Fortunately, her family has been nothing but supportive of Winhoffer. “I’m not going to sit here and say that I have been there to all my children’s important events like parent-teacher conferences,” she says. “But this is where my husband and I work around each other’s schedules to make it work,” she adds.
“My daughter always says to me, ‘Mom, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality.’”
Her decision to accept the job was influenced by her family as well. Her late father, a doctor who always went out of his way to give back, changed the way Winhoffer approaches her current job.
“He did all surgeries on Sundays and I was 8 years old when I saw all this. He wanted us to have the experience of giving back because we were really privileged growing up,” she says. “I really believe that by his presence every day with me changed my intent with this assignment,” she adds.
“There’s never a good time or a bad time. It’s a matter of readiness of one’s self to take on these grand opportunities,” she says.
To add more grease to the wheels of her career transition, Winhoffer says she has been trying to get back into badminton. Getting in touch with old friends, as all balikbayans do, has also been taking a lot of her time.
And nothing gets a person’s mind off being homesick—the States being one of her two homes—being immersed in work. Winhoffer says she has spent countless hours trying to understand the Philippine education system to find ways to help improve the country’s schools.
Obviously, her Filipino roots contributed to landing her at her current post, Winhoffer says. But IBM did not have to promote someone from the corporate headquarters to the Philippines.
She adds her new job, while still surreal to her, does not come as a complete surprise. When she first accepted the promotion from working on the ground to being holed up in IBM’s corporate offices, she knew there was a larger plan for her.
“By agreeing, I knew that I would be placed where they would need me. I knew I would be placed in a growth market,” she says.
“I held a high position in the States and putting me here shows the company’s investment in the country,” Winhoffer says proudly, both of herself and of the fact that the country was finally getting the attention it deserved.
The Philippines was recently named one of the 20 main growth markets for IBM, and Winhoffer says the promotion of an executive who was part of the chairman’s inner circle was proof that the company was serious.
Her main missions today are to maintain IBM’s leadership in the enterprise IT solutions business, while enhancing the Philippines’ role in the company’s overall operations. Apart from its software and server business, IBM also employs several thousand people (the company won’t say exactly how many) in its captive business process outsourcing (BPO) facilities in Metro Manila.
Winhoffer says one of the many changes she wants is to expand IBM’s Philippine BPO “delivery centers” into more complicated areas of analytics and other higher-value tasks for IBM, creating more high-paying jobs for the country’s talented workforce.
Luckily, Winhoffer, like her beloved IBM, is no stranger to change and if all goes well for her, the Philippines too will have a bigger role to play both for the company and the world.