Eugenio and Pacita Lopez with their children in 1940: Presy, Geny, Oscar.
Culture Spotlight

How Don Eugenio Lopez bought ABS from the Quirinos to build a broadcast giant

At a time when TV was a losing proposition, Don Eñing told his son Geny: If you build it, the audience will come.
Raul Rodrigo | Feb 28 2020

Television in the early 50s wasn’t the high profit business it is now. While Tony Quirino (a judge in the post-war People’s Court) and James Lindenberg (an American ex-GI and electrical engineer) built Alto Broadcasting System with big dreams and high hopes, running a TV station soon revealed it needed really deep pockets and a more exacting manager who’s also a visionary. Good thing Don Eugenio Lopez was on the lookout to expand his media empire. In this fourth of a series of excerpts from the book Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the Making of ABS-CBN, author Raul Rodrigo details the closed-door negotiations — one even happened in the comforts of a restroom —  that led to ABS merging with CBN. 

 

CBN's success in radio was not enough for Don Eugenio. In January 1957, only three months after CBN opened, Don Eugenio said to Geny: "Why don't we get into television?" He had just met with Joe Orosa about ABS. Geny thought to himself "My God!"

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Geny said many years later: "I don't know what it was that went through my father's mind, but I think there was a certain amount of prescience. I mean, he could see the future of broadcasting. He knew it would he big. And he knew that, if he were to do something, he had to do it right away."

Don Eugenio briefed him on ABS. Geny could see that the company was burdened by substantial debt, low market penetration, much higher costs relative to radio, and a lack of support from advertisers. All of that did not add up to a compelling business case, not in the short term.

A print ad for Alto Broadcasting System heralding the joy TV will bring. Courtesy Video48.

But Geny and his father chose to take the long view. He said: “You knew that the audience would eventually be there. You could not stop technology The audio-visual impact of television could not be denied. Even the advertisers had to admit that [the combination would be] very hard to beat."

So father and son made an act of faith: they would build a TV network believing that sooner or later the audience would come. And rather than start a CBN TV network from scratch, the Lopezes tried to hedge their bets. By buying ABS, they would get the benefit of ABS's experience in TV and market presence. Acquiring the TV experience of people like Jim Lindenberg, Slim Chaney and Millie Logarta was going to be expensive, but the cost of NOT acquiring this expertise would be more expensive still. If they won the bidding, ABS TV would be the springboard for launching CBN TV.

James Lindenberg is considered the Father of Philippine Television. He founded Bolinao Electronics, which made transmitters and radios, in 1946. He Would team up with Tony Quirino to jumpstart ABS. Photo from Kapitan, taken in 2006. 

In bidding for ABS in January 1957, Don Eugenio had the advantage of being able to move more quickly than Chino and The Manila Times. Several Roces family members, including Chino's formidable spinster sister, Bebeng, had to agree before the Times could make a big move like buying ABS. On the other hand, Don Eugenio was a management committee of one; he didn't explain or justify his decisions to anyone. Although he split ownership of all his companies with his brother Fernando and relied on talented and strong-willed subordinates like Bert Villanueva, in practice he could and did move unilaterally. As Jim Lindenberg said: "Eñing Lopez was a better negotiator all around [than Chino]. Eñing was the type of guy who just says Yes or No."

Tony, brother of one time Philippine president Elpidio Quirino, became famous for his stint as judge at the People's Court. He would also run for presidency in 1957. 

Don Eugenio broached his interest in ABS to Tony Quirino in a friendly manner. The Quirinos and the Lopezes had always been on good terms personally; the president's daughter Vicky was a contemporary and friend of Geny and Oscar Lopez. Tony Quirino's children called the Lopez brothers "Toto Eñing” and “Toto Nanding." Though they had been on opposite political camps during the 1953 campaign, they had never allowed this to spill over into personal animosity, Tony Quirino was an old-school gentleman—he didn't let political differences stand in the way of proper behavior. His son Tonito recalled that, when his father happened to meet Ramon Magsaysay’s son Jun shortly after the 1953 elections, Tony made sure to be very cordial. It was a different era in Philippine politics: political differences mattered less than personal ties and shared history.

Tony's daughter, Aleli, was around seven years old at the time. She said: “I remember that one day, Toto Nanding—Sen. Fernando Lopez—came over and said to my father: `You'd better sell it to us, otherwise the government will just take it over.' It was a friendly arrangement. He and my father were good friends."

The decision came in late January 1957. Don Eugenio called a breakfast meeting at his house in Lancaster Street, in Pasay. Present were Pacifico Villaluz, Geny Lopez, Roberto Villanueva, Don Eugenio Lopez, Jim Lindenberg and Tony Quirino.

The ABS building. Photo courtesy of Lou Gopal of Manila Nostalgia.

Geny recalled: "My father told Tony: `We'd like to buy your station.’ Tony said it was not for sale. My father said: 'Before you say No, listen to what we have to offer you.' So he made an offer. Tony excused himself, went to the bathroom and, when he came back, said:`Yes, I accept your offer, Mr. Lopez' So it was a done deal. And that is how we acquired Alto Broadcasting."

Actually, hammering out the final deal took a little longer. ABS had several owners aside from Tony Quirino: Jim Lindenberg and the SyCip brothers still owned shares. To all of them, the Lopezes made generous offers. The last details were ironed out by Bert, Jim and Geny in the Chronicle building. Jim, Geny and Bert settled the very last item in a running discussion in the bathroom between Geny's and Bert's offices.

Geny with friend and fellow newspaper publisher Joaquin "Chino" Roces in the early 1970s.

Thus, on February 24, 1957, Don Eugenio Lopez acquired Alto Broadcasting System and Bolinao Electronics. He paid some P700,000 to Tony Quirino, and assumed ABS's debts to the PNB, DBP and RCA. In return, he received dzAQ-TV Channel 3, dzAQ-AM, dzBC, dzRD in Dagupan, dzRI in Naga, the ABS San Juan transmitter, and the ABS studios in Florentino Torres Street, Manila.

JJ Calero, a longtime observer of Philippine media, said: "The way I see it, it was a win-win situation. Why? Because for [Don Eugenio] Lopez, he was looking at television's future. For Quirino, he was looking at television's past—at how much he was making and how much he had paid for it. The amount of money that Don Eugenio Lopez was giving had a big fat profit in it for Tony. Tony was happy to get rid of it."

Tony Quirino used some of the Lopez money in an ill-fated run for the presidency in 1957. He eventually backed out of the race and lived a quiet life in Sitio Alto. He passed away in 1992, with very few people remembering the role he played in bringing TV to the Philippines. But over the years, he liked to point out the TV aerials sprouting in the remotest corners of the Philippine countryside, a testament to the revolution that he had wrought.

Geny with one of the CAT Awards that ABS-CBN won in the late 1960s.

After the sale, Jim Lindenberg remained as GM of ABS for three more years. He mentored Geny in the TV business. Geny said: "The one that really trained me and helped me learn the technical side of the business was Jim Lindenberg. He taught me how to run a station and how to run it economically, as well as the value of programming."

Only a month after buying ABS, on March 29, 1957, Don Eugenio Lopez also acquired for P270,000 Monserrat Broadcasting System, a network of two radio stations, one in Manila (dzMY 830 khz) and the other in Laoag. Bert Villanueva was named president of all three companies: CBN, MBS and ABS. Geny was named EVP, under Bert. On paper, his father and Bert Villanueva outranked him, but in practice, Geny was in charge of the three companies. ABS-CBN-MBS was his baby; it would stand or fall on his leadership. Geny was ready and eager for the challenge. His VMI years had taught him about discipline and leadership; his Harvard years had given him the tools to analyze a business and steer it to excellence.

Lopez, he was looking at television's future. For Quirino, he was looking at television's past—at how much he was making and how much he had paid for it. 

By mid-1957, Don Eugenio had assembled several important pieces of the ABS-CBN puzzle—ABS, CBN and MBS, plus a 44,027-square-meter lot in Bohol Avenue that would someday become home to the ABS-CBN Broadcast Center and the ELJ Communications Center. But Don Eugenio left it to Geny to figure out how to put them all together to build a broadcast giant. It was up to Geny to answer questions like: How could ABS-CBN overtake MBC? How could he forge a strong organization out of so many disparate parts? And how could Philippine TV, long a losing proposition, finally earn its keep?

Geny had no idea at first but, over the next ten years, he solved all these problems resoundingly. He became known as a father of Philippine TV and a giant in the field of broadcasting. Geny became such a pivotal figure in Philippine media that even someone from ABS who never worked with him understood his impact. Charlie Agatep, once with ABS, said: "If the Lopezes did not buy ABS, I doubt very much it would be what it is today. Tony Quirino was not a businessman of the caliber of a Geny Lopez. If I had known Geny was coming, I would have stayed."

 

From the book, Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the Making of ABS-CBN. Authored by Raul Rodrigo. Published in 2006.