Friday, November 26, 2010

A Delightful Evening at Insular Life's Centennial

Jim Roa, Nits Lazaro, Alma Roa, Nen Roa, Yoling Malferrari, Candy Jalbuena, Larry Jalbuena
I attended the 100th anniversary celebration of Insular Life, the largest Filipino life insurance company in the Philippines. My family had the privilege of being invited to this milestone celebration by virtue of our predecessors’ important involvement in the company during its growth years. My uncle Emeterio Roa Sr. was the General manager of the company before and after World WarII and my father, Federico Sr., was the actuary of the company during its post-war years. Other Roas who worked with the company were Cocoy Roa, the eldest in our family and cousins Percy and Frank Roa. To my knowledge there is only one remaining Roa in the company and she is not even surnamed Roa as Anna, the eldest daughter of Cocoy, is married to Dindo Soriano and carries his family name. She carries on the torch for the family in the company as its senior AVP in charge of Public Relations.

My expectations for the evening were not great and my attendance was merely obligatory. It looked like an affair that only those employed in the company would have special excitement and enthusiasm for. It seemed that this was going to be another typical corporate celebration with endless special citations to deserving employees, honouring outstanding clients and bombastic speeches from the Chairman and others of high rank. It had the makings of another humdrum and boring night.

Coming in from the usual heavy traffic in Ortigas avenue at early evening, it was not an auspicious start, at least for me, for the night.

Wading through the throng of formally dressed people crowding the foyer of the Meralco building we finally made our entrance and proceeded to the registration tables where we were given seat numbers for the program inside the theatre.

We had to go through another bottleneck entry leading to the cocktail area where a mini program was in progress. Boots Anson Roa, my sister in law was the emcee and was in the middle of selecting winners for a raffle.

My wife and I queued up for the buffet cocktail table. She whispered that the food should be good because she just saw Arlene Arce milling around the buffet table and concluded that she did the catering for the affair. Arlene is known for excellent catering services. At least there was something that promised to be outstanding for the evening.

After the satisfying repast I was glad to see some of our relatives, the grandchildren of our uncle Emeterio and his daughter Yoling. Things were looking up. It is usually nice to meet with relatives whom you seldom see as it gives one a chance to catch up on news about each other.

Another happy instance was when Boots announced onstage the presence of the author of the coffee table book written for the occasion. It was Joan Orendain whom I knew from way back through my brothers Pete and Dado. After some warm hug-hug, “beso beso” and a bit of chit chat she was sucked in by the flowing crowd and was gone. After Joan’s exit I saw onstage a familiar looking face who was talking about music...kundimans I think. It was Ed Gatchalian, a batch mate from the Ateneo Grade School and someone whom I occasionally saw in advertising industry activities when I was still active in the ad industry, airports and one time in Saigon when he still had a company manufacturing scented candles. We just waved at each other since he seemed in a hurry. It was turning out to be a nicer evening than I expected.

After the cocktails we were ushered in to the theatre. Anna led us to what I thought was the best seats in the house. It was about six rows from the stage and was at the second tier of the floor giving as an eye level view of the stage. It was reserved for the Roa family and there we were seated comfortably with cousins, nephews, nieces, siblings and in laws happy and feeling priviledged.

I knew that the presentation was going to be a musicale about the hundred year history of the company. I braced myself for the worst. A musicale about a company’s history is not exactly one that would make for great entertainment. Invariably, musicales produced by employees usually end up as cute extravaganzas with bloopers in song renditions and bungling on stage as main fares. In my mind, quick getaway ideas were being formed. Sneaking out once the houselights dimmed or pulling a disappearing act at intermission were some of the things I entertained doing.

As the curtain raised a dapper looking man, who reminded me a lot of Danny de Vito, strode on stage and started his spiel. He portrayed the role Chairman, Ting Ayllon, in the musicale as well as the narrator in between scenes.

As he introduced the first scene the stage began to fill up with a typical crowd scene at the turn of the century Manila. It was a well choreographed movement depicting the hurly burly of public places of the time.

After listening to the song “Infinite Possibilities” I knew that this was not amateur hour. Well polished actors strutting confidently on stage, impeccable line delivery, good singing voices characterized the opening scenes. Equally impressive were the production values of the presentation which was minimalist, using representational props and ingenious lighting for scene transfers. There were some songs that were truly great. “Insulares”, “Moving Up, Moving On”, “It will not End This way” and Who We Are, What We Are, Why We Are...Insular” were particularly excellent. The lyrics were well written and the music wonderfully arranged. It was an outstanding musical with impressive librettos, awesome choreography and splendid acting. There are very few corporate musicals on Broadway which you could compare this one. What comes to mind is “How To Succeed In Business without Really Trying” which starred Robert Preston...I am being overly enthusiastic, I think.

All in all it was a grand performance which should curb a bit my cynical view of corporate attempts at entertainment during company to dos. This was truly an exception.

It was a fine way of telling the audience, mostly employees, of the company’s beginnings and the unfolding events in their history to evolve into the prominent business leader that it is today. If one were to judge the effectiveness of the vehicle in inculcating pride and morale amongst its associates this would rate a ten. To paraphrase an ad agency slogan, “It is history well told”.

The Roas in the audience were particularly gladdened by the knowledge that a Roa played a pivotal role in the company’s history. Emeterio Roa Sr. or Tio Terio to our side of the family was the General Manager of Insular Life during its most trying years. He served as its General Manager in the immediate post war period; during the war, when they were forced to operate for show and the years after the war in bringing the company back to its feet after being ravaged by the Japanese military regime. I felt a lot of pride that among the illustrious early leaders of the company my Tio Terio was the most heroic in deed and in stature. He was the “Indio Bravo”, the corporate hero amidst a coterie of distinguished “Insulares”.

At intermission I took a quick glance at the playbill and noticed that it had an impressive dramatis personae composed of professionals from our local legitimate stage. The one big surprise was the fact that it was Ed Gatchalian who was the executive producer, the musical composer cum arranger cum director. No wonder he was in a hurry when I met him at cocktails. He had to be with his cast and crew at backstage.

At curtain call the audience recognition was ecstatic but what delighted me most was when Ed Gatchalian was called onstage the audience rose from their seats and gave him a standing ovation for a “tour de force” performance.

Earlier in the evening when I got out of the car at the entrance I was resigned to suffer a long tiresome, bore some and lacklustre evening, instead, it turned out to be one of the more enjoyable affairs I have attended. I thank my lucky stars for a serendipitous evening.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Riding Towards the Horizon - A Eulogy For Bert Timbol

During our better looking days. Mang Bert, Ed Roa, JJ Calero

When Raymond Timbol called me up the other day to tell me if I could be among those who would deliver a eulogy for his dad, Mang Bert, Isaid yes without hesitation. In fact if Raymond did not ask I would have volunteered to do so.

Bert has a special niche in my heart. We were together in Unilever, known as PRC then, for more than 15 years, he as boss and me, as a struggling young manager in the Marketing department.

Let me just limit my recollection to the early years in Mang Bert’s career in Unilever, I’m sure there would be a lot of eulogizers who can speak much more competently on the more recent years and talk about a successful Mang Bert in the media industry where he had become an iconic figure not only in the glamorous world of beauty pageants but also as the ultimate professional in the fun but raucous world of media.

I have chosen to talk about a Mang Bert whose star was on the rise suring the sixties.
I don’t know how many of you would know that he was a pioneering spirit in Marketing Research in the Philippines. Had he chosen to stay in this discipline he could have been acknowledged by industry peers as one of the founding fathers of modern Market Research in the Philippines. During his stint as the Market Research Manager of PRC he introduced a lot of innovative market research techniques which are still being used today by local research practitioners.

For media guys who are old enough to remember, Mang Bert was the first to start a monthly television ratings service which at that time was the only known tv audience measurement system done on a regular basis. In the absence of the more sophisticated and hi tech techniques now employed by Nielsen and others, this served as the buying guide for those advertisers who subscribed to it.

He did an outstanding job in PRC’s market research and was rewarded by a promotion to Marketing Services Manager. The services within his responsibility were composed of market research, promotions and advertising. It was such a comprehensive responsibility that found him involved in almost everything that concerned the brands.

What set him apart from most of the managers were his articulateness and his wide range of interests and knowledge. He was conversant about most topics dealing with humanities, politics and world history. The traditional perception of a researcher would be some sort of an egghead or a numbers whiz kid and nerd whose interests were caged in insipid narrow confines. He was completely the opposite of this. His incisive analysis of data and the sagacity of his interpretations lead to sound marketing decisions. Presentation was his forte. What made his presentations impressive was the way he embellished them with apt analogies and his flair for the dramatic that made the otherwise stark and boring data come alive with mind boggling possibilities and stimulating marketing breakthrough ideas.

You could say that he was a virtual Renaissance man and as such would be allowed some latitude for eccentricities which were not readily appreciated by some. What contributed to the perception of his being a larger than life personality was his penchant to share the highlights of his life story to anyone who was willing to listen. He gave a variety of accounts of himself being portrayed as characters of almost heroic proportions. He would be the boy courier in the resistance during the war, the working student doing cowboy chores in ranches in Denver, Colorado, a painter, art connoisseur and critic, a literary man and an orator with few equals.

Bert’s favourite character was that of a wrangler, an offshoot of his student years in Denver, Colorado as a Fulbright-Mundt scholar. He loved living the part down to the gaudy boots, blue denims, big ornate brass buckles and the cowboy hat. Even his preference for vehicles were for the rugged “off road” type long before SUVs became fashionable. This earned him the moniker “Cowboy Cabalen” in PRC. I am reminded of the time when he was accosted by the PRC chairman about his informal clothes choice to which he quipped “I believe the company took me in not for my sartorial preferences.”

Bert excelled in handling the demands of the job and became indispensable in marketing and no sooner was again rewarded by a promotion to General Marketing Manager, a position that extended itself as head of all marketing inclusive of brand groups and marketing Services which, to my mind, deserved a better recognition than what the title suggested from a Unilever hierarchical point of view. With the purview of his responsibilities he should have been a director as opposed to being just a manager. This is a sentiment that has been shared in whispers by many in Unilever but never aired openly. I am glad to have said it now.
My career seemed to have run parallel to his since my professional path traversed brand marketing, then as company media manager in PRC, as an advertising man with Lintas, an advertising agency erstwhile owned by Unilever, that later teamed up with Hemisphere and finally settling down as head of market research in PRC and later in ACNielsen. All through these, Bert leant me a helping hand not only with his influence but, more importantly, serving as a model by which I have patterned my work style throughout my career.

If there is anything that I would value the most as a legacy from this extraordinary man it is that of doing the job, any job for that matter, with unassailable honesty and foursquare integrity. Media work or the media buying profession to be specific, is replete with all sorts of temptations which try one’s resolve. It is not uncommon for one to hear of large scale venalities and other underhanded persuasions in media which many media buyers have, in their weak moments, succumbed to.

Unilever was indeed wise to have chosen a man like Bert to entrust its huge advertising war chest which consisted of billions of advertising money. Bert had been faithful to the trust that was given to him by Unilever and not a single centavo of that vast resource has been spent without the interest of Unilever at heart.

Bert has the comfort of having to leave Masscom to men and women close to him, Ed Cruz a long time partner of 42 years, two daughters, Lorraine and Elaine and son Raymond, to all of whom he has inculcated the virtues of constant Honesty and Integrity. He will live on every time his successors put to practice these inspiring qualities in the course of their work.

And to Tita, he bequeathed memories of a soul mate who shared with her a life well lived, a consolation befitting a dutiful and devoted wife.

In the fashion of legendary men, Bert, the Unilever Cowboy rides on towards the horizon leaving his imprint on a vast marketing and media landscape for other men and women to follow.