Arts & Leisure

By Joan Orendain

Let us now praise (humble) men

Posted on November 11, 2014

“PATERNO, you are a brave man,” Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s prime minister, said. Vicente Tirona Paterno formed part of President Corazon Aquino’s state visit entourage.

VICENTE PATERNO seen in a 1991 BusinessWorld file photo
Lee referred to Paterno’s years under Ferdinand Marcos as chairman of the Board of Investments, later folded into the Ministry of Industry which he headed, then as Public Highways boss. Appointees followed the dictator’s bidding, but Paterno had his way.

On My Terms
, Paterno’s autobiography, a riveting account of his years in both the public and private sectors, will be launched today.

The first of five children of physician Jose P. Paterno and Jacoba Encarnacion Tirona, a teacher, he was born on Nov. 18, 1925. (Their main house is still referred to in Quiapo as “bahay ni Paterno” [the Paterno’s house], which he doesn’t mention.)

Susana Paterno Madrigal, his father’s sister, had (through her work as a young couturier) financed her brothers’ education. Out of gratitude, on Susana’s request, Jose had abandoned a thriving medical practice to work for her husband, Vicente Madrigal. But Paterno has nothing good to say about his namesake, who had duped the Paternos out of a small fortune after Susana died.

When war in 1941 stranded Jose in Hong Kong, Jacoba and Vicente, 16, supported the family. Assembling a six-ton truck of sundry components, he slapped an “International” logo on it, then built a copper still producing fuel alcohol to mix with rationed gasoline.

In the “International,” Paterno traded sugar or molasses to Quezon and Batangas, returning with copra or horses.

He collected fares in the family Lincoln converted into a jitney post-war. On his father’s return, he enrolled in Mechanical Engineering at the University of the Philippines, graduating in 1948.

Humble among skilled workers as shift engineer at the Central Azucarera de Don Pedro, they were friends when Paterno left three years later for the Harvard Business School. He represented his 100-man class in the HBS Student Association (rare for a non-WASP), graduating with honors and determined to seek employment in a Filipino company.

Career decisions bore in mind Jacoba’s words: “always be independent,” and his father’s: “Lo cortes no quita lo valiente” (Courtesy doesn’t diminish valor); “Successful results depend on good execution”; and “Follow up, don’t depend on paper reports.”

Many a life story is “I-me” gonzo journalism, Paterno’s is not. Resolved trials elicited quiet satisfaction, no horn-tooting.

Leading a team, he worked on feasibility studies for PHINMA’s purchase of the Bacnotan cement plant. It made a profit in Year One.

Readers learn how not to shock a conservative boss, when to launch an IPO (initial public offering of shares), how to deal with Harvard School of Business case studies, how not to ruffle feathers, among other lessons.

Charged with funding Meralco’s expansion as Treasurer, Paterno studied an ignored manual among his American predecessor’s files, leading to Meralco’s offer of Mortgage Trust Indenture bonds purchased enthusiastically on Wall Street and financial markets worldwide. Meralco’s success (which Paterno doesn’t claim) paved the way for the first issuance in 1966 of Philippine bonds in the international market.

Feather in his cap notwithstanding, Meralco boss Eugenio Lopez exploded when Paterno recommended an IPO. Instead of chagrin, he blamed himself, admitting to political naïveté, and regarding Lopez as the best boss he ever had.

His wife Socorro Pardo’s thriving handicraft exports enabled him to accept a position in the public sector at one-third his Meralco pay (where once he politely turned down a 20% raise, also to Mr. Lopez’s consternation).

Deliberately while in government service, to generate employment, he advocated Mindanao’s development, small businesses, and ASEAN’s car complementation of automotive parts.

At the Board of Investments he was a vigilant gatekeeper for the entry of foreign investments, opining that present governments should continue the system to keep out undesirables.

To spur countryside development, he promoted the dispersal of manufacturing to the provinces, espousing wide horizontal integration which accelerated exports of nontraditional products. Persistently, the nationalist argues against Manila-centricity, leaving the countryside in limbo. Spreading out led to EPZA and today’s Philippine Export Zone Authority.

Shunning the sound bite, Paterno encouraged staff to attend meetings and investments hearings. They became dependable news reporters’ and prospective investors’ sources. He recommended social pricing, limiting price increases for the poor. It was imposed, then commended by UNIDO-Asia.

Under his aegis at Industry, Philippine-Japan economic relations commenced, its early offshoot being the 3,517-kilometer Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway.

Focusing on underdeveloped Mindanao, Paterno organized BIMP-EAGA (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines-East ASEAN Growth Area). Liaising with their economic ministers, the fruitful cooperation (at the outset) spurred transport and economic linkages between Mindanao and those countries. Fidel Ramos supported it, but it fell apart when he forgot to assign officials to keep on it, and Brunei could not afford to continue offering free office space.

By the same token, an ASEAN car complementation program with member countries each manufacturing complementary parts was a huge success spawning Ford’s Fiera, Toyota’s Tamaraw, Mitsubishi’s Cimarron, and DMG-Volkswagen’s Sakbayan.

Car parts’ manufacture was severely affected when Ramos again dropped the ball, prematurely lowering import tariffs drastically, and affecting many industries including automotives.

Important vestiges of Paterno’s initiative nevertheless prevail. By 2011, Toyota’s Santa Rosa plant had exported $850 million in automotive parts; Mitsubishi manufactures transmissions in Canlubang. Vehicle parts’ exports total $3.1 billion.

Typically, he faults himself “for (Industry’s) not establishing a working relationship with the Agriculture department to improve farmers’ profitability.”

Greeting him at his Highways office: thick carpets, draped windows, dim lighting -- “The appearance of a nightclub. The image aroused in me was of sepsis -- anaerobic bacteria thriving in the absence of sunlight and air.”

Cleaning the Augean stables of corruption, an “election” department-wide determined most culpable officials. “Comelec” outsiders tallied the votes. The highest quietly resigned. Number Two balked, was administratively charged, then resigned. The third was rotated to another division. The NPA trusted him; anonymous letters reported corrupt district officials.

(Not in the book: Panorama magazine photos of typhoon Aring’s 1980 devastation, noting how on his last day at Highways, a Sunday, Paterno personally supervised Central Luzon’s emergency repairs.)

Of his Senate years -- he ran reluctantly when Cory Aquino asked him to -- Johanna Son, regional director for Bangkok-based Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific, recalls covering the Senate: “(He) stood out not because he was garrulous, prone to grandstanding or chatty with the press, but because he went about his work seriously, matter-of-factly and consistently, much like a man who knew he had a job to do, and so proceeded to do just that, with integrity. He always chose his words purposefully, reflecting a professional and business-like approach to carrying out ‘work’ even in a politically charged legislature.

“After many more years in media in Asia, I think of him today as an aberration in the very partisan world of Philippine politics: a bit of a misfit who crossed over to electoral politics in that unique period of history after the 1986 People Power Revolution to do his part for his country.”

Senators earned P20,000 monthly, Countrywide Development Fund was P15 million max. Oh for those bygone days!

Preparing for retirement, he, his brother-in-law Titoy Pardo, and a third, set up Philippine Seven Corp. with a million pesos each. He is chairman of today’s P41-billion chain of 24-hour convenience stores.

MASICAP (Medium and Small Scale Industries Coordinated Action Program) is his all-time favorite topic, initiated in 1974 as the Bureau of Small Industries’ core when he was Industry minister. Several thousand small entrepreneurs were helped by 600 college seniors trained to prepare bank loan applications. His successor abandoned MASICAP.

Over a hundred (ex-student) alumni persuaded Paterno to revive MASICAP in 2000. He acceded on condition that MASICAP-2 operate as a private enterprise helping Mindanao. Students’ services are offered to local government units which shoulder their expenses.

Paterno is chairman/president of MASICAP MSME Foundation. Alumni and his family undertake overheads for recruitment, 30 days’ live-in training, and field supervision. It has assisted 2,200 small firms with 1,360 applicants receiving P687 million averaging P500,000 each. A life-threatening illness does not deter Paterno’s crusade.

Washington SyCip lauds him as “a man of great integrity, honesty and competence. His unselfish career in the private sector was equally successful and contributed greatly to the national economy.”

In the early 2000s, Oscar Lopez invited Paterno to be an independent director of both First Philippine Holdings Corp. and Benpres (Lopez Holdings Corp.). Don Eugenio’s son tendered a farewell party in 2009 which featured A Life of Unwavering Integrity, a video on Paterno.

Invariably, his name equates with integrity.

Ernest Rufino, Paterno’s younger colleague at Meralco and now CEO of Health Maintenance, Inc., testifies unabashedly that “Ting was my idol -- he was many guys’ idol.”

Try “hero” -- one who acts when others do not.