2020: A year of crisis, opportunity | Inquirer Business

2020: A year of crisis, opportunity

CEOs share key lessons learned amid COVID-19 pandemic and thoughts on 2021
By: - Business Features Editor / @tinaarceodumlao
/ 05:15 AM December 06, 2020

(First of two parts)

Nobody could have possibly predicted how bad 2020 would turn out to be.


Filipinos perhaps initially thought the eruption of Taal Volcano in January was as bad as it could get, but it was just a taste of worse things to come due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, economic managers now expect the Philippines’ gross domestic product to contract by a painful 8.5-9.5 percent this year due to the twin public health and economic crises stemming from the new coronavirus disease.


This is the biggest drop postwar and exceeds the 7-percent decline in 1984. While there is a general consensus that 2021 will be better, most predict that it will take some more time before the Philippines reverts to prepandemic levels of robust growth.

And yet there is always an upside to even the most challenging times.

Successful corporations know that all crises—even one as seemingly insurmountable as the COVID-19 pandemic—bring with them opportunities. It is up to the most astute to spot and take advantage of them. After all, crises eventually pass and a rebound inevitably follows.

In this issue, the Inquirer asked some of the country’s business leaders about the biggest lessons they learned in 2020 and how they are preparing for the new year that everyone hopes will mark the beginning of a quick recovery.

1. Fabian S. Dee, president, Metrobank

2020 brought so much uncertainties that pushed our boundaries, but the resilience of Metrobank has been tested many times and our situation now is no exception.

The best way to approach challenges is to mindfully recall and apply the lessons from past experiences.


In our case, Metrobank has a long history of operating—and even thriving—during economic difficulties, and we have gained a lot of wisdom in surpassing these instances.

For 2021, our strategy is to not focus on the uncertainties but rather use them as a bridge for further transformation and continue to deliver what is meaningful to our customers, more so in these challenging times.

2. William Whang, president, China Banking Corp.

What I learned is, what has kept China Bank strong and resilient for the last 100 years will enable us to weather this new crisis—our genuine concern for people. At the onset, we prioritized the safety of our customers and employees. Our employees are front-liners, too. Their health, morale, and well-being are paramount to business continuity and our ability to continue serving and supporting our customers. It’s important to communicate the truth in a way that inspires and keeps morale high, to listen more, to engage your team because not everything is in the plan or goes as planned.

Our top priority in 2021 is keeping our employees and customers safe while keeping the business growing. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so we are strengthening the bank’s fundamentals, including digital. We embarked on a modern workplace initiative, which entails the deployment of technologies that will significantly improve collaboration and teamwork across the enterprise. We will continue to enhance customer engagement with China Bank Digital 2.0, targeted to be launched by the first quarter of 2021.

Cezar Consing

3. Cezar Consing, president, Bank of the Philippine Islands

2020 is proof that speed really matters. On the downside, the speed by which COVID-19 spread. On the upside, the speed of the BSP’s policy responses to cushion the economic fallout; the speed by which digital channels compensated for the lack of brick and mortar; and the speed by which people adapted to physical constraints and new work arrangements. 2021 will be about the speed of the recovery and working our way back to pre-COVID-19 levels of employment and production.

4. Kelvin Ang, CEO, AIA Philam Life

My biggest realization for the year is the importance of being agile—learning fast and adapting fast. The pandemic caught everyone by surprise and the only way to survive is to adjust and quickly adapt.

My priority next year is to make sure we are ready to embrace the new normal.

5. Harvey Ong, chief operating officer, Alfamart Philippines

This year’s challenges made us realize that we can do anything as long as we take good care of the people around us, from our own employees to our customers. Alfamart Philippines has always had a family and community-centric culture, 2020 simply put it to the test. I’m happy to report that we’ve passed.

For 2021, we’ll be applying the same principle, making our employees feel like they have a home in Alfamart and hoping that they too will extend this feeling to the customers and the respective communities they serve.

6. Martha Sazon, President and CEO, GCash

Transitioning into this new role at the height of a pandemic would seem challenging and extremely difficult, especially since interaction with my new team was limited by the conditions of the quarantine. What was crucial was having a clear purpose and vision and the ability to communicate it effectively to the troops, so to speak – rallying the organization despite the distance. This eventually became the key to our exponential growth.

In 2021, I look forward to using the momentum we have built to improve and expand the digital lifestyle services that GCash offers and create meaningful experiences that effectively caters to the unbanked. We will continue to be determined in pursuing financial inclusion for all. And hopefully next year, I will actually meet all of my 700-strong team.

7. Cesar G. Romero, President and CEO, Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with a global crisis of uncertainty. It is not clear how long recovery will take, and what shape or form the new normal will be. What is clear, though, is that we must show leadership and take early and decisive action to stay resilient as a company.  When the Philippine economy takes off, so will our buisness. We are working every day to ensure that we are positioned best to capture the opportunities once the country recovers.

8. Frederick D. Ong, President and CEO, Pepsi-Cola Products Philippines, Inc.

My biggest realization in 2020 was that the Filipino spirit is relentless and unselfish, and because of this, we can overcome any obstacle together. In the case of PCPPI, given the unprecedented crisis this year, I am extremely proud that our Bravehearts’ immediate response was to maintain our commitment to our people, the community, our partners, and our consumers – much like our medical frontliners’ response. It shows how willing we are to do and give more for our family and countrymen, regardless of the industry we are in.

Our priority for 2021 is to become the fastest-growing beverage FMCG in the Philippines. Our goal is to responsibly deliver sustainable growth for our company, our employees, and our stakeholders.

9. Choong Wai Hong, CEO, Maybank Philippines

The biggest challenge for all institutions in 2020 against the COVID-19 global health pandemic was to quickly adapt and ignite new engines for growth and revenue.

For Maybank Philippines, we have committed to leading the principle of “People before Profit” throughout the pandemic. Our customers and our people’s health and safety were our top priority. Despite the challenges, Maybank’s Business Continuity Plan (BCP), an integral part of our management operations, gave us strong fundamentals and capabilities to respond immediately at the start of the health crisis. Beyond COVID-19, leading to the new normal, we are poised to take advantage of this competitive landscape as we have been strategically investing in key infrastructure, support and capabilities targeted to these specific consumer needs.

Our five-year vision is to remain a robust, focused bank with a strong market leadership within our chosen segments in our nationwide branch footprint, lead digitalization for customer safety and convenience, supported by an ecosystem of partners.

10. Nabil Francis, President and CEO, Republic Cement  

2020 has been a roller coaster. We say that when you face a crisis you know who your real friends are. The main highlight, in my opinion, is not about my realization but about how resilient our colleagues have been. This crisis has given us the adrenalin boost to walk the extra mile, to realize our potential and to overcome the competitors.

We might not have seen yet the full effect of the pandemic on the economy and 2021 will be a very challenging year. We will embrace the change together, continuing our crusade towards business excellence! We are writing history and any incremental improvement counts in time of crisis.

11. Jasper Ong, President and CEO, Hanabishi Philippines

Once again, we see our people in the company taking the initiative and gradually restarting the operations in all levels of the business. We believe in investing in our people, and because of this, we saw genuine ownership and care from them for our enterprise.

For 2021, our priority is to keep the company thriving despite what transpired in the pandemic. We will continue to come up with innovative solutions that will make the daily lives of our customers better. This way, we will be able to continue to keep our people happily employed with better prospects for the future.

12. Alexander Grenz, President and CEO, Allianz PNB Life

Alexander Grenz

We have a higher appreciation for the need to accelerate our IT investments to better service our customers and further cultivate our performance-driven culture at Allianz PNB Life. Our digital solutions are key enablers in improving all touchpoints with our distribution partners and clients. There is also a need for deeper utilization of technology that enables a stronger remote work environment and drives better work-life balance in our organization.

COVID-19 has highlighted the substantial protection gap in the Philippines and the importance for Filipino families to secure their health and financial well-being. Besides our commitment to delivering on our digital roadmap, we are equally focused on enhancing the relevance  and simplicity of our protection, savings and investment solutions. Sustainability will play a bigger role in this regard moving forward.

13. Olivier Coquerel, Country Managing Director, ABB, Inc.

In these very challenging times, the success of a company really depends on the motivation and the commitment of all its employee and this can only be achieved if they feel fully engaged. So the top priority of any people manager should be to ensure that they engage with all their people under their responsibility.

14. Michael Cosiquien, chair, ISOC Holdings Inc.

This year made me realize how truly important grit is. Like what Angela Duckworth says, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”

I have also come to value the right kind of people—these are the ones who do not shirk in the face of uncertainty but who find solutions and innovations to solve the problems that rise.

This year, with the pandemic and the typhoons and resulting aftermath, only reminds us that we have to adopt technology in business and to inject sustainability in all projects.

On a personal note, I am grateful for health, for my family and for the fire that continues to fuel our drive, even in challenging times.

Dioceldo Sy

15. Dioceldo Sy, CEO, Ever Bilena Cosmetics Inc.

2020 is such an unprecedented year! We were hit with Taal eruption, and I thought that was bad. Then this COVID-19 pandemic happened. I had initially thought that it would only be temporary, and that we would return to business as usual in less than a month’s time.

Unfortunately, two weeks passed … four weeks … then two months and more! And the economy just kept getting worse. The month of May came and my realizations started to sink in. We had suffered zero cash flows from mid-March until June and just when revenue and customer traffic was improving, the second lockdown was implemented by August.

I instructed the whole management team to disregard all our plans and start from scratch. The only program we had in place was to have a flexible mindset and system to adjust and adapt based on the day-to-day assessment of the business and economic climate.

My field staff were told to be proactive in giving feedback on what’s happening at ground zero, so that we have real time information as basis for what the company will have to do next.

The truth is, right now we are simply in survival mode. The goal is to continuously innovate and find ways to live alongside the pandemic while keeping the business afloat.

Linda Pecoraro

16. Linda Pecoraro, general manager, Conrad Manila

Staying resilient amid the challenging backdrop of the global health pandemic crisis, innovation gave us the pillar of strength. It is also innovation that gave us three key lessons on staying strong:

Be prepared. It is never too early to be prepared. Always have a contingency plan focused on the long-term with impact on customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and the long-term image of our brand.

Stand united. While it is unfortunate to see businesses and industries, families and communities impacted by the global pandemic, we believe that it is also important to remember that difficult times are a driver of innovation. Engage and protect our people.

Lead the way. For 2021, our priorities remain the high quality of health and safety standards for our guests, patrons, and team members. Conrad Manila is committed to be the safe haven for everyone from check-in to check-out.

Lance Gokongwei

17. Lance Gokongwei, president and CEO, JG Summit Holdings Inc.

My biggest realization as CEO in 2020 is how this pandemic has shown how much we are all interconnected and interrelated, that we are only as strong as our weakest link, which means we all need to pull together and support one another to build a strong society where no one is left behind.

My priorities for 2021 are the overall health and well-being of my Gokongwei Group colleagues; the financial strength, adaptability and resilience of our companies and supporting in whatever way we can our country and people in surmounting the challenges brought about by CoviD-19 so we can all bounce back stronger as soon as possible.

Jean Henri Lhuillier

18. Jean Henri Lhuillier, president and CEO, PJ Lhuillier Group

My biggest realizations for 2020 are that business contingency plans are truly essential and preparing several options is a must. Another is, digital transformation is essential NOW and is no longer something that can wait. And finally, overall health is truly wealth. For 2021, my priority is to continue to focus on goals and just make sure that the plans are executed well and accelerated, especially when it comes to digital transformation.

19. Gwen Lim, president, Southeast Asia Inc. (Landers Superstore)

The pandemic made me realize the importance of adapting quickly to uncertain situations, to meet the changing needs of our customers and ensuring their safety, while maintaining the quality and value of our products and services. We also realized that our greatest treasure in times of crisis is our people. It made us grateful each time they report to work every day despite the risks. We also saw how kindness begets kindness—when we did a campaign for Landers Superstore to raise funds for families badly affected by the pandemic, our members followed suit and supported our cause. For 2021, we will focus on growing our company and continue to support the government’s economic recovery efforts from the effects of the pandemic.

20. Rolando Hortaleza, CEO, Hortaleza Corp.

In a way, our strategic direction to digitally transform our organization was vindicated when the pandemic hit the Philippines. Even prior to 2020, we initiated getting our businesses online by capacitating our people with the right technology, equipping them with digital tools, adopting the latest digital trends and online platforms. All these not only enabled us to stay afloat but t actually remain profitable in spite of the general economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. We are optimistic for 2021, that the new normal will further solidify our market niche in the food and financial business. We performed 50 percent better versus last year and our financing enterprise remained resilient. Our nonperforming loans were also at a manageable level. The entire Hortaleza Group of Companies has fully embraced the new ways of working and we are owning this new normal as we elevate our business ambition and goals.

(To be continued)

Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: CEOs, COVID-19 pandemic
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2021 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.