Ten minutes after Roberto Velayo Ongpin passed into eternity at 1:08 early morning of Feb, 5, 2023, Sunday, Lia, his youngest grandchild, awakened and cried, “Lolo has floated away!”
The four-year-old toddler’s plaintive whine awakened the whole Ongpin household in his palatial villa overlooking Lamon Bay, in the fabled Balesin island resort in Quezon province he built from scratch in the past 10 years.
They tried to revive Bobby. To no avail. One of the country’s most accomplished and controversial tycoons had gone to his Creator for good.
Born Jan. 6, 1937, Bobby or RVO, as he was fondly called, was 86.
Ongpin was a management expert, public servant, entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer par excellence.
Very few in the business world could match his guts, self-confidence, visioning, and power of execution.
In defining Ongpin’s legacy, remember five things.
They make him a true patriot and hero in the mold of his great, great grandfather, the 19th century candlemaker Roman T. Ongpin (1847-1912) of Binondo, who funded the Philippine Revolution.
Roman’s son, Alfonso, was Bobby’s father, Luis Ongpin, a stockbroker.
One, Bobby Ongpin built the Philippines’ premier high-end property development company, Alphaland Corporation which has had four major projects: the members-only 494-hectare Balesin Island Club; the Alphaland Makati Place (which has a hotel and a members-only City Club); the Alphaland Baguio Mountain Lodges; and the Alphaland Southgate Corp., a Makati commercial building which was later sold to generate funds to pay all of Ongpin’s bank debts and bank-roll the startup of an ambitious Boracay-type beach resort, the 749-hectare Patnanungan island.
Today, Alphaland is estimated to have an intrinsic value of $2.6 billion.
Ongpin’s networth was valued at $2.1 billion.
Two, he was the youngest head of the SyCip, Gorres, Velayo and Co. (later simply SGV) and built it to become the largest professional services firm (accounting, audit, tax, and management services) west of the Mississippi.
At its peak, more than 80 percent of the Philippines’ largest corporations had SGV as their auditor. Engaging SGV gave its clients the seal of good housekeeping and immense credit credibility.
Three, he was the most visionary of all Philippine ministers of trade and industry. Defying a colossal economic crisis, Minister Ongpin envisioned massive Philippine industrialization with his overarching 11 major industrial projects (MIPs).
These included an integrated steel mill, copper smelter, aluminum smelter, petrochemical complex, phosphate fertilizer plant, diesel engine manufacturing, cement industry expansion, integrated pulp and paper mill, heavy engineering industries, and an alcogas plant.
The MIPs would have transformed the Philippines into a NIC (newly industrializing country) almost overnight but a debt crisis, cronyism, and the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in 1986 sent Ongpin’s projects into oblivion.
Today, those projects, if undertaken at 10 to 20 times their original costs, would still be valid and viable.
Four, he helped stabilize the Philippine economy at its moment of gravest peril, from 1983-early 1986, by setting up the Binondo Central Bank (BCB), a de facto black market foreign exchange operations to prevent the peso from devaluing into depths beyond the reach of everyone.
The Aug. 21, 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr,. triggered the most debilitating economic crisis ever which triggered massive capital flight, phenomenal loss of investor confidence, an unprecedented debt crisis, runway inflation, and a run of the country’s precious foreign reserves.
At one point, the dollar reserves fell to as low as $1 million, with the peso threatening to lose its value, from P8.54 to $1 in 1982, to $11.11 in 1983 post-assassination, and as high as P20 per dollar before 1984.
Using Marcos’s martial law powers and tough-as-nails management, Ongpin nurtured the peso rate to a manageable P16.69 in 1984, P16.60 in 1985 and P20 per dollar by the time the strongman was ousted in the February 1986 People Power.
To stabilize the peso-dollar rate, Ongpin gathered daily seven major forex traders responsible for generating most of the country’s dollar earnings.
All their dollars must be surrendered daily to the BCB and profits were capped at a certain ratio of the peso-dollar rate. The annals of the central bank do not give credit to Ongpin’s herculean and patriotic efforts.
Five, unfortunately, Ongpin’s peso-dollar stabilization helped trigger the 1986 EDSA People Power.
Not many people know it but EDSA I was triggered by greed and was won by a lie. The crowds that massed on EDSA on Feb. 24, 1986, Monday, and Feb. 25, Tuesday, were there not to stage a revolt but to hold a picnic.
June Keithley had announced on radio at 7 a.m. of Feb. 24, 1986 that the Marcoses had left. It was a lie. In their glee and feeling that finally it was all over, people trooped to EDSA to celebrate.
The greed arose from a Chinese forex trader who violated the peso-dollar trading band imposed by the then unofficial central bank, the Binondo Central Bank managed and headed by then Trade and Industry Secretary Ongpin.
Ongpin had the erring trader arrested and loaded into a van.
Unfortunately, the forex trader died.
Unfortunately again, the trader happened to be a man of then-Armed Forces chief Fabian C. Ver.
Angered, the dreaded military chief had 22 of Ongpin’s security men, provided by RAM leader Gringo Honasan, arrested.
They were marching in full battle gear and dressed in SWAT uniform at about 4 a.m. inside Fort Bonifacio when arrested on Feb. 22, 1986, a Saturday.
At 11 a.m., Feb. 22, 1986, at the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Makati, Ongpin went looking for his security men.
He called up then-Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile who was with the Club 365 at the Atrium in Makati.
Enrile thought the arrest of the 22 Ongpin security men, who turned out to be all Honasan RAM Boys led by Major Mike Asperin, was part of the crackdown against the plot to oust Marcos.
Enrile summoned his boys to his house on Morado Street, Dasmariñas Village.
There they plotted their next moves.
They decided to make a last stand at the armed forces headquarters, Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
At 2 p.m., Enrile called then Vice Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos.
“Are you with us?” JPE asked Eddie. “I am with you all the way,” FVR assured.