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Developing tomorrow’s leaders today

Fernando Zobel de Ayala shares thoughts on corporate stewardship
/ 05:20 AM November 11, 2018

Ayala Corp. president and Asia Society Philippines vice chair Fernando Zobel de Ayala.

This week, 100 rising leaders under 40 from across Asia will gather in Manila for the Asia 21 Young Leaders’ Summit.

Now on its 10th year, the Asia 21 initiative was developed as an innovative program to promote greater understanding and collaboration for the next generation of Asia Pacific’s leaders.

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The program is the brainchild of the Asia Society, the leading organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships between Asia and the United States, founded by John D. Rockefeller III in 1956.

During the summit, young leaders are convened for discussions and collaboration, empowering them with a powerful toolkit to unlock new ideas for working together across boundaries.

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For the first time since the program’s creation, Manila has been selected as the host summit city, with Asia Society Philippines serving as the host organization.

Some of the Philippines’ largest conglomerates are supporting the Asia 21 initiative, among them Ayala Corp.

Ayala Corp. president and Asia Society Philippines vice chair Fernando Zobel de Ayala shares here his insights into why the Ayala group invests in youth education and leadership.

Why is it good business to support and foster tomorrow’s young leaders?

Zobel: At the Ayala group, we have always tried to do our part to develop the next generation of leaders.

We firmly believe that our youth will be the catalysts, the change agents, and the advocates for a Philippines led by principled, values-based servant leaders.

Businesses play a pivotal role in supporting the younger generation of leaders and providing them with the necessary tools that will empower them to effect positive changes in the country.

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We do this through a number of initiatives both at the corporate social responsibility and for-profit spaces.

Our group considers the Ayala Young Leaders Congress or AYLC, our flagship program for the youth under the Ayala Foundation, as one of our most important social investments in the country.

AYLC is an annual student leadership summit for 81 of the most promising student leaders selected from the best colleges and universities in the country. It has been running for the past 18 years.

Choosing delegates for AYLC goes well beyond academic excellence. We look for leadership qualities, the ability to work in teams and the ability to bring out the best in others.

Five years ago, our group also entered the education business. We have seen opportunities for innovation and positive disruption in this space.

The best way to bring about greater inclusivity in our country is to look for new ways to address society’s unmet needs. Education is a critical part of that.

Your family has been a strong advocate for youth and education. Where does this altruism emanate from?

Zobel: We have always aligned our business strategy and philanthropic strategies with the developmental needs of the country. Supporting the youth is critical for the future of our country.

Ayala has a storied history, even predating Philippine independence. How does your rich heritage inform Ayala’s approach to leadership development today, and for tomorrow, especially for young leaders?

Zobel: Ayala’s evolution has been closely intertwined with the development of the Philippines. Our group has always felt deeply about its commitment to nation-building.

We strive to align our business objectives to the broader development agenda of the country.

In recent years, it has become clear to us that businesses cannot operate in a vacuum. It is in our strategic interest to ensure the progressive development of the markets we serve. To remain relevant, private enterprises need to consider the welfare of society, and not just its own.

From a practical standpoint, we need only ask ourselves: how can business thrive in a degraded environment and in a society where so many are left behind and not given the opportunity to be productive?

We must constantly look for innovative forms of capitalism, where social issues are integrated into our strategy.

At Ayala, we have embraced this philosophy and have, over time, made a deliberate effort to redefine our business models to address societal challenges and cater to a wider segment of Filipinos.

These are the reasons we have recently gone into businesses like education and health care.

Even in our traditional businesses like telecommunications, banking, real estate and water, we are always looking at ways to serve and improve services for a larger segment of our population.

What inspires you and informs your own approach to leadership at Ayala?

In Ayala, we have always tried to create a work environment that will allow us to bring the best possible talent into the group.

My brother Jaime and I take a meritocratic approach to management that lets leadership flourish from within.

We empower our chief executives to manage the businesses on a day-to-day basis with little interference.

We have also established a strong culture of innovation in the Ayala group and empowered our CEOs to constantly look for new ways of doing things, whether through products and services or completely new business models.

We are fortunate to have exceptional individuals working in the Ayala Group.

They are principled, dedicated and they share a deep commitment to making a positive impact on society through our businesses.

Ayala’s own history is replete with lessons of resilience and perseverance.

What uniquely Ayala lessons or attributes could and should be inculcated in today’s young leaders?

Zobel: Ayala has faced numerous challenges throughout the years. As we look at our history, we find insights that explain how the business sustained itself across multiple generations through economic and political cycles.

As a business group, we take calculated risks with a long-term horizon and we always maintain a healthy balance sheet.

As stewards of the family legacy, we have a fiduciary role not to lose sight of the long-term objectives and ensure that the business sustains itself through the next generation.

As a publicly listed company, we are cognizant that the equities market may have the tendency to focus on short-term results.

We ensure that our investors understand the value of our long-term thinking as opposed to short-term capital that expects immediate returns. They see how we patiently grow the businesses, how we nurture them, and how resilient they can be amid a volatile environment.

We credit much of our success and longevity to our ability to constantly reinvent ourselves to remain relevant.

Part of our role as a holding company is to continue to evolve and grow our portfolio in ways that remain relevant to market opportunities and add value to the customers that we serve.

There is a big premium at Ayala placed on constant reinvention, collaboration, and the highest standards of governance.

We strive to continuously challenge our assumptions, question what it means to do business and how decisions and actions can leave lasting, positive changes for society at large.

With the fast pace of disruption taking place across many industries, now more than ever, businesses need to be nimble and adopt a progressive thinking to remain relevant.

Today, we keep innovation at the heart of our strategies—to build businesses that address society’s needs like affordable healthcare and education as well as capture the opportunities in disruptive technologies.

We have also recently made investments in e-commerce and fintech—these are businesses that produce inclusivity and will disrupt some of the businesses that we see today.

In all the businesses that we pursue we take into consideration opportunities for positive disruption by using new technologies. We are also constantly looking for businesses that can provide better services at a lower cost to more people.

What more could big business do to help the country’s youth and in particular, foster more leaders across Philippine society?

One of the most pressing challenges that the youth is facing today is ensuring their relevance for the workforce of the future.

Technology and innovation will have a deep impact on the new skills we will be needing. We will need major changes in the way we educate and train the youth within both the formal education experience and beyond it.

With the fast pace at which technology is disrupting many industries, education and training will have to continue into the workplace, well beyond the traditional, formal school years. It will also have to be delivered in different ways, from traditional classroom settings to online courses and hands-on technical training.

It is imperative for the private sector to work hand-in-hand with government and the academe to constantly upgrade our country’s educational curricula to align it with the skills needed in this new environment of disruptive technologies.

Business groups are well positioned to lend their expertise, deep industry knowledge, and resources to work with policymakers and educational institutions and craft a country strategy to train the youth and upskill the workforce for the future.

The Philippines faces unique challenges today, set amid a frequently turbulent global economic and political environment. What are the key challenges that you would like to see young leaders become adept at addressing?

The issue of social and economic inclusivity remains one of the most pressing in the Philippines today. We have seen how the significant progress in our economy in recent years has yet to materialize in the lives of a majority of our countrymen.

At Ayala, we have always believed that in a developing economy like ours, the private sector plays an indispensable role in addressing some of our most pressing development challenges. This is not just for the government to do. To remain relevant, to continue building trust with communities, businesses must contribute to society, and ensure the progressive development of the markets they serve. By integrating societal needs into our corporate strategies, we believe we can play a role in alleviating some of the development challenges our country faces today.

I would like to see our young leaders embrace this kind of social contract as they establish their careers whether in the private sector, as entrepreneurs or in government. —CONTRIBUTED

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