Life In The Fast Lane: How One Tycoon Bets On Luxury Playgrounds For Asia's Elites
08/23/2017 | By Jane A. Peterson
A visionary, a fighter and a survivor
Though his great-grandfather was a wealthy stationer who backed Filipino independence from Spain–a street in Manila bears the Ongpin name–there was no silver spoon left when Roberto was born in 1937. The first son in a family of seven children, his earliest memories track to Japan’s wartime occupation: hunger pangs at bedtime, his father hauled away three times for interrogation, the baby of a suspected guerrilla speared by an enemy bayonet.
“That’s why I’m a little guy,” he quips, referring to his 5-foot-6 frame. “I never had enough food.”
At age 12, Ongpin was valedictorian at grade school. His grandmother wanted him to attend Ateneo de Manila University, the “Harvard of the Philippines,” getting him a scholarship by relentlessly badgering the Jesuit headmaster. It was the most formative period of his life.
He graduated at 20 with an accounting degree and joined Procter & Gamble for two years before going to Harvard for an M.B.A. Returning to the Philippines in 1964, married and with a newborn son, he ascended the corporate ladder at SGV, an accounting firm, becoming managing partner in 1970.
Nine years later, President Ferdinand Marcos tapped him for a cabinet post. He was 42 years old and served the seven remaining years of Marcos’ rule.
Ongpin–“Bobby” to his friends, “RVO” to his staff–calls himself a visionary, a fighter and a survivor. From savvy trade and industry minister in the dictatorship, when accusations of corruption began sticking to his reputation–accusations he denies, saying he was a technocrat, not a crony–he moved on to myriad business ventures. “I have had many setbacks but more successes,” he summarizes as a plate of fried catfish salad arrives, the lettuce garnish flown in from Balesin’s working farm.
Trouble with Duterte
Still, the octogenarian seems slightly gun-shy a year after the most ignominious ordeal of his life–the day in August 2016 when Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte went on national television to single him out as a favored oligarch, vowing to destroy him.
In August 2016, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte went on national television vowed to destroy… [+] him Ongpin. (Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg) In August 2016, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte went on national television vowed to destroy… [+] The threat, which Ongpin calls a “bolt out of the blue,” was coupled with an earlier vow to destroy online gaming. Together they dealt a harsh blow. Shares in PhilWeb, the online-gambling operator that Ongpin led, dropped 90%; Ongpin resigned as chairman and sold his 57% stake to a Marcos relative. “I lost $360 million–I became a pariah,” he recounts, his voice just above a whisper, noting that unnamed friends and banks immediately shied away.
But Ongpin is quick to stress he bears no rancor: “He is my president, and I will do all I can to support him and his policies. I am still optimistic about this government.”
The dark days have passed, he says. Without PhilWeb’s cash flow, Ongpin had to put personal funds into Alphaland until he secured a seven-year loan from the Sy family’s BDO Unibank in February. Alphaland, he claims, has only a healthy 15% debt load. Existing office and commercial space is nearly all leased. At Makati Place, 60% of residential units in two towers are sold, he says, at prices ranging to near $1 million for a three-bedroom. A third tower, originally designed as service apartments, has been retrofitted into 27 floors of offices, ready for occupancy in September.
Meanwhile, City Club’s offerings await a big uptake. Planned for 5,000 memberships at $30,000 a piece, the club has sold 650, adding about 100 each year.
New luxury properties
Ongpin appears engrossed in launching a series of new projects at Alphaland, based on his belief that with the end of the subprime crisis, demand for luxury property in the Philippines (including from Hong Kong weekenders) will remain buoyant–and interest rates low. On Balesin, which he considers his most valuable asset, a cluster of 12 homes at $3 million to $5.5 million apiece is being built to order.
He also recently bought the nearby Patnanungan Island, called Balesin Gateway, where Alphaland is designing an international airport, a golf course, a 300-room hotel and 500 private beach villas.
And Alphaland is developing the first phase of Baguio Mountain Lodges–50 American-style log homes that are a four-hour drive north of Manila–with 250 more on the drawing board. “I make three times my cost every time I sell a log home,” Ongpin says, noting the initial bunch should sell out within three years.
One Saturday morning in July, Alphaland’s hangar at the Manila airport is bustling as 66 elite Filipinos fill the company’s private jet for a quick flight–beyond the smog–to their weekend playground. Slipping in last is Ongpin himself.
On arrival, smiling staff offer flowered necklaces and whisk away luggage to two themed villages–Balesin and Saint-Tropez–open this particular weekend. Guests fan out to myriad activities from horse-riding to anti-aging treatments. The Aegle Wellness Center, attached to the Mykonos village and staffed by doctors, offers hormone replacements, thalassotherapy whirlpools and wraps, and a hyperbaric oxygen chamber (the center is open even when Mykonos is not).
It’s no exaggeration to call Balesin Island Club “Philippines’ Shangri-La.” Seven themed villages, patterned after Ongpin’s favorite global destinations, are ringed by pristine white-sand beaches and lush vegetation. Accommodations and restaurants are exquisitely furnished from the theme locales and from artisans who live in their own cluster of huts on stilts.
To join Balesin, private members pay $60,000 for Gold status, which includes 7 free overnight visits, or $100,000 for Diamond status and 14 nights. Corporate memberships go for more.
While the club counts 1,200 members, Ongpin hopes numbers will swell to as many as 6,000 once an international marketing campaign kicks off, the bigger runway at Patnanungan is built and Manila airport congestion eases. Alphaland intends to have sales offices in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Possible listing — but where?
Ongpin wants to list Alphaland in either Bangkok or Singapore. Domestically, until 2019 it is barred from trading shares and Ongpin cannot become a director of a new listed Philippine company. The five-year ban was imposed by the Philippine Stock Exchange for disclosure failures related to the Ashmore divorce.
In 2009, Philippine securities regulators charged Ongpin with insider trading at Philex Mining, when as vice chairman he sold shares to the chairman. His temper flares when asked for details about what he regards as a politically motived accusation. He appealed, winning in court four times, and the country’s SEC is restrained from any enforcement.
Getting outside analysis on Alphaland proves difficult. Ashmore Group did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Property analysts no longer track the company now that it’s private and refuse to go on the record with personal conjecture.
Meanwhile, Hannah Yulo, Alphaland’s CFO from 2011 to 2014 and now CIO at DoubleDragon Properties, exudes praise for her former boss. As a frequent user of City Club and Balesin, she foresees a bright future for both. Metro Manila, she believes, has enough well-heeled residents to afford the membership fees.
“Ongpin is brilliant,” she says. “No one else has developed anything like Balesin. Aman [resort] is beautiful, but it’s not a members’ club.”
At the office
During the workweek, when he’s in the Philippines, Ongpin rarely leaves Makati Place. He lives in the penthouse, rising at 6 a.m. to hit the gym for an hour, a regime prescribed by his wellness-center doctor, who pronounces his health excellent. Most of the day is spent in his palatial office, with adjacent nap room. He enjoys a drink in the bar, a smoke in the cigar boutique and dining in his themed restaurants. For outside lunch dates in Manila, he takes a helicopter to avoid the traffic.
Inside Ongpin’s office, a massive desk is piled with contracts, a MacBook, a computer screen linked to his stock portfolio and the galley copy of a book he’s editing about Balesin. On the wall above is his most prized possession: painted portraits of his great-grandparents. Other personal items include artwork from two preschool-age grandsons who live in London. Among photos from the Marcos years: Ongpin with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Working closely with Ongpin is a fiercely loyal cadre of two dozen senior staffers–his secretary of 50 years is the longest-serving, followed by his CEO, with 40 years. One perk will be “very large” stock options if and when the company goes public.
“I am good to my people, but I drive them hard,” Ongpin confesses, noting he has fired a dozen senior staff at Alphaland through the years. “If they can’t take it, they must leave. I want the best.”
Top lieutenants also live in units at Makati Place rent-free, often gathering after hours at the club bar. They seem like a happy family, always available–a requirement, they say, that comes with the job. That includes his 52-year-old daughter, Anna, named Alphaland’s vice chairman and president last year. While she’s slated to succeed her father, that day seems a long way off.
Family ties — and knots
Over a Friday dinner at Mykonos, City Club’s Greek restaurant, Anna Ongpin says she reluctantly returned to the Philippines, after nearly 30 years in America, at the behest of her father. “I came back because I owe him, and he needed me,” she says, noting her background as a management consultant. “He wants to trust family members. There was no one else.” The bargain she struck: two weeks in California every quarter.
Anna, who acts and sounds American, considers her father a strategic-thinking micromanager with an incredible memory for numbers, as well as extremely demanding and prone to yelling. “I turn off my phone at night,” she admits. “I work a lot, but not as much as he does.”
Among Ongpin’s other three children, his second daughter, Michelle–her German mother has been Ongpin’s live-in partner for ten years–worked at Alphaland and Philweb for nearly three years. Wanting a lifestyle change, Michelle left in 2012 for a stint in London working with Malaysian tycoon Ananda Krishnan. She now lives at Makati Place with her photographer husband and is half-owner of a Manila restaurant. Also in residence is the patriarch’s youngest, Julian, an artist. His Australian mother, who recently died of cancer, lived with Ongpin for nine years.
Meanwhile, Ongpin’s wife of 55 years, Monica, remains at their home in Tuscany, where she has lived for the past 25 years. An Italian-Chilean, she met Ongpin while they were graduate students in the U.S. Ongpin says Monica came to accept his infidelity long ago. “She knew she could not fence me,” he explains, “but she told me, ‘Don’t flaunt it.’ What I am is what I am.”
When he’s not in Italy, the couple keep in touch with daily phone calls. “All the while I have loved my wife,” he says. “I never stopped loving her.” Still, their marriage was shaken when Monica learned about baby Michelle. Calling his wife “very bright and unique,” Ongpin says she has embraced his former lover and accepted Michelle and Julian as her own, insisting they each receive equal portions of his estate.