Manila MBA Study Trip ’09

Apurbakanti Mukherjee shares the highlights of the 2009 NUS MBA Study Trip to Manila, the Philippines.

I came very close to not going on the Manila MBA study trip due to various reasons other options available, but I’m glad the way things played out in the end. There were some iconic names in the list of companies that we were scheduled to visit and some not so familiar names which later turned out to be the star attractions of the trip.

The Cast

The group consisted of 14 students representing 9 nationalities including some of our exchange students as well.

Monday

This was our 1st day of meetings and by the end of the week we all agreed, one of our favorites. Our 1st stop was at SGV, the local arm of Ernst and Young. After we met a number of their top managers, we waited for our lunch appointment with the 88 year old founder, Mr. Cecip Washington. While we waited in the plush room with panoramic views of the Manila skyline, we had, what was to be the 1st of many such photo ops. We were carrying with us a special banner made for this trip and at every chance, we would unfold the banner and take pictures with the whole group and the host.

Finally, it was time for lunch. We weren’t too sure what to expect since it was our 1st company, but Mr Cecip impressed us all. He is a legend in the Philippines business circle and even has the business school at AIM named after him. At 88 years, he is still as sharp and passionate about his business as he was when he started it 60 odd years ago and he still has that twinkle in his eye. Over a 6 course lunch he enthralled us with stories from his life, patiently answered all our queries and gave us a sense of the Manila business culture.

JAZA

Next up, we headed around the corner to Ayala Holdings. This was one of the largest companies in the country and had amongst its holdings Manila Water, Globe Telecom, a bank, a BPO company and a real estate development company. We were to meet the chairman Mr Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala or JAZA as he is popularly called. He is the Donald Trump of the Philippines with half the buildings in downtown named after his family and the main street as well. And he is worth more than Mr. Trump.


The other days…

The Senator: ‘Follow the Money’

We had a meeting with Senator Mar Roxas, billed to be the next presidential candidate if there are elections. Politicians everywhere, it turns out, like to keep people waiting. While we waited in the spacious conference room, we exhausted our list of questions on the two aides of the senator. Just as we thought the senator wouldn’t have time for us, the door burst open and the senator, in a blue suit, walked in followed by some of his staff and a cameraman clicking away furiously.

I was impressed with the enthusiasm the senator shook hands with each of us, given the fact that he probably does this a thousand times each day with people he doesn’t know. But then again, in the business of politics, his smile and charm are some of his top assets.

Senator Roxas has a business education followed by a career in Investment Banking before he made the switch to politics. He pointed out, that be it investment banking or politics, the common skill is making the deal happen. In either case, if you’re not sure whose side to take, you just follow the money trail and you will find the people who you need to get on your side. Simple!

Beer @ San Miguel

The San Miguel head office was quite a surprise to all of us and clearly must have been a hip building when it was designed in the 80’s. When we entered the boardroom, there was the usual finger food and refreshments awaiting us. Conspicuous by its absence was beer. Well, not for long. As soon as the big boss arrived and looked around, he motioned to one of his staff members to bring us a case. Pretty soon we were toasting to the newest premium offering from the San Miguel stables while grilling them on their segmenting strategy for the beer market.

Next up, we headed over to meet the Finance Minister Mr. Teves himself.

Eating ‘Balut’ at Jika’s

Our 3 organizers had some surprise games in store for us while we hung out at Jika’s place. We were split up into two teams and the team that finished all their ‘Baluts’ 1st won. Pretty simple! Except a ‘Balut’ is a fertilized duck egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell and it smells and tastes funky. Quite like the game show ‘Fear- Factor’ where you do crazy things and eat crazier things hoping to win the big prize money. Except that I’m not very adventurous when it comes to my food and the prize in this case was our pride.

I wasn’t looking forward to this at all but seeing my teammates enthusiastically tackle this challenge, I gave it a 2nd thought. Hugo helped by giving me tips on not drinking the liquid part and eating only the top half. It helped that it was getting dark and I couldn’t see what exactly I was eating. I somehow stuffed it down my throat and washed it down with lots of San Miguel beer.

Behind the Scenes…

Our 3 student organizers had been working hard for more than a month pulling together all their contacts to get us these meetings with the who’s who of Manila business and politics. We had one person responsible for doing the background research on each of the companies we were visiting and briefing us the night before so we could ask some pointed questions. Initially we would do this briefing once we got back to the hotel, but soon we got very efficient and did this on the coaster ride home, err to the hotel.

We also had a rule that whoever came late to the hotel lobby every morning bought the whole group lunch or dinner. This ensured that we were able to leave on schedule every morning and also a free meal almost every day. My luck ran out on Friday when I was a full 85 seconds late and I had to buy dinner fro everyone.

Final thoughts

The entire week is a blurred vision of us suited-MBA’s looking really spiffy, piling into the coaster, getting off at some swanky corporate headquarters, huddling around the boardroom and schmoozing with CEO’s, senators and corporate bigwigs. Every time I look at the pictures from our trip, I get a feeling of ‘saudaje’, which is a Portuguese word for the feeling of nostalgia they say that every traveler who leaves Rio feels.

Manila is an awesome awesome city! Full of energy, kind of like Bombay meets Bogota, truly the pearl of the orient. But the best part was the warmth and hospitality of all the locals we encountered on the trip. This was definitely one of the highlights of my MBA experience so far.

Apurbakanti Mukherjee
Class of 2010