It can be said that Suntrust Properties, Inc. (SPI), which was initially known as Empire East Properties, Inc. when it was founded in 1997, had undergone a baptism of fire before it became what it is now today.

Established in the midst of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Suntrust had difficulty getting buyers for its first projects despite offering affordable housing because of how badly hit the market was. “Buyers shunned away from the local real estate industry,” Atty. Harrison M. Paltongan, SPI president, told BusinessWorld in an interview.

“They did not have jobs, they did not have businesses, the interest rates were rising… These were difficult times until little by little, we were able to gain momentum. We just had to survive.”

Today, SPI is known for its numerous self-sustaining residential communities in areas like Dasmariñas, Gen. Trias and Silang, Cavite; Lipa in Batangas; Sta. Rosa and Calamba in Laguna; and Bacolod City, and condominium projects located at the heart of Manila and Quezon City, Baguio City and Davao City. The company, since the time of its incorporation, has aimed to provide affordable homes and master-planned communities to the Filipino market. Its chairman, Dr. Andrew L. Tan, envisioned SPI as a “wide-ranging property supermarket” that would not only offer real estate properties for all market segments but also contribute to nation’s onward progress.

It had not been much of an easy journey. When Atty. Paltongan took on his role as company president, Suntrust was in need of radical changes. “At the time, the challenge was how to rejuvenate the company and do more projects than the few we had back then,” he said.

“The first thing that we did was we talked to each and every employee to determine their best fit, their dreams for the company and where they think they could use their skills and talents the most,” he added, noting that the effort resulted in a restructuring that transferred many employees to more suitable positions.

This proved to be the secret. Atty. Paltongan shared that it is this culture of caring and a creed of malasakit akin to that of familial relationships that drove SPI to new heights of success.

“All property developers would want to make a product which they can say has the best quality. I’m sure all of them would also want to say that their product is the most affordable. We are the same in those aspects, but I think what distinguishes us are our core values and creed which are summarized in one word, malasakit,” he said.

“The only way for us to survive back then was to work as a team. It later transformed into a family culture,” Atty. Paltongan added.

When individual employees fulfill their duties in the company, the company in turn will take care of the employees. Atty. Paltongan said that once employees look beyond their workload and realize their role in the overall health and success of the organization, they could be inspired to do more.

“Our people understand the connection of their work to our company’s overall goals. For example, the janitor knows that his job is not to just sweep the floor every morning but it goes further than that. The reason why he does it is so that when a homebuyer comes here, he or she will be very happy to see that the office is clean and well kept. And perhaps the buyer will say that this is how this company will take care of me and my investment,” he explained.

With a tightly knit organization and a creed that fostering unity, SPI kicked into high gear, eventually being able to market more real estate projects all over the country. The company, now fully owned by Megaworld Corp., has risen from the label of being a low-cost development firm and positioned itself among horizontal property developers with designs tailored to the middle and high-end markets.

The company has also ventured into significant vertical or condominium developments in Metro Manila, as well as into industrial park development integrating residential, commercial and institutional uses, to great success.

Last year, SPI was nominated and labelled as “highly recommended” by the Philippine Property Awards for Suntrust One Lakeshore Drive for the Best Residential Development under Davao category, as well as for Suntrust Shanata as the Best Affordable Condo Development under Metro Manila category.

“It’s good to be recognized for that, but what’s best for us is to hear from our buyers that they are contented and that they are happy with the things we do,” Atty. Paltongan said about the awards.

New challenges

With a wider scope in mind, SPI is willing to go further toward pursuing Dr. Tan’s original vision for the brand, essentially pushing to take the lead in spurring the nation’s economic growth.

“The new challenges today are on the brighter side,” Atty. Paltongan said. “The challenge is how to expand more, how to help in addressing the housing backlog, and how to help generate jobs for people. We want to develop township projects that are not only residences of people, but also a place where they have all of the basic needs of decent living, like schools, hospitals, commercial establishments. They would no longer need to travel to Manila for their work. Everything will be at a walking distance.”

“It is a part of our contribution to nation-building which is decentralizing the developments by bringing them outside of urban centers so these areas are also developed,” he added.

By creating self-sustained communities, and in turn helping the Philippines progress as a whole, it would not be much of a stretch to assume that SPI’s ultimate goal is an extension of its principles of caring and compassion.

As the company celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, SPI focuses on the theme of gratitude and giving back to the workers who played a crucial role in the company’s operations and success.

Atty. Paltongan noted, “Our 20th anniversary is different from the other anniversaries where the employees, officers, and stockholders go out to have a grand celebration. We transformed ourselves into servers in favor of our beneficiaries, and these are our site workers and sales people who are least recognized in the organization.”

In taking an interest in and taking care of the people from the bottom up, SPI hopes to become a stronger company. From its own example, and from the communities the company is creating, Suntrust also hopes to create a stronger nation.