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Binondo Boys: A journey of success

Jojo G. Silvestre

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ARSENIO Ng

Discipline and determination were the two traits underscored by brothers Arsenio T. Ng, chairman of the publicly-listed ATN Holdings Inc., and Hilario T. Ng, a professional architect who is also the president of HEO Corporation, when they guested at TribuneNow’s Spotlight, the online show of the Daily Tribune.

Both Arsenio and Hilario were educated in the United States, for which three-year sojourns they were given limited funds by their trader father. They finished their undergrad and graduate degrees abroad while working on campus on the side to earn their keep, and chose to come home to the Philippines to strike it on their own.

Arsenio Ng, equipped with his graduate diploma, began his career with the National Development Company, a top government agency that coordinated multinational investments aimed at industrializing the country. He was pirated by a bank where, after only few years later he became a vice president, one of the youngest in the company. He would have stayed put in this financial institution where he was earning a big salary were it not for a retiring top official who advised him to get out and build his own company. It was the same advice that the Ng boys received from their father, who said that no matter how small their business was, they should work for themselves.

Decades after, the Ng boys have got it made in Philippine commerce and industry, developing real estate projects and providing prefabricated parts to the supply chain for the government’s massive transport infrastructure plan. In their own special way, Arsenio and Hilario have responded to President Rodrigo Duterte’s call to “build, build, build” and provide employment for millions of Filipinos as a means of pushing forward the nation’s growth.

Arsenio and Hilario visited the Daily Tribune together with an old business associate and family friend, Santos Sejoco, who serves as the corporate planner of ATN Holdings. The brothers Ng related their family history, starting with their grandfather arriving by a Chinese junk, brought to the Philippines by the winds “that took them right to Manila,” shares Arsenio. Their grandfather started out as a trader in Binondo, a profession that their own father, the second generation Ng in the Philippines, followed. When it was their time to start their own lives, their father left it to the two boys to decide what path they would take. Arsenio chose to enter the world of finance while Hilario, giving vent to his artistic talent, chose to become an architect.

Theirs is the story of two Binondo boys who studied in the USA and chose to come home and build their fortune. The TribuneNow’s Spotlight hosts, lifestyle editor Dinah S. Ventura and columnist-author Jojo G. Silvestre listened to the brothers Ng share their success story

Daily Tribune (DT): Mr. Ng, Arsenio or Art, what is ATN Holdings? What are you engaged in?
Arsenio T Ng (ATN): We started to concentrate earlier on property development. So, we develop buildings. An example is…with Araneta we developed Solid 1 in Shaw Boulevard. So, that’s a 48 story building. So, that’s what we do and nowadays, we kind of responded to the President’s Build Build Build infrastructure plan. But he wanted to focus a lot on developing the infrastructure of the country especially Metro Manila from the transport point of view, lots of roads, subway, railway, and airport, seaport, among many other things.

So, to do that, as the chairman of a listed company in the Philippine Stock Exchange, we decided to respond to that call by focusing corporate resources on getting our properties ready as a supply chain to the infrastructure plan. It’s a lot of precast materials that we’re getting in and ready for all the requirements of the subway, the railway and the tollways.

DT: What about HEO? What is it all about?
Hilario T. Ng (HTN): It’s an architectural firm. Of course, I also play a role in the property management and the designing of the buildings of the ATN. We design a lot of residential condominiums and office buildings. I am the Managing Director of ATN. So, that is what I am busy with. So I have two roles, as an architect and as a managing director.

DT: You’re brothers?
ATN: Hilario is my only brother.

DT: They don’t sleep, they work the whole day…. Are there only two of you, siblings? Do you have a sister?
HTN: We have a sister who is staying abroad.

DT: Oh , she’s the one abroad. You two chose to come home. What were you doing before you put up the company?
ATN: I went to the States after finishing my undergrad. I took my MBA in California. When I came back to the Philippines, the National Development Company, a government institution, at that time, was trying to implement as many industrial projects as possible. This was around 1979 to the 1980s. That was quite a long time ago, about forty years ago.

DT: You were very young.

ATN: I am now a senior citizen. So, forty years ago, I came in. I was invited by the government to help execute these industrial projects. So, I came in as a project evaluation officer. To evaluate which projects are executable and good for the public interest. It should create massive employment in the grassroots level. Those were the very early stages… can you imagine, after forty years, it’s really like a full cycle. Lots of projects were in the planning board that we executed. The reclamation was being done. That was also the time when the light railway transit started.

Can you imagine, forty years later, now, a new cycle of infrastructure development is taking place. I think we had the ringside seat before to witness the execution of these industrial projects. You remember PASAR, the Philippine Phosphate, the Leyte Port.

Forty years later, it seems there’s even more infra. Can you imagine, we’re now talking about 8 trillion pesos. So, comparatively speaking, we were very young then. We had to go to the National Development Company. I had to take the Love Bus from Escolta to go to Makati. That was work, a lot of work. What do I mean? You work from early in the morning up to…technically, I knock off at 11 at night. That was the life then.

At that time, the government was really in a hurry. Too many projects and very few government employees. That’s how I recall forty years ago. By the way, just to remind everybody, Tots was also there. We were together at the National Development Company.

Santos Sejoco: It was my second job.

DT: So, that’s how you met. And you stuck it out. How loyal. That’s to be said of true friends.

ATN: Those times were extremely challenging. Those were the times of massive peso devaluation. The situation was very stressful. And very challenging. Can you imagine when you were going to implement a major project, you were talking to a Japanese group, and suddenly something came in. You had to do a lot of explaining about what happened.

DT: The political situation.
ATN: Yes, the economic situation.

DT: A mixture of factors. But we have survivors here.
ATN: Yes.

By junk
DT: So, what is your secret? You know, we have to put in proper context their reason for guesting with us. We are interested in finding out why the Filipino Chinese have succeeded. They all grew up here. You would say that they probably have the same values as the other Filipinos. But they seem to have certain advantages. So, what is that? Maybe we need to go back to your roots, the origin of your family. When did your ancestors first arrive in the country? Are you third generation already?
ATN: Yes, third gen.

DT: How did the first generation come here?
ATN: I remember my grandfather did mention he arrived 1900.

DT: Wow. More than a century already.
ATN: They came by Chinese junk. So, I asked my grandfather, why the Philippines? He said that depended on the wind. It could have gone to Indonesia or it could have gone to Malaysia. Or it could have gone to Thailand.

(From left) Santos Sejoco, Hilario T. Ng and Arsenio T. Ng. Wrenn Sanchez

Just to go back, those were the times when they landed in Manila. And he ended up in what we call the palengke, or the market. The Binondo market. He was selling sardines, canned goods. So that was what was always told to us. It was ingrained in our mind that it is a very hard life. It is a life of only work and savings. There are only two things. They emphasized the sanctity of work and the sanctity of saving. Meaning you work everyday. If somebody works 8 hours, you work 12 hours. The expectation is always 50 percent more. If somebody saved 10 pesos, you saved 15 pesos.

DT: Did you grandfather arrive as a bachelor or as a married man?
ATN: He was single…. So, those were his early years in the Philippines. After that was the next big event. It was the Second World War. Can you imagine if a family is frugal and it has to go through a war, that is really life-changing. What am I saying? They believed in the ethos of frugality. You can expect that during the wartime, they were even more frugal.

DT: So, your dad helped in the retail business also. And how was the shift? You’re US-educated boys. How was your father?
HTN: He was the typical Binondo father. A very strict and no-nonsense dad. Whatever he said, that was it. It was final. He is the boss. In our case, as we were growing up, we could already see. Did we want to be in that position? Should we follow their footsteps? Or should we do what we like? In that sense my father was a little bit westernized. He said that if we didn’t like that kind of business, he would give us a little bit of money but you have to survive with it. You can go to the United States for three months and you find a job. That is your problem. You create your own thing.

That’s how we were trained. We had to do it on our own. We had to go to the US Embassy. We had to choose our own school. Our dad did not help us at all. It was all up to you. If that is what you want, you go.

ATN: Our philosophy was sink or swim.

Little Budget
DT: How did you react to your father’s way of teaching you about life? How did you pursue your dreams?
ATN: In my case, I said I like banking. When I went to the States, I told myself, I will study banking. So, my father said, “Here’s is your little budget. You have to survive. In my brother’s case, he liked architecture. Again, my father said, “Here’s a little budget.” And when he said very little, it was very little. So, my brother went to the US for architecture.

HTN: At that time, you cannot send dollars outside. So, whatever my dad saved from his dollars, that’s what we had.

ATN: So, you had to earn while you were in the States. He just gave you enough for your ticket to be able to fly to the US. And some amount for the first semester. After that, you worked.

DT: So, you became working students. Right in school?
ATN: Yes.

DT: And then, why did you come home? How long where you there?
HTN: I was there three years.

ATN: Yes, three years.

DT: And you immediately came back.

ATN: I finished my undergrad and graduate degrees in record time. Why? Because your budget was too little so you had to make use of all your time. You would not believe it, I was doing 32 units per quarter. You stated early in the morning up to 11 o’clock at night. It was superfast and super-intensive. You had to read 20 books a day.

HTN: You had to catch up because you didn’t know a thing about the United States.

ATN: And you had a little budget. You had to catch up before your budget was gone. You had to plan, work and make sure you reached touch down in record time. I remember my dean was looking at the document. He said, “There seems to be something wrong here. There’s a student named Arsenio T. Ng. What is this? This must be wrong. Twenty years old? This must be 28. Can somebody finish an MBA at 20? Please stand up.” Wow, I was thinking, I might not be given the diploma. I stood up, and then he said, “You look like 28.” That was a scary moment. You reached touchdown but you may not get your diploma because there was doubt. Nonetheless, I got my diploma.

DT: How did you cope with your studies? You must have been reading all the time.
ATN: You reach a point, because of the type of stress, you end up reading very fast. So, when I joined the government, they must have thought this guy is a workhorse. He works on several projects and does not complain about his government salary. And government salary was very minimal. But that was also an opportunity of a lifetime. You were exposed to all the major projects in the Philippines. And I was only 21 years old.

Not a Rolex
DT: So, what happened? Why did you leave the government?
ATN: I was attending a bank directors’ meeting representing the government in Venture Capital Corporation. This was for small and medium enterprises or SMEs. So, I was representing NDC at that time. Then one of them said, “You are so good, we might as well pirate you. What if we double your salary?” This was China Bank. I said, “Sir, where do I sign?”
My motivation was not purely the money. I could go home at 6 pm. And it was in Binondo so I didn’t have to take the Love Bus. So, that was a motivating factor, but guess what? The economy entered a new phase when I joined the bank. Interest rates spiked to 42 percent. This was in 1983. Those were the times of the Jobo bills.

DT: What was your big break? When did you finally decide to engage in business?
ATN: Oh, you would love this. This is a very interesting story. I was in China Bank. My position was quite high. I was probably Vice President. I was the youngest officer of the bank. Here comes the second guy of the bank. Up at the totem pole. Just to give you a background, this man had three CPAs. CPA license granted by China, CPA from the Philippine government and CPA from the United States. He was the number two head of one of the largest banks. He was one of the smartest guys I have ever met. He said, “This is the wrong position for you.” So, I asked him, “You mean I could get a higher position?” He replied, “You better get out.” So, I was surprised. Maybe that day was one of his saddest days. Because he showed me a watch. “You know, after serving this bank for more than 50 years, this is what I get. A watch.” I looked at it and I said, “Oh it’s not a Rolex.” So, what does that mean? He kept telling me, “You should really get out.” So ,I was thinking, this is the second most powerful guy and he asked me to get out. And when he showed me his watch, he was crying.

And so I thought, it looks like he is reminding me about my Dad, who said, “Whatever you do, you should work for yourself.” Big or small, you may be the smallest, but work for yourself. “

Before I left, I was looking for something that I myself could do. So, maybe, I liked finance. So, maybe I can have a brokerage firm in the stock exchange. So I started tendering to buy a position in a broker firm. Can you imagine everybody accepted my tender? That was strange. They wrote to me, “We will sell to you a certain share position.” Everybody signed. But nothing came. So, what am I trying to say? It seems that everybody at that time just wanted to know how much they were worth. You want to buy? So, give us an offer. But they signed and I think they used my offer to up the ante with somebody else. So, somebody else ended up buying into their company.

I was so frustrated, so I said, maybe buying a brokering firm is not the right idea. What else is there to buy? So, maybe a listed company. So, I started taking aim at a listed company. Guess what? I ended up buying a listed company because those times were so bad you could buy a listed company for a very very cheap price. And the rest is history. If you could buy a car for 25 thousand pesos, how much do you think did a listed company cost then? Maybe a million pesos. And how much is a listed company now? A billion pesos, maybe? That’s maybe the starting price. So, I always say it is time that creates the opportunity.

Determination and discipline
DT: As we are about to wrap up, can you tell us what lessons do you teach your kids? How can one become successful?
HTN: I always tell my kids that after college, they are on their own. That’s your destiny. The two things you should have are determination and discipline. They should be determined to get what they want. And they should have the discipline to do it. If they don’t have the discipline, nothing will happen. If they don’t have the determination, their dream is just a dream.

DT: I should start saving.
ATN: And make sure it’s a Rolex. That watch could have been my turning point. I was taken aback. Can you imagine how simple a person that went through all the experience. He had all the credentials, but he just showed me the watch. And after that, he cried. If not for that, maybe I would still be in the bank.

DT: So, tell us, how is business going to be in 2020?
ATN: I feel today is a massive point of recognition. You can use any mathematical terms. It could be inflection point, it could be escape velocity. It means you will see a trajectory like you have never seen before. Today, I think the President of the Philippines is signing the budget. And the budget on capital expenditure is very close to one trillion pesos. We’re talking about just the capital expenditure. What am I saying? I think that the President wants to create as much employment for the Filipino. And I say this is an inflection point for a lot of people who really need jobs.

Imagiine the multiplier effect of one trillion peso capital expenditure. It’s probably right to compare it to the Marshall Plan. So, you will see that with that type of massive work and productivity, you can see how much gross domestic product there is going to be. So, 2020 will be a happy new year for the Philippines.

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