Villar steers Vista Land to higher ground
“That’s life, that’s what people say
You’re riding high in April
Shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change their tune
When I’m right back on top in June”
Former Senator Manuel B. Villar Jr. belted out these lines, popularized by the late Frank Sinatra, during an interview with the Inquirer last week.
“It’s the theme song of my life. You read the lyrics of that song and you will see my view of life … The song reflected my life. I have experienced what the song has said,” Villar says of the old Sinatra tune “That’s Life.”
Sharing with the Inquirer his life story, the businessman and former politician tells of his hardship and the battles he won and lost, from growing up poor and building a real estate firm from scratch, to engaging in Philippine politics and facing all kinds of intrigues and challenges.
According to the chair of real estate firm Vista Land and Landscapes Inc., he already knew early on in life how it was to be poor, to rise from the ranks, to reach the top, then fall, and eventually rise again. Life, he explains, is a never-ending journey, a continuing struggle to learn and master the ropes of the trade before eventually reaching the top.
Success did not come easy for him.
He first tasted hard labor, he says, when he was nine years old.
“I’m very close to my mother, and growing up, I was always the one who would go with her to sell fish,” Villar recalls. At age 9, “I was already working because I’m the eldest among the boys. There were nine of us. Usually, we would go to the market around midnight to buy the fish and shrimps that we would sell in the morning.”
Passion for business
The frequent trips to the market and the constant reminder from his mother awakened his passion for entrepreneurship.
As his mother plied her trade, he would see wholesalers “counting and earning money.”
Since then, “I dreamt of also making it big one day like them,” Villar says. “In fact, my only dream then was to own fishing boats.”
During his teenage years, he made the rounds of Divisoria and saw fruits and vegetable wholesalers making money.
“It was commerce in action for me. And so I was inspired even more to become an entrepreneur. Growing up in an area like Divisoria has made me who I am today, an entrepreneur by heart,” Villar explains.
At the University of the Philippines, Villar did what he had set out to accomplish—finish a four-year course in preparation to becoming an entrepreneur.
“UP was like, wow. I never imagined I’d make it there, and I’m just really glad I did. After college, I worked as an auditor for SGV. But after six months, I felt it was not for me because I got really bored and I probably got the worst rating in the SGV system,” he narrates.
Following his short stint at SGV, Villar got married to now Senator Cynthia Villar who was then a professor at Far Eastern University. The couple had their first child a year after.
Villar then set out to become an entrepreneur—a dream that became a reality, but not after a few misses.
“With an initial P10,000 in capital, I found myself delivering fish to a cafeteria and hotel. But my first clients were not able to immediately pay me, so I lost a few pesos and had to again stop doing business. I eventually ran out of capital so I had to start looking for a job,” Villar relates.
Without the much needed seed money, Villar had to content himself in working for an investment bank while he completed a postgraduate course at UP. He also attended various seminars, such as one on making bread, at the Philippine Women’s University.
While working for the bank, Villar thought of offering to the cafeteria manager an alternative system of payment: He offered food coupons which he then sold to his coworkers at 20 percent off. This move allowed Villar to earn back the capital he lost and venture into another business.
Villar earned enough and, after securing loans to augment his capital, he purchased two new trucks that he used for his new venture—hauling and delivering gravel and sand.
Learning the trade
“In 1975, my first business was born. I was 25 then, and it was named Metro Gravel and Sand which, up to now, is still running. My first clients were individuals because I would often go around areas where houses are being constructed and I would offer them my services,” he shares.
This endeavor turned out to be well worth Villar’s time because he then started getting referrals. While doing the deliveries, Villar was able to familiarize himself with the trade and slowly learn the business of building and developing houses.
“I saw how houses were being built and how the business of developing houses worked. So I spoke with the people who are also involved in the same business and expressed my desire to partner with them. You see, it was not planned or intentional that I would go to the business of developing houses. But what was clear then was that I really wanted to be an entrepreneur whether it be putting up a bakeshop, trucking, or even selling spare parts,” Villar explains.
“My first client was an OFW (overseas Filipino worker) whose house was located at BF Resort. Seeing the need of the people for affordable housing, I decided to build small houses, and created Camella. People discouraged me then, telling me that not too many homebuyers would want to purchase a small house. But luck was on my side and I stumbled on the perfect formula,” he recalls.
His first Camella development was in Las Piñas, which was immediately sold out. It was followed by other successful developments. To date, Vista Land Philippines is regarded as the largest homebuilder and market leader in terms of total number of houses built.
Along the way, he says, “the problem was that I don’t have enough money, but I never entertained the idea of quitting. If my venture collapsed, then I would just build a new one because I never would really go back to being an employee.”
While he was growing his business, Villar was unable to escape the lure of politics.
In government, he was privileged to hold key positions. He became House Speaker and Senate President.
“My management of the House and the Senate was the best proof of my managerial skills because, during my time, both Houses were seen as really independent bodies. I’d like to think that I performed well in all [positions],” he claims.
“I’m the only Filipino who I think did not only become a Speaker and Senate president, but also an industry leader. Each position and role entails different forms of discipline, and I was lucky and privileged to have experienced such diverse roles,” Villar says, referring to his roles in government as well as head of one of the country’s biggest real estate companies.
According to Villar, not all businessmen can handle the demands of politics. But his management skills allowed him to do that.
Following his decades-long stint in politics, Villar says he is more than happy to be back doing what he loved most, and even proudly looks back at the highs and lows of his career both as an entrepreneur and public servant.
Politics vs business
“Not too many people would recognize what I’ve done. But I’m okay because I’m doing it for self-fulfillment. You see, politics and entrepreneurship are in a lot of ways the same, but in a lot of ways also different. In politics, there’s always a winner and a loser; while in business, you can all be winners. When the economy is good and there’s a boom, then you’re all winners, and if there’s recession, you’re all losers,” Villar explains.
“Also in business, the fights are not so deep because, almost always, these are brought about by envy. In politics, winners and losers are defined and that’s why fights are always personal and deeper. You have to be very tough when you are in politics.”
Villar goes on to say that, for both politics and business, a sense of timing is crucial. And if one were to succeed in either or both fields, the knowledge of political techniques could spell the difference.
“But what’s good with doing business is that, when you’re good, you’ll be rewarded. In politics, you need to present your plans, but in business, you only have to show the results. Only the results matter in business, like your first quarter results or last year’s results. In business it can’t be all talk, you have to grow and make profit,” Villar explains.
Ups and downs
“In business everything is quantifiable, that’s why it excites me because, I think I’m good. In business, fulfillment is felt right away. In business, we talk about what we have done, while in politics, we talk about what we will do. In politics, it’s about plans and promises, but in business, it can’t just be all promises.”
For Villar, business is about “continuing ups and downs.”
“I myself had a lot of losses and a lot of jackpots. That’s why in business, it would really show how good you are because it entails a series of decisions. It’s a continuing combat, and the fact that you’re good now doesn’t mean that you will be good next year. Your skills would be continuously tested. That’s what I like in doing business,” Villar says.
“Politics requires a different kind of patience, a different kind of discipline, a different kind of strength. But in business, brilliance is needed to make it to the top. You need to be a good strategist,” he adds.
Aware that the stakes in the real estate industry are much higher now as there are bigger players that are more sophisticated, Villar says he is now more than just willing to again learn the ropes of the business and make up for the time he lost while serving in politics.
Such preparation has become especially crucial now as the market, Villar believes, is very liquid and that the country’s economic boom is expected to translate to a robust growth for the local property sector.
“Our boom can’t be considered abnormal. It’s really more of catching up. What we are seeing now is a logical sequence of events in a country that is growing. It’s nothing about us being special,” Villar says.
“But in real estate there would always be gluts, there would always bubbles. It’s a question of when and how big. When you are in real estate you must be prepared for this.
There are soft and serious bubbles in real estate, like the 1987 financial crisis and the 2007 crisis in America. With real estate, it’s never a straight line—it has waves. If you are a mature real estate company, you will be prepared for such eventualities.”
According to Villar, he learned a lot of lessons from the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
“It was a very tough time for me. It was actually the worst time of my life. I wasn’t prepared. And it took me some time to recover because I was riding high then. You see, people love winners and nobody likes a loser. So that’s where you see who your real friends are. In that sense, business is similar to politics,” Villar shares.
Back on track
For now, Villar is concentrating on expanding and growing Vista Land, which has since ventured into retailing, malls, hotels and condominiums.
“Now I’m back on track, but I’m still adjusting and trying to again sharpen my knowledge because I’ve been gone for quite some time. Now slowly, I’m trying to get the hang of it again and I’m enjoying it,” Villar says.
“It’s a complete lineup for me now. And yes, I go to work even on Sundays. But I enjoy it, I’m happy. When I look back and think if I want to change anything, no, there’s nothing that I would change. A lot has happened in my life as an entrepreneur. I was even tagged the brown taipan because I’m the only Filipino on the list, and I was also the youngest, he adds.
After his stint in politics, Villar says he just wants to go back “to building houses and churches.”
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