As this surreal and seemingly eternal year wraps up — finally, thankfully — many businesses are scrambling to meet targets, cut losses or simply remain standing. At a time when survival has become a measure of success, three industry leaders reflect on the power of purpose, tenacity and reinvention to carry people through crises.
With 2020 being the most challenging year for business globally, seeing things from the perspective of institutions that have survived world wars, political upheavals, natural disasters and pandemics could offer some hope, if not comfort.
Being at the helm of organizations that have been around for over a hundred years, they know a thing or two about thriving in a difficult situation.
“One advantage, if you view it from the lens of a company with a long history, is that there have been cycles like this before, and there are ways of getting through those cycles. What you need is a capacity for reinvention of your organization and the capacity to keep looking forward and setting the sights forward,” said Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, CEO of Ayala Corp., a family-owned corporation with interests in real estate, telecom, and banking that go back 186 years.
“A crisis has to be managed in a very different way. It needs entrepreneurial ability and innovation capacity to work with uncertainty. You try to build an organization that’s comfortable with those elements,” he added.
Like him, Erramon “Montxu” Aboitiz comes from a long line of capitalists from the 1870s and was the president of Aboitiz Equity Ventures from 2009 to 2019.
“I think, a team that has gone through hardship in the past knows that it has to do what it takes to change to innovate to adapt and, and to survive. The real value of a company with our longevity is the likelihood that we are diversified and have established businesses that to make up for each other,” Aboitiz shared.
“Being part of Philippine business and society for such a long time, we thought that there was more than just making money. Our employees are looking for purpose, not just a paycheck every two weeks,” Aboitiz said, noting that purpose is embedded in the services that Aboitiz Equity Ventures provides.
“Purposes are normally forward-looking, very big in scale, ambitious. Having that to work for — both personally and as an organization — it’s amazing what it will do to help you achieve your goals. So, I always tell people: when you make a decision, ask why you’re making the decision. Does it support your purpose? And if it does, you probably are making the right decision,” Aboitiz said.
The two gentlemen made these comments during an online forum hosted by Insular Life (InLife) recently, to highlight the company’s 110 years anniversary (Nov. 25) and to showcase the reason behind the success of Philippine companies that have reached over a hundred years.
“For us at InLife, the starting point is always our sense of purpose and stewardship. Generating profit is of course important, and we need scale to be financially stable and to create impact. But our purpose does not end there. Quite the contrary, our focus is on the difference we make in the broader society. We help in developing the local economy, in continually looking for ways to offer people life chances, as fellow Filipinos first, part company owners second (InLife is a mutual company), but never as mere consumers,” said Nina D. Aguas, Executive Chairman of InLife.
Ayala Corp., the oldest company in the Philippines, has had to get back on its feet with little liquidity after the Second World War. It was the parent company of InLife until 1987, when InLife became a fully mutual company, transferring ownership to its Filipino policyholders. Today, InLife is the biggest Filipino insurance company in terms of assets and net worth. InLife’s bancassurance partner, Union Bank, is owned by Aboitiz Equity Ventures, which also has interests in power, property, food, and biofuel.
The three companies’ related history and mutual interests highlight the enduring power of purpose in business. Knowing their “why” has guided them in determining their “what”, which is crucial for industry leaders who are drivers of change in the country.
Clarity of purpose is so important for everyone. To me, ‘built to last’ is a perspective, not an end goal. Decade after decade, you have to go through that period of reinventing yourself, as Jaime mentioned, and reimagining what it could be for the current moment because it evolves over time — what society, as Montxu says, requires of each of us,” said Aguas.
Zoble de Ayala said: “I think we’ve reached a new period in our lives as private institutions. The nature of the corporation, its role in society is continuing to shift. More is expected of all of us now. There will be times when we have to be good at what we are doing but we also have to be institutions that can hold hands, cooperate particularly in difficult times, and address the bigger issues that face us, which we cannot do alone.”
Aboitiz echoes this sentiment: “If our businesses is to survive, it can’t survive as an island. It has to survive with this community, with its employees, with its partners, and with society.”
In these trying times, the three leaders agree, businesses should promote cooperation more than competition, and step up as their broader responsibilities evolve with the needs of the people.