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Servant first, leader second

Like many high-profile executives on the cusp of leaving a demanding job, banker Aurelio Luis R. Montinola 3rd – “Gigi” to his friends – looked forward to entering his 60s and the usual retiree perks like more time for golf, travel and his children.

Today, the 31-year veteran of Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), eight of which he spent as its president, is enjoying himself as a private citizen – but far from doing what he originally set out to do. And boy, is his weekly dance card full, chockablock with meetings, planning sessions, one-on-one consultations, shuttling regularly between Manila and Makati and if need be, visiting Diliman, Quezon City, Alabang and Silang, Cavite.

Out of the blue

Hardly had he hung up his BPI cap in April 2013 did the requests “to help out” stream in. One came from someone he couldn’t think of refusing – his mother.

Lourdes Reyes Montinola is the daughter of Nicanor I. Reyes Sr., the first Filipino to receive a Ph.D in Accounting from Columbia University, who founded Far Eastern University (FEU). Reyes’ vision for the school was to promote accounting, a profession, at the time, available only to foreigners.

“Out of the blue,” Montinola recalls, “my mom asked me to take over the FEU Board of Directors as Chairman – I was already Vice Chairman – and she would move up to Chairman-Emeritus. I did it out of duty, but I didn’t realize I would end up liking it.”

It helps that Montinola no longer has to involve himself in the daily details of running a fast-expanding group of campuses. He says: “I’m happy to defer those things to the President (Dr. Michael M. Alba). On my level, I’m now concerned with strategizing, visioning, talent management, which are different from the task of execution. So, I found it easy to use the lessons I learned in another service industry, banking, and apply them to another service industry, which is education.

“As Chairman, I’ll give you some time during the week and you come to me with any queries, and I’ll try to point you in the right direction by asking the right questions. But you run the operations. It also helps that I come from a family with business interests.”

“In the end, I consider myself a professional manager in a service industry.”

Montinola was warned by well-meaning friends that associating with academics would be difficult, but he is yet to experience any hiccups. “Our family has always believed in working with professionals,” he remarks. “I’ve actually had a relatively easy time. My insight there is that despite their having strong views about things but as long as you explain things logically to them, they will respect you. You do have to influence them.”

For some years, Montinola and his siblings Juan Miguel, Antonio and Gianna were content to stay in the background of FEU’s affairs. But from 1989, they progressively became more active, and today, with their mother as Chairman-Emeritus, Montinola is Chairman, Juan Miguel is Chief Financial and Investor Relations Officer, Antonio is Trustee and Gianna, a lawyer, is Vice President for Marketing, Communications and External Relations.

FEU expanding

Where do Montinola and his family wish to bring FEU to?

The Chairman of the Board says: “We have a legacy. We are quietly expanding and we believe that the educational aspect remains the main driver. If we run it that well and make it a sustainable business, we will be able to keep putting back in.”

From the first FEU Campus on Morayta Street established in 1928, the institution has grown to become the FEU Group, with campuses in Makati City (site of the old Zuellig Building), bought from the Ayalas in 2010, Alabang, Diliman, Quezon City, and Silang, Cavite, and featuring facilities such as the Institute of Technology, Nicanor Reyes Medical Foundation and FERN College among others. The Morayta (renamed Nicanor Reyes in honor of Montinola’s grandfather) campus complex boasts of precious art deco buildings, five by National Artist and architect Pablo S. Antonio Sr., which have been recognized by Unesco as “outstanding” examples of preservation. FEU received the Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage for this feat, which Montinola credits to his mom, “who’s a stickler for cleanliness and neatness.”

Another goal for their FEU managers and teachers, Montinola believes, is not just “to help students attain a diploma but a job as well…teach skills, not just content.” And they seem to be headed in the right direction, he says, pointing to improved rankings for the university in employment surveys, with FEU graduates in med tech, psychology and engineering in particular now finding favor with employers. “Just because certain schools are up there because of established beliefs formed in the last 20 to 30 years doesn’t mean others can’t move up in the next 10 years.

“We can aspire to rise, and our alumni are proof of the pudding with their hiring.”

Freedom to choose

Montinola, named after his businessman father, who was also named after his lawyer father, logically bore the onus of assuming the helm of their family concerns Amon Trading, Inc. and Republic Cement among others. “I was destined to be his successor.” But his father Aurelio Jr., his eldest child says, gave him “the best gift of all” – the freedom to follow his inclination.

After graduating with a BS Management Engineering degree at the Ateneo de Manila in 1973, Montinola went on to finish an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1977. Citibank and Bancom (now defunct) snapped him up, whetting his interest and soon a fascination with the world of banking and finance. He was hooked and even worked some years overseas for Citibank. He joined BPI, Southeast Asia’s oldest bank, in 1982, bowing out 31 years later as President for eight of those years and having helped it grow its customer base to six million.

“I found out I liked banking, and one thing led to another,” the father of three daughters and husband to lawyer and philanthropist Ging Gonzalez, reflects.

Smooth transition

Preparing to leave the corporate world was a rather seamless process for the eternally cool-as-a-cucumber Montinola. “Cool” is an adjective that seems to stick to him whenever he is written about or described by admirers, including former Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas 2nd, who, in a video tribute, called him the “cool voice of reason whenever things got really turbulent.” Montinola, himself, echoed his friend’s assessment when he told Boardroom Watch: “I’ve always been a good manager in hard times…cool…able to see the Big Picture, you know.”

“I had a good run,” says Montinola who believes he was lucky that the BPI Board of Directors extended his tenure by another two years, giving him time to find the right successor. That turned out to be Cezar “Bong” Consing, who has had over 25 years of experience in international finance, especially in investment banking, commercial banking and private equity.

“With a clear retirement age that you know is going to come, you’re actually happy it is going to come, and so, you can relax. Then, it hits you, you’re not going to be working anymore.”

Montinola’s professional caliber and reputation spoke eloquently for him that he did not lack for occupation after he stepped down. Besides his FEU duties, he remains a director of BPI and an Independent Director of Roxas and Company Inc., is Chairman of World Wildlife Fund Philippines as well as holds positions on the boards of a variety of other corporate, educational and philanthropic concerns.

Montinola admits that this new chapter in his life comes with many blessings. “I don’t have to do more than three things a day and I don’t have to attend cocktails. I’ve been fortunate that I now have more variety in my life.

“The worst thing is being asked at a dinner: ‘So how’s the economy?’’’

But in the interest of efficiency, he parses his activities according to location on certain days. He has his Makati day for FEU Makati and BPI activities, and he has a Manila day for FEU Morayta. Two secretaries in both locations keep him abreast of his daily schedule.

Those who have read Montinola’s mother’s searing memoir, Breaking the Silence, will be aware of their family’s horrific experience during the pillage and rape of Manila by the retreating Japanese forces in 1945. He says: “I had to read it literally one chapter a night because I knew what the ending might be. I wanted to enjoy my relatives when they were still alive.

“Mom is a survivor. Like those of the old school, she never really talked about what she went through, and that’s why the title Breaking the Silence is so powerful.”

“To whom much is given, from him, much is expected.”

The quote from St. Luke (12:48) seems to resonate with Montinola. In a forum on Servant-Leadership early this year, he said: “As a banker and professional manager, I used to say: ‘If you focus on the customer and the people, business results will follow.’

“Today, post-60, I would revise that statement to: ‘If you give back and help the community, personal fulfillment and happiness will follow.”

When you look at Gigi Montinola, you see one truly happy man.

* * *

What me, retire?

Aurelio “Gigi” Montinola III thought leaving the banking world meant he would be able “to relax a little and travel.” Today, he’s busier than ever. He shares with prospective corporate retirees insights on why life – and one’s value – shouldn’t cease after 60.

• Expect many organizations, wanting to take advantage of your rich qualifications, to ask for your help – pro bono, of course.

• Go do volunteer work. Join an NGO and get exposed to a different world of people who want to change and influence society.

• Help out in an organization not related to your previous work or business and make your community a better place. A lawyer could chair the board of directors of a grade school; a banker serves as a trustee in an NGO; a professional manager assists in the financial matters of his neighborhood church; and a doctor raises funds for disaster relief.

• It’s time to give back. Personal fulfillment and happiness will follow.


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