By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran

For a man who has made many contributions towards the progress of the Philippine economy, Eusebio H. Tanco is quite averse to the limelight. He rarely gives interviews, preferring instead to stay behind the scenes and make his mark away from the public eye.

Mr. Tanco is a billionaire who has found success in the port operator Asian Terminals, Inc.; STI Colleges; and an insurance group under Maestro Holdings, Inc. which includes Philippine First Insurance Company, Philplans First, Inc., PhilhealthCare, Inc. and Philippine Life Financial Assurance Company. He speaks quietly but with a fierce conviction and intelligence that has guided his many ventures to success.

Born into the family of self-made textile tycoon and construction materials trader Agustin Tanco, Mr. Eusebio Tanco has grown up familiar with the know-how of successful entrepreneurship. He earned his Master of Science in Economics degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science and received his Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the Ateneo de Manila University. Apart from these, Mr. Tanco was awarded a Doctorate of Humanities degree, honoris causa, from the Palawan State University.

Despite his illustrious background, Mr. Tanco instead credits his father’s work ethic and encouragement for instilling in him good business sense, which enabled him to continue taking calculated risks, he told BusinessWorld in a recent interview.

Good business sense, or simply common sense as he pointed out, can be applied to everything, and has served as the foundation by which Mr. Tanco accrued his accomplishments. This is especially true in his various endeavors in education.

“So much talk is being made about the country’s physical infrastructure,” he said. “We never talk about human infrastructure.”

If true progress is to be made, Mr. Tanco said, the government needs to improve the education system to reach the young and the poor, many of which are out of school because they can barely support in their day to day expenses, much less pay for tuition fees.

“I believe that the government should focus solely on basic education, that is primary and secondary education. There is so much more that needs to be done there. There are so many dropouts, the government should focus on basic education and leave the tertiary education to the private sector,” he said.

In addition to building solid groundwork among the minds of young students should they decide to pursue further studies, an improved basic education will prepare them to become part of the work force much earlier on, he added.

“Education is in how people from all backgrounds interact with one another for the good of society, and in how they deal with the issues present in progress. Education is the greatest equalizer.”

As a business magnate, Mr. Tanco firmly believes that a laissez-faire approach to tertiary education will raise the country’s standards of education. Deregulation and liberalization should encourage more private institutions to offer more relevant curricula at competitive rates. The quality of education will decide which colleges and universities become the most successful. Like in any industry, the best will prevail.

Mr. Tanco also pointed out that education should not only be rooted in knowledge and skill, but also imbued with relevance to today’s society. Currently, there is a mismatch between courses offered by tertiary schools, and the actual skills demanded by the market. He said that government-imposed moratorium is the worst deterrent in improving educational standards, and what the government should do is to allow the entry of players who can offer better quality curriculum and better facilities in the field of education. “Innovation and creativity should be encouraged in tertiary education,” he said.

Citing an example, Mr. Tanco said, “We’re offering courses such as retail management. We want to produce retail managers. It’s very difficult to find good store managers nowadays because good store managers need to know a lot of things. They need to do a little bit of accounting, of marketing, they need to know how to manage a business and know a bit of economics. In short, store managers are micro-entrepreneurs.”

“As the middle class grows along with the rising consumer spending, we need more store managers,” he added. “We are putting up schools in the countryside to teach students how to farm more productively and efficiently, and how to make a small parcel of farm land viable. We want to able to teach them how to maximize the productivity through farming cooperatives, sharing resources, and hopefully help the nation become self-sufficient in agriculture.”

For this purpose, Mr. Tanco has entered into a joint venture partnership with Tony Tan Caktiong of Jollibee and Injap Sia of Double Dragon for a school dedicated to producing agricultural entrepreneurs, and retail managers are shaping up in Tanauan, Batangas.

According to him, with more educated farmers, businesses can find new opportunities in agriculture, and a chain reaction will likely take place, giving people more jobs and offering more people the chance to send their families to school and propagating the cycle of education. Good business sense, in that way, helps mobilize progress for fields that would have been left behind otherwise.

For Mr. Tanco, through education, the poor would have a standing chance to hold their own against the elite, and the elite would be better placed to help out the poor. He said that education is not only teaching people knowledge or skills, but also fostering a better environment for society to flourish.

“Education is in how people from all backgrounds interact with one another for the good of society, and in how they deal with the issues present in progress. Education is the greatest equalizer,” he said.