Monday, April 28, 2008

A tycoon’s recipe for happiness

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 04.27.2008

Alfred Xerez-Burgos Jr. is clear about values--and the real bottomline

IT TAKES A BIT OF PRODDING to get Alfred Xerez-Burgos Jr., president and CEO of Landco Pacific Corp., to talk about something very close to his heart.

Xerez-Burgos is big on “values.” He thinks they’re as important to doing good business, perhaps even more so, than all the lessons and insights an MBA degree can give.

Still, he doesn’t want to give the impression, he says, that he’s spouting “values” only to make himself look better than the rest.

“Values are very important to me. But you have to practice them, not just talk about them. That’s just what I do.”

A hard-nosed businessman who built his real-estate company from scratch over 18 years ago with only half a million pesos in capital (today, Landco’s book value stands at P1.3 billion), Xerez-Burgos is also that rare tycoon who invokes God overtly in his discussions and frames his business vision as a way of “following God’s will.”

“I offer each project we do as something that will serve the Lord and others,” he says.

“Work is good if you offer it to God. For me, there should be a balance between profit and values. Whenever I do a project, I ask myself first: Is it according to God’s will?”

There was a time, he says, when his career as a high-flying executive with one of the country’s biggest conglomerates took priority over his family and relationships. He was successful, respected and well-rewarded at a relatively young age. “But in the end, it was empty,” says Xerez-Burgos.

“I used to play golf a lot as part of my work, and also to relax,” he recalls. “Usually six hours every weekend. It was nice, it was enjoyable, but eventually I realized that it deprived me of time away from my family.

“What did it really do for me? Now, unless I become Tiger Woods, it’s really not that valuable to me.”

Xerez-Burgos points to no particular event in his life that triggered the epiphany, except a growing realization that his life lacked a “higher meaning.”

Ten years ago, he began joining spiritual enrichment activities--Life in the Spirit seminars, Family Encounters, a marriage enrichment course.

He began going to morning Mass daily, a devotion he’s kept up to now. (Although he didn’t talk about it, we learned that as lay minister, he visits, in the morning, the sick in their homes or in the hospital to give them Communion.)

He became the head of the lay ministers’ group in his parish, joined the Red Cross (now he’s chair of the Rizal chapter covering Makati, Pasig, Mandaluyong—“an area of about 15 million people,” he says) and set about redefining Landco as a business with a strong sense of corporate social responsibility.

“The most important part for me was to live an exemplary life, a life of prayer and commitment to my values. I need it, especially in this business,” he says.

Landco’s business--creating upscale communities marked by leisure living and amenities--required Xerez-Burgos to deal, first of all, with local government officials whose imprimatur was needed for his projects.

“When you deal with LGUs, there’s so much corruption,” he says. “I had long discussions with my priest-friends about it. It’s really unjust vexation. How do I deal with corruption?”

He learned, he says, to try to negotiate first “so that I didn’t have to do it. But if I had to do it, I decided it would be for the community rather than for one government official. I’d tell them, instead of giving you something, maybe you can let us build a barangay center or donate a municipal vehicle, which is really more for the people.”

“In San Fernando, Pampanga, I had a very good experience with the mayor,” he says. “He told me explicitly to come to him if anybody in his staff tried to ask us for anything. I appreciated the gesture so much that we donated a P3-million coaster to the local government as our way of thanking the people and leaders there.”

No compromise
“How do you expand the company without compromising your values?,” he asks rhetorically.

“In this business, we need a lot of money every time. Developing properties is costly. But I always ask myself, is it all about money? The company is not going to die over one or two situations where homeowners, for example, are unable to pay due to an unexpected misfortune in the family, like cancer or death. I am open to being flexible on those things. I look at situations on a case-to-case basis.”

And while Landco developments are almost always geared toward the upper classes, Xerez-Burgos refuses to compromise on some things he feels strongly about.

“Even if I develop real estate, I don’t like casinos in my properties,” he says. “I wish neither to be an owner nor an operator. I think gambling is evil, there is no positive value it can give to anyone.”

In his field, he says, as in life, “If you want to be here for the long haul, whatever you do in each project must contribute to the overall value of what you stand for.”

“I have this philosophy that we are not going to cater to the rich unless we can help the poor,” he adds. Landco is an active supporter of Gawad Kalinga, and its CEO wants the company to remembered as “a company with a conscience.”

“With low-end communities around our projects, we make sure we’re involved. In Calatagan, Batangas, for example, we put up a housing project for poor settlers in that area, and we help them set up a foundation to do community planning.”

Hard work
Landco’s premium properties--among them Punta Fuego and Playa Calatagan in Batangas, Waterwood Park in Bulacan, Montelago in Laguna and Monterrazas in Cebu--offer weekend homes and countryside retreats with pioneering leisure and resort amenities.

It was the first to introduce hobby farming (at Ponderosa Leisure Farms in Silang, Cavite), and is lending the same edge to its urban developments.

“Putting in that leisure experience is hard work for us, actually,” says Xerez-Burgos. “It’s about creating well-planned, well-managed communities that people can be proud of because of the care that we put into it. It doesn’t matter if one only has a 200-sq-m property--if it’s with us, that leisure feeling must be there.”

That care extends to the environment, because “babalikan ka rin naman” if you despoil it, says Xerez-Burgos. “We’re like artists, really. Just like a painter, we maximize the God-given resources in a place, instead of creating something artificial.”

The bottom line in doing business, he says, is keeping customers, rich or poor, happy. “In other words, don’t pull their leg.”

These days, despite a hectic schedule that sees him zipping around the country to inaugurate or check on simultaneous projects (“that’s my leisure time,” he chuckles), Xerez-Burgos, 61, is the picture of a contented, happy man. He dresses casually, exercises regularly, avoids meat and pork.

In fact, he only eats twice a day.

“You need only two meals a day,” he explains. “That, plus a little exercise, lots of prayer, and being nice to friends, family, neighbors and customers, and you’ll be happy.”

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