OPINION: Swashbuckling Enrique Zobel, the incomparable

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at May 30 2020 01:15 AM

There is only one venerable and noble house of commerce in the history of the Philippines.

The 186-year-old House of Ayala is the country’s oldest Filipino-owned business entity, known as the conglomerate Ayala Corporation today. Incorporated in 1968, it then ended a century- and-a-half of prior existence in various compositions of family partnerships through inheritances and succession. The noble house began in 1834, as the single proprietorship “Casa Roxas” of Don Domingo Roxas. The Spanish government-run control of commerce entity -- “Real Compania de Filipinas” -- had just floundered and Manila opened “to foreign commerce and navigation.” It was a propitious moment in the country’s history and her endeavors towards economic development.

Don Domingo Roxas’ great great great-grandson, Enrique J. Zobel, was Ayala Corporation’s first Chief Executive Officer until he stepped down in 1984. Alternatively, referred to as “Don Enrique” or simply “EZ,” he oversaw the transition of the surviving family partnership, Ayala y Compania, into a corporation and its subsequent Stock Exchange listing as a publicly traded issue.

Wikipedia simply refers to Enrique Zobel as “a prominent Filipino businessman, pilot and polo player.” EZ’s character and color, for indeed he was a colorful personage, the essence of the man is inadequately captured. I am not aware of anyone quite like him in the Philippines as to conclude that he is extraordinary as to be truly incomparable. 

Photo courtesy of The Enrique Zobel Foundation

There has never been a Filipino businessman who merits being described as “Swashbuckling” and in all reasonable probability, we may never see the likes of an Enrique Zobel again! 

Shades of Errol Flynn! Octogenarians the likes of me will remember while for those younger, “Errol swashbuckling who?” Whether the role was Robin Hood, Captain Blood or The Sea Hawk buccaneer, cinema posters were replete with the word, an allure to attract moviegoers. Swashbuckling! That was the very first time I came across the word. I have no recollection of Hollywood ever referring to any other silver screen heartthrob with the same superlative!

Swashbuckling! In reality, the life of Enrique Zobel is Hollywoodish enough to merit a screenplay, even a telenovela. This is of course a personal view. His story possesses a resemblance, remote it might be, but nonetheless carries a credible coincidental parallel to a 1966 Harold Robbins protagonist. Behind his back, to us his corporate shavetails, EZ was our Diogenes Alejandro Xenos. DAX of “The Adventurers.”

Enrique Zobel was adventurous, daring and dashing, blonde and blue-eyed, devilish, bold and romantic, machoman and loverboy, can be naughty and mischievous but never malicious, brutally frank, can shed a tear both from physical pain as well as from a broken heart, hardworking and punctual, a decision-maker and a calculating planner, a hard-nosed realist with the humility to admit an error and listen to an assistant’s counsel. And a peacemaker, too!

Only a handful ever knew that months before President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, Enrique personally brokered and orchestrated a confidential meeting at his house between Marcos and Ninoy Aquino (EZ’s compadre), then a first-term Senator. The two were left alone by themselves for a man-to-man attempt at settling their deepening differences. The scene was EZ’s den and bedroom at #2 Harvard Rd. in Forbes Park. President Marcos came after dark in an unmarked automobile driven by Gen. Fabian Ver. Just the two of them, they travelled from Malacanang incognito without security escorts. 

EZ’s early love for horses led to excellent equestrian skills. He became an internationally-rated polo player, participating in matches in Europe, US and Asia in his prime. He could gallop astride a 1,200-pound polo pony at 45 kilometers an hour, sprint, stop, turn, spin and sprint again, with mallet gripped in his right hand chasing after a wooden ball. Once, during a match, he figured in a smashing collision afield, cartwheeling with the pony, the pony falling on top of him, breaking his right clavicle. He survived.

At an altitude of 15,000 feet in the sky, zoom into a barrel roll at 300 miles per hour piloting his ‘toy,’ a decommissioned vintage Mustang P-51 fighter plane! Before that, he bought himself a two-seater H-300 helicopter. There was no aircraft in the company hangar that he could not fly, fixed wing or rotorcaft, Beechcrafts or Bell Jets. 

Instead of the usual ceremonial shovel to memorialize groundbreaking, he drove a huge D-type yellow Caterpillar Bulldozer, adding a little drama to an otherwise hackneyed observance. After all, his Ayala career started in the heavy equipment depot then known as ‘Bldg 5,’ (now a portion of the fashionable Greenbelt Mall) operating, maintaining and repairing all sorts of engines. Before moving on to the executive suite, EZ was already an expert mechanic!

After the protracted interruption of his schooling during World War II, and not having the patience for formal education, EZ was sent to the US for vocational training and practical exposure in agriculture. He spent time at Davis, already a farm school long before its affiliation as a campus of the University of California system. Animal husbandry and citrus culture were his core courses. (Investment pursuits that Ayala engaged in, with EZ at the helm. Both eventually abandoned!) 

What I am unable to verify, though, is that as idle talk went, EZ also spent his weekends in Tijuana! He and Felipe “Baby” Ysmael, Jr. (another scion of old Manila) played Jai-Alai. Hoping to become ‘pelotaris,’ perhaps? Both were then known as ‘spoiled brats’ of Manila’s old rich!

It was during Enrique’s leadership that Ayala won control of the Bank of the Philippine Islands, after a proxy fight with the Archdiocese of Manila and Rufino Cardinal Santos.
 
The once staid Credit Corporation of the Philippines became the Ayala Investment and Development Corporation (AIDC), a heavy hitter in the investment banking arena. AIDC’s claim to fame is having funded the initial growth of Shoe Mart and its proprietor, Mr. Henry Sy, becoming the richest man in the country. 

With Makati’s development almost complete, he sought a new real estate venture. This was Ayala Alabang. Yet another signature project, this time, EZ’s exclusive mandate. 

Non-financial investments such as food, electronics and communications were beachheads he laid out for Ayala’s 21st century challenges.

The Philippine Air Force implementing a “weekend warrior” civil relations program created a distinct unit of reservists named “Reserve Airlift Tactical Support Service”(RATSS). Colonel Enrique Zobel, activated from his reserve status, was commissioned to organize the unit and served as its Commander.

Without neglecting his weekend chores in his ranch in Calatagan, Batangas, the clan’s ancestral hacienda, he still had time and energy to found the Makati Business Club, a potent forum for constructive ideas and commentary on socio-economic issues.
 
Years earlier, Enrique’s public persona was inevitably, though unintendedly, launched and lauded by widely circulated editorials in reaction to a speech he delivered to a select crowd in Baguio. It was a critique upon contemporary society, categorizing the wealthy into “the three kinds of rich: …the idle, the profligate and the working rich.” 

In testimony of his belief that “through education there is hope for a better life” and personal commitment to contribute to the “transformation process of the Filipino poor and other disadvantaged sector of society” he organized the “E. Zobel Foundation, Inc.” in 1990. The Foundation is focused upon: school infrastructure development; teacher training; student health and nutrition; and learning support. (enriquezobelfoundation.org)

Enrique passed away 16 years ago, May 17. He was 77. He is survived by his widow, Dee Anne Hora Zobel, and children from his first marriage, Mercedes and Inigo. All maintain a cherished and admirable low-pofile.

If I were to proceed and pursue my story-telling, I owe you folks a disclosure. It has to be one that says I can honestly embark upon this subject about which I have earned the privilege to dwell upon. Well, indeed, I can.
 
I spent some 25 years of my earlier life in the employ of the Ayala Group, 20 years of which was directly and personally with Enrique Zobel. I was his longest serving Executive Assistant, regardless of other concurrent titles and positions I was assigned to. I was his go-to factotum. Almost like a Passepartout to his Phileas Fogg, though not a Sancho Panza. EZ was not quixotic! 

My Martial Law ‘involuntary exile’ overseas to Ayala’s offshore properties, (an altogether different story for a future retelling), was ostensively to keep me away from harm. It was a costly interruption of my Ayala career but regrets are not for me. At the end of 1972, I held multiple positions simultaneously. I was Manager of the Commercial Centers Division (today’s ‘mallworld,’ No Glorietta, no Greenbelt yet); Executive Director of Filipinas Foundation (then a font for EZ’s policy studies and think-tank, today’s Ayala Foundation); Public Relations Director; attorney-in-fact and directorships in a variety of minor Ayala companies.

A story-teller is usually laden with subjectivity when recalling the life of an admired, almost hero-worshipped, individual. But I can only be fair to Enrique’s memory, as I believe he would have wanted, if I can reasonably pierce through the sentimental limits of that funeral aphorism: “de mortuis nil nisi bonum.” Of the dead, [say] nothing but the good!

Enrique was not perfect. He was human. Swashbuckling, yes. Incomparable!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.

In 1986, then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.

During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.

After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.

He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.