The virtuoso genius of strategy and visioning

Ramon S. Ang

By Antonio S. Lopez

Between Nov. 7, 2016 and early Nov. 7, 2017, the share price of San Miguel Corp. has slowly but surely gone north, from a low of P79.05 to P115 per share on Nov. 7, 2017, a new 12-month high and an increase of 45.5%.  In value, the surge has been P85.47 billion ($1.67 billion), from P188 billion in November 2016 to P273.47 billion in November 2017.

Since he owns 20.3% of the company, the SMC vice chairman, president and chief operating officer gained $340.5 million in wealth, from $748 million last year to $1.088 billion this November.

Add the value of RSA’s 86.57% ownership of newly listed Eagle Cement Corp.  (which had market capitalization as of Nov. 7, 2017 of P74.8 billion), and the entrepreneur-businessman is easily worth $2.357 billion, 3.15 times from $748 million a year ago.   RSA is now one of the 10 richest Filipinos.

The stock market has only recently begun to appreciate how profound has been the impact of Ang’s strategic moves and his management of colossal San Miguel Corp. and Eagle Cement, today the single largest, most efficient, most modern and most profitable cement company in the Philippines.

RSA’s rise to enormous wealth seems to cap his nearly half century of entrepreneurship and deal making.  Still, he doesn’t seem to have even begun.   Tremendous, if not unlimited,  prospects are clearly ahead for SMC.

He began doing business as a teener in short pants in what is now upscale (for business) Jose Abad Santos in Tondo, Manila, helping manage his father’s auto parts shop.  His most valuable tool then was the once ubiquitous and ponderous PLDT Telephone Directory.

Young Ramon would for SMC hustle for clients interested in buying parts and other supplies and he would scan the phone directory for suppliers who could provide him what the customer wanted.  He would borrow the parts and sell them to his client, even at a small profit.  But then, he did not employ capital because, in effect, he was selling by consigment.

Fast forward to January 1999.  Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. dragoons his subaltern, friend and most trusted aide to join him in the management of SMC, giving him the title of vice chairman.  Initially, Ramon was rather reticent exercising the prerogative of an executive given enormous mandate and leeway by the majority owner of SMC.   When the company seemed to be going nowhere, Ramon took matters, literally, in his own hands.  In 2002, he became San Miguel’s president and chief operating officer.  Cojuangco told him to manage the behemoth as he deemed best.

“Ramon was a diamond in the raw,” says Danding with evident pride of his prized catch. The CEO says now he could not have found a better man to manage the company. And the rest is history.

Ramon Ang has transformed San Miguel in ways no one could have imagined or have done better.  No Philippine company or conglomerate has transformed itself so dramatically and radically in the last half decade as has San Miguel Corp..

Even while growing and strengthening its traditional core businesses like beer, foods, and packaging, SMC went into petroleum refining and marketing, power generation, infrastructure, airports, mining, mass transit, and airline.

RSA disrupted the business of utilities, power generation, and infrastructure. SMC moved into these businesses far ahead of the others.

Remarkably, San Miguel began its reengineering in earnest in October 2008 at a time of the severest global recession and credit crunch in 80 years, and also, amid the most unprecedented of challenges to any company’s existence, and as well as the lingering shocks of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The sea change was so revolutionary and seamlessly successful it changed or disrupted the way business is done in the Philippines and in the region.  It also gave San Miguel size, scale and sustainability that will make it extremely difficult for its rivals to catch up.

Between 2008 and 2013, the impact of San Miguel’s acquisitions and investments was spectacular.

San Miguel assets ballooned 3.45 times from P339.37 billion in 2008 to P1,170 billion (P1.17 trillion) in 2013, sales rose 4.32 times from P183.4 billion to P792.45 billion, equity expanded 2.2 times from P168 billion to P365.77 billion, and annual profits increased 2.6 times from P19.34 billion a year in 2008 to P50.72 billion in 2013.  If reckoned from end-2007, profits actually expanded 5.8 times, from P8.63 billion to P50.7 billion in six years.

In six years, from 2008 to 2013, SMC sales increased by an average of 55.3% per year, assets by 41%,  and equity by 20%.

In contrast, during the same five years, Ayala Corp. increased revenues by just 16.8% per year, net income 9.6%, assets 26%, and equity by 6.7%.

SM Investments Corp. grew revenues by an average of 12% per year, income 15.9%, assets 19.3%, and equity by 16.6%.

In five years, JG Summit grew revenues 7.08% per year, income 1.03%, assets 7.06%, and equity by 22.8%.

Under RSA, during those five years (2008 to 2013), SMC revenues were doubling every 24 months while assets were doubling every 2.5 years.  The frenetic pace somewhat slowed as San Miguel paused to digest its acquisitions, expansion and diversification projects. Still, growth rates remain robust.

Today, San Miguel is the Philippines’ fastest-growing conglomerate, the largest in annual revenues, profits, and diversity of businesses.

San Miguel has become No. 1 in beer (95% of the market), No. 1 in expressways and tollways (80% share), No. 1 in the world in gin, No. 1 in branded food products (through 85.37%-owned San Miguel Pure Foods Co. which has now been merged with San Miguel Brewery), No. 1 in packaging (aluminum can is its latest business), and No. 1 in power generation with 22% of installed power generation in Luzon and 17% of the national grid.

SMC has become more relevant to the national economy and been better able to meet the basic needs of the Filipino, even while raising the profile of the Philippine enterprise abroad as a world-class and excellent operation.

SMC sales are 5% of the Philippine gross domestic product (GDP).  The company employs 18,000 and operates more than 100 factories or production facilities in the Asia Pacific.

Despite all his success and wealth, RSA is a picture of utter simplicity and forthrightness. 

Management style is hands-on and a command on details.  Information is a compendium of technical knowhow and prowess on many subjects, from brick and mortar to clicks, from airplanes to car engines to cement, from power plants to petrochemicals, agriculture to biotechnlogy, and yes, to even basketball strategy and tactics (San Miguel has at least three high-powered PBA teams).   An engineer, RSA taught to be a mechanic so he could manipulate cars (he loves them and has an ample collection).  He taught himself how to be a pilot (so he fly planes, which he loves too).

He spends 12-hour days in his executive wearing nothing more than a collared shirt with San Miguel’s 127-year-old escudo logo, bulky pants, and – slippers.  He dons a more formal white long-sleeved shirt and blazer to sign billion-peso contracts and loan deals. 

Early 2017, on Friday, Jan. 13, I joined Ramon Ang on a whirlwind helicopter tour of Petron Refinery’s 400-hectare industrial complex in Limay, Bataan.   He was furious.  Petron or more specifically, a brand-new SMC coal power plant was accused, in an ABS-CBN prime time newscast, of spewing dangerous ash fall onto a barrio, Sitio Pexsite, some five kms away from the refinery complex. 

SMC has invested $10 billion in the Petron complex, the crown jewel of the conglomerate’s holdings.

Upon landing, RSA took the driver’s seat of a Toyota van and drove his guests around the Petron industrial estate premises and then to the village where allegedly ABS-CBN has found victims of pollution of two San Miguel coal-fired power plants.

He also made sure we passed by the community hospital by the highway.  There were no patients at that time (10:30 a.m.), unusual for a village that is supposed to be teeming with pollution victims.

Ramon is in his element.  Especially when the SMC group is unfairly accused, of all things – pollution.  As the top honcho of San Miguel, he is a hands-on executive. An engineer by training, he loves details. 

Mind of a computer

A keen entrepreneur, his mind works like a computer.   He knows his topline and his bottomline from the palm of his hand.  He taught himself many things – how to assemble, fix and repair motorcycles, cars, and huge industrial machinery.  How to fly helicopters and planes.   When our helicopter refused to start up on the return trip to Manila, he readily got off his seat and looked for the “red box” – the small spare battery that can jumpstart a failing ‘copter engine.

RSA is not just a man with a mind on details.  He is also a businessman with a heart. 

When Metro Manila was overwhelmed by Ondoy in 2009, SMC ordered a huge purchase of rubber boats for use the public in case of a similar emergency.  When a Mindanao region was devastated by a howler a few years ago, he ordered his men to build 5,000 homes for those rendered homeless – for free.  When he noticed that many of the Jesuits at Ateneo were aging, he donated P200 million to build a building (a hospital actually) for them where they can be cared for.   He loves Ateneo and the Jesuits although he did not study there.  His children though went to Ateneo.

Ang bristles at allegations of pollution by San Miguel. He gave TV and media interviews to set the record straight. He also announced plans to build more coal plants – in the wrong places, like Basilan and Sulu.  Why?  For missionary reasons.  He wants those depressed areas to be developed to curb the insurgency and reduce poverty.

Last January’s Channel 2 newscast even interviewed the mother of a three-year-old boy who had galis aso (scabies) and another person, a certain Mang Danny, who apparently was going blind because of alleged pollution.  Danny said  he was holding a tree trunk and suddenly there was a gust of strong wind and dust penetrated his eyes.

In the first place, scabies is caused not by pollution but by tiny mites that reside on the outer layer of the skin.  Mites are living things, not an inanimate matter like ash or industrial dust. 

In the second place, if it is true the SMC coal plant emits pollution, the first to be adversely affected should be Petron’s some 1,400 employees and residents in Limay. 

I talked to Petron’s resident doctor of the past three years, Homer Paras.  He said there had been no single case of scabies or eye infection at the Petron premises.  So if Ground Zero has no pollution why would a barrio some 5 kms away have it?

In the third place, the source of the alleged pollution, SMC’s coal plant, could not have caused the ash fall because it is not yet operational.  It will be operational only in May 2017, four months from today. 

And even when it becomes operational, the coal plant has what RSA calls an electrostatic resuscitator that will spray or capture any ash and convert it into liquid, not flying dust travelling in the air several kms away.   

The coal plant will produce two kinds of ash as a by-product – the top ash the one captured by the resuscitator and the bottom ash which is also captured by another device because it is a very good raw material when mixed with cement. 

The bottom ash is called calcine, a 90% calcine limestone powder with sulfur.   It is cooked at 900 degrees centigrade and then fed into a kiln at 1600 degrees.  It then becomes chemical gypsum. 

Since it is a very good material for making quality cement (it makes the cement adhere properly or cure itself well), San Miguel obviously has no reason to let such kind of ash go to waste as an ash fall.  RSA calls their power plant clean coal because of its technology called CFB – circulating fluidized bed.

CFB converts solids into liquid thru high combustion, resulting in a greatly minimized emission of pollutants.  Any pollutants produced are recycled back into the system for further processing.

RSA traced the source of the pollution to be an old government-owned power plant that is in the process of being decommissioned or phased out.  As for scabies, well, the residents were in a squatter area where people live cheek-by-jowl with all kinds of animals, including dogs, a principal source of mites for scabies (that is why the disease is called galis aso).

Although it is not the culprit, San Miguel sent doctors to the area and took care of the alleged victims.

But why was then DENR Secretary Gina Lopez going hammer and tongs against San Miguel in Limay? Well, it is what I call the Goliath effect.  The San Miguel Petron complex is the largest of its kind in the Philippines, an ultramodern refinery, with two adjacent new coal power plants. 

SMC is one of the largest conglomerates in the Philippines with diversified businesses ranging from beverages, food, packaging, fuel and oil, energy and infrastructure. The company’s subsidiaries either enjoy a dominant or strong and leading market position.

These companies include: San Miguel Brewery Inc. (SMB), the largest beer producer in the country; Ginebra San Miguel, Inc. (GSMI), reportedly the world’s largest producer of gin by volume; San Miguel Pure Foods Co., Inc. (San Miguel Pure Foods), offering some of the country’s most recognizable brands including Magnolia, Purefoods, Monterey, Dari Crème and B-Meg; San Miguel Yamamura Packaging Corp. (SMYPC) and its subsidiaries called the Packaging Group, a leading packaging company that offers total packaging solutions; Petron Corp. (Petron), the largest integrated oil refining and marketing company in the Philippines and a major player in Malaysia; SMC Global Power Holdings Corp. (SMC Global Power), which accounts for 22% and 17% of the Luzon and national grids, respectively; and San Miguel Holdings Corp. (SMHC), operator and developer of key infrastructure projects, including the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX), the Skyway System, the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road Tollway (STAR), the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEX) and the Boracay Airport, among others.

SMC’s businesses have combined EBITDA value of P1,051 billion (P1 trillion) Beer and Ginebra are worth P307 billion, Food P116 billion, Packaging P46 billion, Power P124 billion, Fuel and Oil P317 billion, and Infra P141 billion.

In 2007, Ang had a moment of clarity. For giant San Miguel Corp. to grow bigger and faster, and to help the Philippines grow as well,  it couldn’t rely mainly on the conglomerate’s three traditional businesses – beer, food, packaging.

SMC must  leverage its scale, reach, and multidisciplinary capabilities.

RSA’s epiphany: SMC must diversify widely, clearly, and nimbly.

For guidance, RSA assembled a team of experts and analysts, nearly all of them young and experienced.  Then he took a look at the country’s development plan.  He found many inadequacies – infrastructure, energy and fuel, agriculture, manufacturing, to name some.  And something scandalously glaring – the lack of or bad execution. Then it dawned upon the engineer in RSA. SMC’s business is not just beer, not food, not packaging. It is development. Development of the country. And the prospect offered vast opportunities. Growth. Revenues. Profits. And along with them, the opportunity for a company of San Miguel’s size and financial heft to backstop, if not lead the country’s progress into the 21st century.

Thus, SMC leap-frogged upon the competition and undertook the largest diversification ever in more than 120 years.  (The company was founded in 1890).  In so doing, Ang redefined two business clichés – game changer and first mover advantage.

$30 billion revenues by 2020

Over the next four years, or by 2020, San Miguel hopes to achieve consolidated revenues of $30 billion and consolidated operating income of $5 billion.  That implies a return on sales of 16% to 17% and growth in sales as well as profits averaging 25% per year between now and 2020. 

Between 2008 and 2014, SMC revenues grew by an average of 60.8%, per year, while EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation, grew by 57% clip per year.

SMC’s P20 billion proposed bond issuance in 2017 was given PRS Aaa, with a stable outlook rating.

SMC earned its triple A because of: (1) Ample cash flow generation that is seen to strengthen further as the company’s energy and infrastructure projects are completed; (2) Manageable and improving debt position, especially considering the capital-intensive nature of its recent projects in energy and infrastructure; (3) Adequate liquidity and financial flexibility; (4) Solid market position and substantial track record of its subsidiaries, backed by stable demand and boosted by an improving economy; (5) Seasoned management team with sound strategies; and (6) Use of proceeds.

San Miguel has adopted a business strategy aimed at increasing the value of the company. The first two strategies are:

— To enhance the value of its established core businesses through operational excellence, brand enhancement and improved product visibility.

— To diversify into industries that underpin the development and growth of the Philippine economy.

Lining up the big-ticket -projects and executing them to completion is Ang’s role.  And so far, he has done marvelously.

Its expansion and diversification launched in 2008 have been so seamless and almost flawless SMC is a markedly different company today—bigger, better, more resilient, more competitive, and hugely more profitable.

With its seismic shift to power generation, petroleum refining and marketing (Petron Corp.), and infrastructure, these three businesses by 2014 had contributed 72% of total SMC sales revenues.   No other company in the Philippines, and perhaps in Asia, has done so massive a transformation in so short a time as has San Miguel.

Basilan: From bullets to billions

Another example of San Miguel’s profit with honor motto is Basilan.  The company will be investing billions to transform that insurgency-wracked southern island, literally a change from bullets to billions.

Within three years, SMC will build a 150-megawatt power plant for $300 million, a pier for $30 million, and put up an industrial estate, a flour mill, a feed mill, a call center, and Petron stations.

SMC will sell power in Basilan for almost a tenth of the current P30 per kilowatt-hour.  That will electrify the whole island where electricity is severely in short supply, and encourage industries to locate because power is about 20% of cost.

With its investments, SMC solves three of Basilan’s major problems—insurgency, poverty, and electricity shortage.

Heavy industries too

Over the long pull, Ang wants to invest too in heavy industries – like steel mills (to cash in on industrialization) and heavy equipment manufacturing ala Caterpillar (to cash in on modernization of agriculture through greater processing of agricultural products).

“Money is no problem,” assures Ang.   SMC generates P3 billion worth of sales revenues daily or more than P1 trillion a year. “Cash flow is very strong,” gushes Ang.  “You know, if you have no cash flow, you go bonkers.  But we have plenty of cash.”

The $1.5 billion SMC got from the sale alone of its telco companies could be leveraged twice that amount, meaning the company could raise $4.5 billion if it wanted to.  And how much did SMC invest to double its sales by entering new businesses during 2008 to 2014?  Just $5 billion.

Of course, SMC success is not all about money.  “You have to have good management,” advises Ang.   In SMC, he relates, “I am in the office everyday to monitor everything.   And we move fast and decide fast.  Indecision creates big losses.”

SMC focus

San Miguel Corp. remains focused on what it does best – expanding current businesses, looking for new ones, and diversifying into areas where it can parlay its venerable name, resources, management talent, and unrivalled retail and factory network throughout the archipelago and the rest of Southeast Asia.

The objective is to grow revenues and profits at a frenetic pace for them to scale new heights every year while at the same time enable SMC to help  in the development of one of the most dynamic, robust and fastest-growing economies in Asia but with one with a rich/poor income disparity which is so wide and scandalous one wonders the Philippines doesn’t have a revolutionary situation.

Over the past six years, the Philippines has been doing growth rate of 6% or above.  That’s one of the fastest in Asia but it has been fueled by unabated consumer spending even while investments is only half of the country’s savings rate of 32% per year.

San Miguel is the kind of company that thrives best in such a situation.  Its core products like beer, beverages, processed food, and packaging are focused on consumption.  The company has expanded those businesses to scale up efficiency, profitability and market share. 

At the same time, it has invested dramatically in the past eight years in new areas.  So big is the capital spending, $5 billion, it has transformed San Miguel itself so remarkably one won’t recognize its old shadow as recent as the first decade of the 21st century.

With the $5 billion, San Miguel went boldly and aggressively into new areas like fuel and oil, power generation and distribution, and infrastructure. 

The investments almost instantly made SMC the dominant player into these new areas.  And payback has been quick and substantial.

“The best years of San Miguel are still to come,” exults Ramon Ang.

Indeed, this 2017, daily night flying has become possible at Caticlan, the airport of entry to among the world’s best beaches – Boracay.  

San Miguel has finished a 1.9-km runway at Caticlan, enabling jumbo planes like the Airbus 320 to land and take off at will any time of the day and night.

Before the runway was built, Boracay visitors had to make do with small planes which must take off and land before 6 p.m.

Ang says the new Caticlan terminal has parking space for up to 10 Airbus 320s which can now service direct flights from Boracay to Hong Kong, or Macau or Japan.

To meet the exponential increase in tourist arrivals San Miguel is developing a 1,000-ha. tourism city in Caticlan complete with high-end and low-end hotels and condos catering to all types of tourists of various income classes.   

Within three years, SMC will build a link or bridge to connect Caticlan to Boracay island, so tourists landing at the airport  will just have to walk to the beach, rather than pay a P200 20-minute boat ride.  SMC’s Caticlan will also handle Boracay’s garbage and sewage disposal needs thus enhancing the beach’s long-term sustainability.

In other places, like Albay and Bulacan, San Miguel’s power generation unit is offering electricity at half to a fourt of the current rates, thus lowering the cost of their power, enhancing business potential, and accelerating the growth of the communities.

In this century, San Miguel will be many things to many people.

The diversified conglomerate’s long-term goal is to build an entirely new airport from scratch to replace the decrepit Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). 

Costing at least $5 billion and taking five years to build on reclaimed land north of Manila an near Clark airport, the new NAIA by San Miguel can handle as many as 50 million passengers per year.

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