Old formula of hard work fuels hometown boy’s climb to the top
Dennis A. Uy, whom everyone’s touting as the next “Big Tycoon to watch,” yawned three times during our interview.
It seems sweeping up companies – the latest was FamilyMart of the Ayala-Tantoco groups acquired in October 2017 – can be exhausting. And Uy has certainly been beavering away, adding a number of interesting deals to his by now burgeoning company portfolio, which includes Phoenix Petroleum, Chelsea Logistics (consisting of shipping operations and shares in 2GO logistics and supply chain), the tourism-driven Enderun Colleges and the 12-hectare Lapu-Lapu Leisure Mactan integrated resort and casino, featuring the Emerald Resort, among others.
Being in the limelight is something the soft-spoken Uy endures, rather than enjoys. “We have been buying companies before,” he says, explaining the movements of his holding instrument UDENNA Corporation founded in 2002. “And we don’t really seek to be high profile. But we are publicly listed, and with our roots in Davao, as are President Duterte’s, it’s understandable that we get highlighted in the press.
“If I had my way, I wouldn’t really want our activities published if it was not needed.”
While Uy insists that he would have been content not to be marching on the road to building an empire, one can still sense a palpable and intense drive in the 44-year-old to shine in the financial world. “Expansion is part of our company charter,” he says. “We would be penalized if we didn’t grow the businesses.”
UDENNA comes from the Greek word for “handsome” or “gorgeous,” Uy says with a deadpan expression, which soon gives way to his eyes twinkling. “I’m just kidding,” he admits with a big laugh. It’s really a play on his name Dennis A. Uy. (Okay, we fell for that one, Dennis!) From a capital of less than US$300,000 and revenues of less than US$2 million when it started, UDENNA had revenues of US$661 million and equity of US$200 million in 2016.
He has always worn his provincial roots as a badge of honor despite having experienced the usual yearning to study in the Big City (Manila). Uy graduated from De La Salle University in 1993 with a degree in Business Management. It was always understood that once he satisfied the youthful urge “to get away from home,” he was to take his place in the family agri-business concern. The eldest child and only son of a couple, whose forebears migrated from Fujian province, dutifully returned and carried out filial obligations for 10 years until he turned over the responsibility to younger cousins “who were ready.”
But Uy always had something going on the side. In college, he played the stock market, making a tidy sum that helped finance a small but popular barbecue chain called Dencio’s (no relation to its Manila-based namesake), which he later handed over to one of his three sisters.
Deregulation of the oil industry in 1998 led to the tycooning of Dennis Uy. “I thought it was good to start [to fulfill]one’s destiny when one was young. Kung may palpak, puwede ka pang bumalik [If you make a mistake in your endeavor, you can go back to where you came from],” he chuckles.
With the untrammeled bravado of a newbie, he challenged the Big Boys – Petron, Pilipinas Shell and Chevron – for a piece of the market, setting up Phoenix Petroleum in 2002 when he was 28. He capitalized operations by borrowing on his inheritance and using mortgages on pieces of property. “Through a study, we found there was a market to serve. Except that akala ko madali… mahirap pala [I thought that succeeding in the oil industry was going to be a cinch… it turned out to be difficult],” he shrugs. He discovered there was an overwhelming number of steps in the supply chain to getting it pumped into the consumer’s tank.
Despite the presence of the veterans and a welter of other independent petroleum brands that streamed into Davao, Uy’s Phoenix Petroleum gained a sizeable following and he listed PNX (the petroleum firm’s stock market code) on the Philippine Stock Exchange in 2007. He was only 33, one of the youngest CEOs in the institution’s history to see his company go public. He has since paid his parents back “more than I borrowed,” he beams.
From a single station in Davao City, Phoenix Petroleum now boasts of 530 outlets across the archipelago, found not only in bustling urban centers but also in developing municipalities. Uy believes his pioneering move to operate as an independent fuel provider offered the public more choices in what was once a highly controlled market. “We don’t have to get our fuel from Manila any longer. We can get it shipped straight from oil supply hubs like Singapore to Davao, for example, reducing double handling,” he says.
Heavy investment in advertising in both traditional and new platforms contributed to the brand’s top-of-mind recall. Athlete Manny Pacquiao, a fellow Mindanaoan, starred in the profoundly rendered “Ikaw, anong trip mo [What’s your trip]?” video campaign. The Phoenix Petroleum Masters, which debuted in the Philippine Basketball Association’s 2016 Commissioners’ Cup, keeps the brand active with sports fans. Uy has always enjoyed playing recreational basketball, which, in fact, gave him the idea to start up a barbecue eatery since he could not find a good place to chow down after an exhausting game. Partnerships with transport providers Grab and Uber also raise Phoenix Petroleum’s profile.
Born of necessity
Simple logic and necessity are two outstanding facets that guide Uy’s acquisition patterns. Going into shipping was dictated by the fact Phoenix Petroleum had to ship its fuel from suppliers in Subic, Bataan or Batangas to down South, which meant chartering vessels – why not use their own and save on costs? From buying tankers and containers, UDENNA picked up other types of vessels such as ropax (roll-on/roll-off freighters with passenger accommodation) and tugboats. Entering the logistics field also seemed a natural follow-through, and instead of being a customer, the company would now be a supplier of such services and grow its own customer base. “We understood there was a demand,” Uy observes. “And we responded to it.”
Enderun Colleges, which offered degree and non-degree courses in tourism and hospitality management and entrepreneurship, presented Uy with a chance to expand his footprint in the education space. “It had good income, good cash flow, good management, so I thought, ‘Why not’?” With his latest plan to create a leisure and gaming kingdom in Cebu, the institution is expected to furnish the launch Emerald Resort with highly trained personnel. UDENNA’s stable of companies, which now employs over 2,000 executives and workers, is likely to employ several thousands more in the next five years, given this influx of projects.
With the casino aspect of the integrated complex, Uy enters new territory. He remains unfazed by the colorful challenges of that particular industry. “All businesses naman [of course]are very challenging. You just have to apply general business practices like P&L and put a structure to how you manage things.”
Uy received excellent training from his parents, who ran a supermarket besides their trading concern. “Tambayan ko yan [That was where I hung out]. I did the merchandizing, cashiering and worked in the bodega [stockroom]. That environment really influenced my knack for business.” The Uys and their older kin made sure to instill in the younger generation, which included Dennis, the enduring tenets of hard work, diligence and passion. And so did their bright boy reap from all those hours staying behind the counter and dealing with suppliers.
When Uy eases up on his workaholic habits, he usually watches a Netflix film together with his wife Cherylyn. He also tries to catch up on the latest business books but has recently taken to listening to these on audio-books “kasi sumasakit na ang mga mata ko when I read [my eyes now hurt when I read books].” To better bond with their three youngsters ages 14, 6 and five months, the couple travels overseas – destinations chosen by Cherylyn.
This businessman from the South believes that mainly industry and perseverance have been responsible for his incredible success, and not because of ties with the Power that is.
“There are a lot of talented people in my province, who have proven that ‘imperial Manila’ doesn’t have the monopoly on this.
“They can compete anytime with businessmen in the [big]city. Perhaps, it is because they are more hungry that they have succeeded.
“Proving that I was better, however, was never my battle cry. I just worked hard to reach where I am now.”
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN