Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 18 November 2014


Vicente T. Paterno, former chairman of the BOI (Board of Investment) (1970-1979), Minister of Industry (1974-1979), and Minister of Public Highways (1979-1980), Senator of the Republic (1987-1992), and, now, private businessman, as founder and chairman of the Philippine Seven Corporation, has written a book about himself, his beginnings and his achievements.

A ‘follow-your-dream’ story. Entitled On My Terms: The Autobiography of Vicente Tirona Paterno (Anvil, 2014), the book is an inspiring life story of talent put to good use through hard work, family values, competent use of learning, humility, and a strong moral and ethical compass.

It is not a “rags-to-riches” story. Paterno’s tale is more romantic: “follow-your-dream” — “On my terms!” as he puts it.

Youth and origins. Paterno descends from a well-to-do and very comfortable background. He traces his ancestry to an immigrant from China whose immediate descendants succeeded as businessmen. His parents were highly educated professionals – his father a medical doctor who became a highly paid manager, and his mother a Tirona from Cavite, an educator.

When war broke out, Paterno was a boy maturing into young manhood, too young to become a soldier but old enough to face the challenges of hardships and survival. He helped his mother provide for the family during those dangerous years. His father was marooned in Hong Kong for the duration of the war.

His family and social connections were extensive among the privileged in Philippine society. Ting Paterno married Socorro Paz Pardo who came also from another well-connected family in Philippine society.

A major family tie that affected the Paterno fortune negatively was with Vicente Madrigal. A brother-in-law of his father, Madrigal was a tycoon of Philippine industry and shipping during American colonial times and, later, a senator of the new republic.

During the war, his father’s substantial stocks in a cement company got entangled in the forced transfer of the company to the Japanese occupation force. After the war when proper restorations were made by the government, Madrigal refused to honor the part that belonged to Paterno’s father. The story was almost one from Dallas, the American 1970s TV soap opera of family life and deceit and hard feelings.

Early private sector. Educated as a mechanical engineer at UP, his first employment was with a sugar mill in Batangas where he earned substantial work experience. He attended the Harvard Business School supported by family funds and got his MBA with exceptional marks.

His business study redirected his future, though engineering remained a good anchor in a lot of work he would undertake later. Project management consultancy became his expertise after he returned from his studies. He would later join PHINMA, the managing firm, and in that firm he would become familiar with a variety of business and economic projects.

In mid-career, he staked his future with Meralco, the electricity public utility, taking responsibility for finance. The Lopezes at that time had recently gained control of management from its American owners. He would have spent more years with Meralco had he not incurred the anger of Eugenio Lopez, Sr. His proposal for Meralco to strengthen its finances through an IPO to raise capital was misunderstood by Lopez who thought that the proposal could lead to loss of management control of the utility.

Government career. It was at that low point in his relations with Meralco’s big boss when, in mid-1970, he became interested in Cesar Virata’s efforts to succeed him as chairman of BOI.

Fast forward now, in government. President Marcos appointed him to the BOI and three years later also the Minister of Industry shortly after the reorganization of that department.

This was the period most remembered about Vicente Paterno. He became one of the country’s most trusted and prominent technocrats. Investment issues and industry were important concerns of the nation. He was popular among domestic industrialists. He was seen as a hardworking taskmaster of the industrial investment incentives program. He had other assignments besides, including international trade relations.

Toward the latter part of his stint at BOI and industry, however, he encountered frustrations in the job. Marcos transferred him to the Ministry of Public Highways to replace a corrupt head. In this post, he put in place a system of management to install transparency and reduce corruption. Eventually, he also got his wish to make that job his exit point from government, although he had become an elected member of the Batasang Pambansa by that time.

The Ninoy Aquino assassination was the trigger for his move toward Cory Aquino’s opposition group. After People’s Power in 1986, he served briefly in executive tasks as head of the Philippine National Oil Company, but President Cory Aquino drafted him to join her Senate slate after the 1987 Constitution was adopted.

As senator, he headed the Committee on Economic Affairs. However, he was disappointed with the indecisions and wrong decisions of the Cory Aquino presidency. After one term in the Senate, he chose not to run again and he retired in the private sector.

Private life, again. Life does not become any more tranquil afterwards, but it was personally more rewarding. He plunged into nurturing a struggling business franchise system that he helped set up in the mid-1980s.

The story of Seven-Eleven, the 24/7 convenience store retailing franchise operated through a centralized management system of control, supply and logistics is an interesting story in itself, full of the risk and uncertainty of business. Paterno describes how this chain grew from a few stores into more than 1,000 stores servicing the megacity-wide area of Manila and some major municipalities and cities.

Legacy. Vicente Paterno initially wrote this work, in his words, “only to inform my eight grandchildren of their origins. Writing on the origins of the Paterno clan evolved into a story of my life, the times I lived in, the work I did.”

Addressed as “Owo” for lolo when they could hardly talk, Vicente Paterno gave his eight grandchildren a lasting gift of written record. From his life, they and their future progenies will be proud of their grandfather and of their roots!

The publication of the work means that we too can learn more about one important man’s story and relate it with the times in which we also lived.