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Of Money, Popeye, and Presidents

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After five decades in the corporate trenches, Menardo Jimenez reminisces about his childhood, his extended tenure as GMA-7 president, and what drives him to stay in the game

If you ask him about it, the 27th richest man in the country does not swallow the hype.

“That’s what they say,” he says, referring to the Forbes 2011 Philippines’ Richest. “But I don’t believe it!” he claims. “There are others who I know that are richer, but they aren’t mentioned in the list.”

Short of naming the others, Menardo ‘Nards’ Jimenez tries to put his ranking in perspective, rather than admitting outright that he is worth US$185 million.

“When they look at the financial statements of GMA as well as the value of the stock, the total value is there. So my name makes the list every year, and I see it and tell myself ‘Oh boy!’”

He seems almost embarrassed about the ranking. “How will you report that then?” he asks, laughing.

Manong Nards, as his close friends call him, is old enough to have a storied lifetime worth more than a few tellings. “I have to be honest with you,” he says. “I came from a modest family from a small town in Pangasinan. My parents were politicians. My father became mayor four times, my mother was also a mayor.” But Nards was not exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

From a young age, he began the long process of looking for a meaningful source of livelihood. “As early as grade school,” he recalls, “I was already thinking of something.” That something was a job, or a string of jobs, that he kept at until he enrolled in Far Eastern University. This included peddling newspapers and komiks (comic books), shining shoes during fiestas, and a treasured memory involving a trip to Pasay.

“I went to visit my brother and I saw the dilapidated bicycle he kept,” he recalls. “He lent it to me and I fixed it. Next, I had it rented.”

Such fledgling ventures were never enough to earn Nards a living, but they did provide him with pocket money. The small degree of financial freedom led to his long held belief in savings. He points out, “When you have a lot of money you tend to spend all of it.”

For him though, it was different. “I told myself ‘I’ll spend this much’ but keep 20%. So there, spend 80%, but keep 20%.”

Lessons From Abacorp
Jimenez’s professional career began shortly after college, where he was an irregular student attending night classes. A brief stint at the BIR—where he stamped ‘For Official Use’ on countless documents—exposed him to office culture at an early age.

Upon graduating and passing the accounting board exams, he and some friends opened an office in Escolta. This was the 1950s, when the bustling Ayala CDB still did not exist, a period most Filipino’s remember fondly. “The other Asian countries looked up to us back then,” he recalls ruefully. And then, “Sikat tayo!” (We were revered!)

His Escolta days were short-lived, however. A congressman friend of his father endorsed him for employment at a newly established government-owned company, called Abacorp. During the hiring interview he was considered overqualified. He still vividly remembers his exchange with the general manager.

After handing the general manager his CV and a letter of recommendation, he was told, “Mr. Jimenez you are overqualified for the position that we have right now.”

Stunned, he asked, “Why sir?”

“The position is for bookkeeper.”

Jimenez laughs about it now. His years in Abacorp were very fruitful as he quickly rose through the ranks as the firm expanded. “Every quarter, I got promoted simply because there were new positions created,” he explains. “Until I reached assistant general manager and all my previous bosses were under me.”

“But you know, when I was there, the most important thing was to be humble,” he adds and then pauses before explaining further. “Because I studied the character of our chairman and general manager. When they had problems I could go to them and say ‘This is what you’re going to do.’”

His concern and courage paid off in the long run. As Jimenez puts it, “So when I was climbing up, nobody questioned me.”

Jimenez shares his work philosophy: “When you plan something, you really have to plan that when you reach the top, no one should question you. Huwag ka magyabang. (Do not be boastful.) Be humble.”

Jimenez’s stint at Abacorp would hit a glass ceiling once he became assistant general manager—a delay that marked the early years of his marriage.

So he resigned to consult for a mining firm while exercising his entrepreneurial talents on the side, often with partners. The mining firm could have actually paid him more if he joined them full-time, but he had other plans.

Popeye Station
Together with Felipe Gozon and Gilberto Duavit, Jimenez would acquire a fledgling American-owned television station whose property rights had expired. This was the Republic Broadcasting System, re-christened GMA Network by its new owners.

Ever cautious when it comes to executing his plans, Jimenez turned down the network presidency. He focused on managing the finances of GMA, a decision he deems wise to this day. “When they said I should be president I told them ‘No Way.’ I didn’t know the business,” he says.

“So I told them I’ll accept the vice presidency for finance. You see, finance is the heart of a business, Jimenez explains, pointing out that when one controls the money, one can prepare a plan for the company.”

Getting the financially troubled TV station off the ground at the height of Martial Law was no mean feat. In the 26 years of his presidency, Jimenez would grow GMA from a network—whose repetitious black-and-white programming could hardly compete with the Roberto Benedicto television monopoly—into a major media player.

Starting with just two excessively rerun programs (Popeye and the World War II show Combat), which earned the station the funny moniker ‘The Popeye Station,’ Jimenez would drive a rapid expansion of its content with extra help from American partners. Early GMA staples, however, did ruffle a few feathers, including the German ambassador who complained that Combat always depicted his country as being on the losing side. According to Jimenez, his reply was “If you can give me a program where the Germans win, I’ll air it.” Herr ambassador never replied.

The network survived Martial Law and earned public trust with popular shows and credible news coverage, including Ninoy Aquino’s funeral. By the time GMA’s new offices opened along EDSA, Jimenez decided to step down.

Philippine Presidents
Two-and-half decades of sweat and blood in a TV network have given Jimenez some very interesting stories to tell, many involving Philippine Presidents.

On Marcos, “He’s more of a hands-on president. Very, very hands on.”

Cory is “Very soft, humble, amiable. Not the type who’s aggressive. But she’s very, very amiable to most of her friends.” This included Jimenez and they both met frequently even after she left office.

Jimenez is very fond of Ramos. “He always thinks. That’s why he had so many plans. He’s also approachable. He’s a joking president.”

He also had the privilege of knowing a different side of the embattled Erap Estrada. “When you come to Erap, he’s very, very courteous and accommodating. If you’re invited to his party he’ll give each guest a plate and serve them himself. ‘Red wine? Tara, let’s drink!’ (Come on, let’s drink!)”

Jimenez remains gracious, even to the unpopular President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. “I pity her,” he says, referring to the controversies that surrounded her extended administration. “She is one woman who can face anybody; any president, prime minister. She’s talented!”

He thinks President Noynoy Aquino can do a lot in going after the corrupt. “It’s his obsession,” he observes.

After Jimenez’s retirement from GMA, his family wanted him to start enjoying the downtime. But he still indulges his favorite hobby—work. He is currently chairman of UCPB, CEO of Albay Agro-Industrial Development Corp., and holds executive positions at San Miguel Corporation, Nuvoland, Unicapital, and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

His latest real estate involvement is the 48-story condominium Aspire at The Fort. A scale model sits in his office, along with a horse collection. Jimenez has a thing for horses. Well, statuettes of them, which, for the past 20 years, he has been collecting.

The avid collector and family man remains full of youthful mirth. Especially unique since it is combined with the wisdom of many decades. If you tell him this, he will probably laugh and give you a wink.

Print ed: 11/11

 

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