How the Lopez-owned Benpres building sparked an entrepreneurial spirit

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By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

WHILE the Lopez family can be construed as just another of the 40 families or so that form the nation’s elite, the story of the country flows well in their veins, and at the same time, their story imprints on ours. The various Lopez holdings in land, energy, and media, summarized in the Lopez Group of Companies (that includes media conglomerate ABS-CBN, the Rockwell Land developments, and energy companies under First Philippine Holdings Corp., among many, many others) shape the way we live lives in the city and its surrounding environs.

Excluding the ABS-CBN headquarters in Quezon City and its land development offices in its Rockwell base in Makati, a large chunk of the Lopez family’s operations were centered in Benpres, one of the first skyscrapers in the Ortigas area. Built in the early 70s at a then-impressive six stories (since largely developed by the Ortigas family), it was once called the Chronicle Building, named after the family’s newspaper, The Manila Chronicle.

Designed by Gabriel Formoso, its austere facade seemed to reflect the family newspaper’s strict values.

This year, the former six-story building will be knocked down to make room for a 40-story building, set for completion in 2023, and will be rechristened the Chronicle Building. It will again house the Lopez Group of Companies, but especially those from the power sector. The stories of the building and its people, are published in a book called Benpres: Stories Around A Landmark, edited by Vergel O. Santos, with contributions by Dr. Gerald Lico, Paulo Alcazaren, Thelma Sioson San Juan, Dulce Festin Baybay, and Benjamin Lopez.

While the Lopezes happily decorated their building (a Malang in the lobby is one of its hallmarks), trouble was afoot. The Lopezes, establishing their fortune in sugar in the prewar period, expanded their empire at a steady rate after the second world war. One of their kinsmen, Fernando Lopez, served as vice-president of the Philippines three times, his final term serving as the vice-president for the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. In 1972, Marcos declared martial law, and one of the first on his hitlist were the Lopezes. One of the Lopez heirs, Eugenio Lopez, Jr., was arrested on trumped-up charges. In a bid for his release, Marcos hit a bargain by having Eugenio Lopez Sr. sign over a large part of his empire to the president and his cronies, effectively dismantling it. Many members of the Lopez family were then forced to flee the country.

The building itself was not sequestered, recalled Mercedes “Cedie” Lopez-Vargas, executive director of the Lopez Museum and Library, and president and executive director of the Lopez Group Foundation. She is also the daughter of Oscar M. Lopez, chairman emeritus of First Philippine Holdings, and the granddaughter of Eugenio Lopez Sr. The family still maintained offices there despite many of their members being in exile until the “People Power” revolution of 1986. The Lopezes then began to rebuild their dismantled empire, starting its life anew in the Benpres building. “It’s more than a building; it’s a memory,” said Ms. Lopez in a speech on Jan. 30, when various members of the Lopez family launched the book and bid goodbye to the building.

“We’re not getting rid of the building,” she said. While she said this, the former Lopez Museum had been stripped of its door, and most of its art collections, a huge chunk of it by Philippine masters, had been moved to a storage facility in Antipolo. “I think it has served its life, and the needs for this building. the conglomerate, have grown.”

As for the museums collections and artifacts, Ms. Vargas said that the museum, which once occupied the first floor of Benpres, will be split into two locations. The first would be a location in Antipolo, and then a second would be a spot in its ambitious Rockwell development, The Proscenium. “The main storage unit will be in Antipolo. Artworks will probably come and flow into Rockwell, and come back,” she said.

As for the Benpres book, she said, “We suddenly realized that everyone was feeling so sentimental about this building. How do you feel sentimental about a building? I guess it did have a lot of memories; a lot of battles — a lot of good times as well.”

Ms. Vargas shared some of her fond memories of the building, sharing that she would come here a lot to pick up her father after work; when she was a little girl. “My father hated it when we weren’t employed, even when we were still in school, so we would have to have summer jobs here.”

“I feel sad, but at the same time, it’s that promise of a new building that’s more fitting,” she said. In the end, while the Benpres building is a story of a business empire’s cycle of rise and fall, reflecting that of a nation, it is still a story of family. This idea of family expands covering not only the Lopezes, but the bonds forged with each other by the people who have worked in the building, and the lives shaped by its operations. “This building was good to us,” said Ms. Vargas. “It was like shelter, a sanctuary — home.”

Federico R. Lopez, chairman and chief executive officer of First Gen Corp. and Energy Development Corp. (EDC), recalled when the family was in search of a new core business in 1986.

“I felt the real bustle come alive with our re-entry into the power generation business. At First Gen, our offices were in the windowless middle area of FPH’s 4th floor, so we were never conscious of what time of day or night it was,” he said in his remarks during the book launch.

“Most of the time, we end our days at 9:00 p.m. and come back early the next day. As a team, we tackled every challenge and difficulty that came our way. Nothing was too big, or too small. Every day was an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of day. Everyone openly shared problems on a common table. But there were always many strong professional shoulders to share the load with. I always idealize that period when purpose, entrepreneurial fervor, and high caliber of professionalism came together to accomplish our great undertaking and together, we all ushered in a new Philippine gas industry,” he said.

“We were still in our 30s and felt we could abuse our bodies with impunity. Of course, if we were to do it all again today, we would advocate something more attuned to our Chairman Emeritus concern for employee health and wellness. Nevertheless, at the time we were happy beyond a doubt, and those fires forged working comradeships that remain as strong and as sharp as a sword’s edge to this day,” he added.

He said undoubtedly, Benpres was witness to the Lopezes determination “to start or build up businesses that are catalysts for national development which is testament to one of its core values: a pioneering entrepreneurial spirit.”

“As we have envisioned the building’s rebirth, it is as much about paying homage to the past as it is paving the path for tomorrow,” Mr. Lopez said.