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Becoming the solution

June 14, 2019

Real estate magnate seeks to create better homes and communities

It’s been a long day for Jose “Joe” Soberano 3rd, president and chief executive officer of Cebu Landmasters Inc. (CLI). There was a full afternoon press conference at the Shangri-La at the Fort to share the company’s annual performance with analysts and business media; a raft of interviews after the briefing; a photo shoot by “Boardroom Watch” photographer Mindy Gana; and now a sit-down with us. And following our conversation, there’s still dinner with a friend.

So, the Chardonnay that Soberano is nursing at the lounge we repair to is well-earned, indeed, especially after the announcement that CLI was allocating P13 billion in capital expenditures this year to power 29 projects in the Visayas and Mindanao worth P25 billion. (Last month, CLI disclosed that it had posted a P2.17-billion net profit in 2018.)

VisMin potential

A true-blue son of the South, Soberano has chosen to play out his life and career in the regions that make up the greater part of the Philippines — Visayas and Mindanao, or VisMin. CLI, according to its collateral, “…started in Cebu with a vision to provide homes for the Filipino worker. Today, we are the leading local property developer in VisMin with 52 developments in key cities: Cebu, Mandaue, Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Dumaguete, Bacolod, Iloilo and Bohol.”

“VisMin is booming. I know CLI is taking steps in the right direction,” says Soberano, his eyes set in an eternal sparkle even when fatigued. “I always believed that there has to be dispersal. Metro Manila has gotten its share of development and infrastructure support.

“Dispersal will also be good for the economy in general, rather than focusing on one area. Besides, with about 80 percent of Filipinos living outside of the capital city, that’s where business should be shifting to,” he says.

With urbanization rapidly infusing provincial hubs, the pull to return to home base is growing stronger, especially for blue-collar workers who have settled in Metro Manila. “They have more reasons to go back,” Soberano continues. “They are seeing new opportunities: salaries that will go farther because of the lower cost of living than in Manila, where things tend to be more expensive.”

Launched in 2003, and now 16 years later, CLI is well poised with its sweep of products — residential, office, hotel mixed use and townships — to cater to a broad market. With demand on the rise, Soberano’s company knows it is racing against an inexorable deadline to meet the needs of an accommodation-hungry populace, particularly the middle-class bracket seeking affordable price tags. “It’s always the execution part [of a development project] that’s the difficult part,” Soberano reflects.

New purpose

The Ateneo de Manila University economics graduate (Class of 1976) didn’t really mean to become a real estate magnate, despite 23 years with the Ayala Group, a good portion spent with Ayala Land Inc. as senior division manager in 1997, and finally vice president of Cebu Holdings Inc., which pioneered Ayala’s foray into the local property scene. He resigned from the conglomerate in 2000, not to set up a rival entity, but to run for Congress.

That exercise proved unsuccessful. “I had only one year to campaign,” Soberano recalls ruefully.

While cooling his heels for the next election, Soberano had bought a business in Balamban district in Cebu, which employed a number of workers. Noticing that he was shelling out hefty amounts funneled to their Pag-IBIG loans, he thought of coming up with a housing project that would fit their budgets. Thus, San Josemaria Village Phase 1 — named after his patron saint and founder of Opus Dei Josemaria Escriva — was born.

The sales team consisted of just Soberano and another employee. San Josemaria Phase 2 and San Josemaria Phase 3 eventually followed, making Soberano realize his purpose was better found in real estate than in politics.

Diversification, as any astute entrepreneur knows, is the key to success, if not survival. CLI has added townships to its product mix with Davao Global Township or DGT in Matina, a southern precinct of sprawling Davao City, which is less gentrified than the city’s northern part. Set for launch in 2022, the 93,000-square-meter complex will consist of a corporate center, two premier residential towers, retail strip with cineplex, outdoor retail spaces and a civic center. This ambitious P10-billion project witnesses a tie-up of CLI and the prominent Villa-Abrille clan.

With the dust his company is kicking up in Matina, Soberano is positive that the competition will be streaming in in no time if they aren’t already. “That’s how it is when an area is seen to be developing,” he says sagely.

LGU connection

Speaking of competition, Soberano remains grateful for his Ayala experience. He says: “I really respect them (Ayala), especially the two brothers (Jaime Augusto Zobel, Ayala Corp. chairman and chief executive officer, and Fernando Zobel, Ayala Corp. president and chief operating officer). I went through the whole gamut in Ayala Land, from land acquisition to conceptualizing, business development, construction management and property management.

“I was the guy who had to deal with government executives and LGUs (local government units). That was one of my strengths. I think I knew how to connect with and relate to these people. I got to really like them,” he says.

“This helps when you need your papers and permits to flow,” he adds.

At the heart of CLI and Soberano’s management tenet is family. That is an immutable fact. “We try to create a sense of belonging for our people,” says the founder. “It’s very motivational when employees feel that they are part of the family and are imbued with values of collaboration, integrity and respect for one another.

“With us, bosses should lead by example.” Up to this day Soberano remains a hands-on manager, who doesn’t rely on his secretary or beeps from glowing gadgets to remind him of appointments for the next two weeks.

Professionals rule

While eldest son Jose Franco is executive vice president and chief operating officer, daughter Joanna Marie Soberano-Bergundthal is vice president and marketing director and wife Marose B. Soberano is executive vice president and executive board treasurer, many sensitive positions in CLI are held by qualified professionals and veterans of the industry.

“They’re the ingredients to our success, especially in the areas of architecture, engineering, marketing and selling,” Soberano declares. “Hiring outsiders is always going to be a plus. We will always learn from them.”

CLI also makes it a point to learn from their project partners. An architect, who has dealt with them on several occasions, says: “It is a pleasure working with them. They are visionaries, who know what they want. They appreciate and consider our input. They are very professional and are good paymasters.”

And he adds: “Joe is a happy person. This rubs off on people.”

Soberano has another side that he deeply treasures — his spirituality. “I’ve never felt so glorified for having done so much. In fact, I’ve just felt so blessed and thankful and aware of that ‘nothingness’ in the eyes of God.

“The more one gets in life, the more one gets that feeling, I believe. There must be something you want me to do, I keep asking Him.”

Extremely close, the Soberano family — composed of Joe and wife Marose, children Franco and wife Alana and their two kids Enzo and Iya, daughter Joanna Marie and husband Mathias Bergundthal and younger kids Jamie, who is finishing her master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City, and Joby, a fresh Ateneo graduate — travel overseas together twice a year. As to where, Soberano says, chuckling, he’s always the last to know.

An avowed walker, Soberano keeps fit on the treadmill during the week and enjoys hiking holidays, his most recent in southern Kyoto, Japan, doing the renowned Kumano Kodo temple pilgrimage. He has also done the popular El Camino experience in Spain five times with a group, but approaching it from different countries like Switzerland and Portugal.

Has he given up the dream of serving Filipinos as an elected public servant?

Soberano’s eyes gleam with bonhomie. He won’t commit himself and says something about “the combination of business and power and feeling strong at 63,” as well as mentioning famous names who continued to bloom in the political ring in their 70s. (Think Ronald Reagan, Neptali Gonzalez and Juan Ponce Enrile, perhaps?)

But for now, he is content and fulfilled to be part of the solution to providing Filipinos affordable and quality shelter. Says he: “I see development as transforming land into space with relevant structures.

“I do not want just to build homes, but better homes; I do not want just to build communities but better communities.”

Now that should count for something in the eyes of God.

* * *

Liking the lifeline
In his Ayala Land days, Jose R. Soberano 3rd or ‘Joe’ dealt with his share of government agencies and their executives. Here’s what he learned and passes on to his team:

  • Connections with LGUs (local government units) are very important. They are the lifeline to getting things done faster and better.
  • Knowing how to relate to them and ‘be one of the boys,’ I believe was one of my strengths. Make it yours, too.
  • I spent time — long hours — with them and built up the relationship. Golf proved to be a good way of bonding. I grew to like them.

• I was always transparent with them [and] never took advantage of my relationship with them.

by Margie T. Logarta, published in Manila Times