The man behind the growth of PLDT and its subsidiaries shares some of the valuable lessons he learned early in life under the guidance of a persuasive mother, a military father, and Jesuit educators.
Napoleon L. Nazareno has every reason to gloat. After all, he is one of the reasons why Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) and its subsidiaries still grow fast despite the current economic crunch.
“Our Talk ‘N Text brand has 11 million subscribers. It is the third largest [in the Philippines] and the fastest growing brand for our entire group of companies,” the CEO declared proudly when he spoke before members of the Anvil Business Club on 30 June at the Manila Golf and Country Club.
But many didn’t know that before he became a powerful figure in today’s corporate world, he had to overcome many challenges in life.
Education Is Key
The young Nazareno and his five brothers all had scholarship grants at a Jesuit school in Cebu City. It was a privilege to be in a prestigious institution, he recounted, and it put a big smile on his mother’s face. But it also brought him under a lot of pressure. He had to maintain passing grades and not embarrass his mother, since she had to convince the school rector to accept her sons.
“I managed to hang on and from that experience I learned one important lesson early in life: Doors can be opened for you but that won’t matter much in the end unless you deliver and perform,” he says.
The 58-year-old grandfather also told the audience at the forum that his mother had the knack for making the right compromises. He adapted these values and combined them with the discipline instilled upon him by his father, who was a military man.
“I became the result of those two extremes. I learned early in life that seemingly contradictory things actually often come together. You need to be decisive but stay open for compromises,” he narrated.
Life After College
Fresh out of college in 1971, Nazareno got his first paycheck selling farm equipment and supply in northern Mindanao. Later that year, he pursued a post-graduate degree at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM). There he faced another trial as AIM, he claimed, overloaded its students with many reading assignments that were impossible to finish on time. Nevertheless, the experience proved useful; it taught him how to prioritize and focus on more important matters.
In the same decade, he became the brand manager of Phimco Industries, a manufacturer of matches and lighters. The company took a big hit when Bic, a brand name better known for making ballpoint pens, developed a technology that could produce cheaper lighters. As a result, Phimco suffered losses and the young executive had to lay off some workers. It was a painful thing to do, he recalled, but his people got the message and the retrenchment proceeded without a hitch. The setback taught him that first, a manager must communicate directly with his people and second, management has to be with the workers not only in good times, but also in bad.
But the challenges didn’t stop there. As the president of Pilipino Telephone (PILTEL) Corp. in 1998, Nazareno led a 2,500-strong company that was mired in debt and had no GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) capabilities. This made the company less competitive in a market where SMS (short messaging service) is the growth driver. Letting go of PILTEL could have been easier for the management, said the chairman of Mabuhay Satellite, but doing so would create dire consequences on the Philippine banking system. (Mabuhay Satellite is among PLDT’s subsidiaries.) Management, instead, tried to save the company.
“I remember my first meeting with the creditors of PILTEL, when I declared a moratorium. I told them we were sorry but we could not pay. Three people stood up and walked out. It was a slap on our faces but we persisted.”
For the next two years, he was in the middle of negotiations as the company underwent some major restructuring. This took a toll on his health as his eyesight began to fail him.
Nevertheless, PILTEL crawled out of the muck. The results of the negotiations they did in behalf of the ailing company was the first major successful restructuring agreement in RP. He said PILTEL is now debt-free and its Talk ‘N Text venture is the largest GSM cellular service in the country.
“This experience taught me to persevere despite great odds [especially] once a well thought out decision has been made. Success is sweeter when you learn the bitter lessons of failure or when you overcome situations of great danger and difficulty,” he beamed.
Nazareno now leads Smart Communications, Inc. More than the record profit Smart makes, it’s the opportunity to create businesses for many Filipinos that he relishes the most.
The former president and CEO of Akerlund & Rausing Philippines Inc. (a multinational packaging material manufacturer) explained that employees, students, and housewives could augment their incomes by selling electronic load (e-load) to their friends, relatives, and neighbors. In many sari-sari stores (small neighborhood shops), e-load is reportedly the most profitable product. It makes up 13% of the stores’ total sales. More and more Filipinos can even afford to have their own cellphones through e-load earnings, he added.
Before he left the rostrum, the three-time Corporate Executive of the Year awardee told the audience, “It is gratifying and rewarding to succeed in building a very profitable company. But success is a lot sweeter if you can help people improve their lives along the way.”