Vista Land ‘non-issue, can’t kill senator; it’s politics, he’s a survivor’

Vista Land ‘non-issue, can’t kill senator; it’s politics, he’s a survivor’
By Gerry Lirio
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Politics, Winston Churchill once said, is almost as exciting and as dangerous as war, except that in war, you can be killed only once, and in politics, many times.

Sen. Manuel Villar, now facing allegations of unethical conduct from C-5 to the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE), liked to cite this Churchillian dictum to describe the hazards of entering politics, especially when referring to his travails, presumably during the 2010 presidential campaign.

In a conversation with the Inquirer in May 2009—when talk first surfaced about his purported impropriety in pushing for the immediate secondary offering of shares of Vista Land, the parent company of his business empire, in July 2007—Villar said other presidential aspirants had been trying to do him in these past many years, and that this issue was just one more attempt to go for the kill.

“[My opponents] think they can benefit from [attacking me],” he said, adding that the attacks were meant to hurt, if not destroy, his presidential ambition and gain for them public support at his expense.

Villar and Vista Land officials were mum about the purported calls that the billionaire senator had made to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chair Fe Barin and then PSE president Francis Lim, as well as his meetings with them and their board members, in 2007.

As far as he was concerned, Villar said, there was “no controversy” surrounding the public sale of Vista Land shares, and the calls and meetings were “a nonissue.”

Not playing favorites

Also in May 2009, Vista Land president Jing Serrano said she was not familiar with the calls and meetings. She referred the Inquirer to Ricardo Tan, the company’s senior vice president for finance and chief information officer, but Tan ignored the questions sent to him.

Lim likewise sidestepped questions about having ordered an emergency PSE board meeting and having accompanied Villar to the SEC board. He dismissed a suggestion that he had “lawyered” for Villar.

“There is no truth whatsoever to this malicious allegation. I did not play favorites or committed any favoritism, much less lawyered for Senator Villar with respect to the Vista Land listing application,” Lim said in an e-mail to the Inquirer.

He added: “What I wanted to ensure as president of the PSE was for the PSE to treat Vista Land as fairly and objectively as possible, like any other listing applicant. My own personal philosophy in running the exchange is to level the playing field, regardless of the personalities involved. The board of directors carefully deliberated [on] the listing application and approved the same after the applicant has complied with the requirements of the PSE.”

Investors ‘fully protected’

A Vista Land letter to the PSE dated June 21, 2007, tried to justify the almost simultaneous primary and secondary offering of company shares, which came about after it requested the exchange to release from escrow 3.1 billion of over 5 billion secondary shares (thus violating the 180-day coverage of the lockup undertaking for the secondary offering).

The letter said only those shares to be actually issued and offered to the public under the secondary offering shall be released from escrow and excluded from the lockup coverage.

It also said Vista Land investors shall be “fully protected” because the same secondary offering was an “organized” transaction.

But some facts remain clear: Villar, his wife Las Piñas Rep. Cynthia Villar, and the family-controlled Vista Land became at least P20 billion richer after the sale of both primary and secondary shares in July 2007.

The Villars have never hidden the fact that they made a fortune out of the public offering. They are proud of it.

The company’s 2007 annual report heralded it as “the largest public offering” undertaken by a Philippine company.

Private wish

But privately, Villar, a businessman by training, sometimes wishes that politics would be less exciting and less dangerous, a member of his staff said.

He often finds himself a bit irritable when confronted by similar attacks, the staff member said.

There was another one, according to Vista Land president Serrano, referring to a report that spread by word of mouth early in 2009 that the senator lost P6 billion as a result of the collapse of US investment banking giant Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

The report reached Villar’s camp, but Serrano and other Vista Land officials simply found it ridiculous.

“How could that be? Until the public offering, we didn’t have excess money. By the time we got the proceeds, Lehman Brothers had collapsed. We didn’t have the time to invest in it even if we wanted to,” Serrano said.

Survivor

Villar said the controversies hounding him, including Sen. Jamby Madrigal’s complaint that he personally benefited from the C-5 road link project, had hurt him.

But these are not going to kill him because in many ways, he is a survivor, he said.

Villar recalled how he resurrected his real estate empire from near-bankruptcy at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1997—and, of course, how he rose from childhood poverty in Tondo, Manila, to become the lone billionaire in the Senate.

As of end-2008, Villar, along with his wife, had a net worth of P 1.046 billion, according to his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

In 2006, Vista Land had total revenues of P7.37 billion—proof that he was a billionaire long before Vista Land went public.

Villar became a millionaire at 27 in a real estate career that began with him selling gravel and sand.

Now 59, he is proud to say he has built a total of 250,000 houses nationwide, both low- and high-end, mostly for overseas Filipino workers who are now probably his most potent core constituency for the 2010 presidential election.

‘So solid’

Looking back, Villar said his industry and perseverance were the most important ingredient in his management style.

“I am result-oriented,” he said, citing over 30 years of hands-on knowledge and experience in business.

“So solid,” he said. Perhaps nothing can destroy him now.

But this result-oriented, hands-on managerial style seems to be getting in the way of his politics, an SEC lawyer said.

It is so strong that it can “overwhelm and overcome” the senator in him, according to the lawyer.

Where to draw the line?

“When does Senator Villar draw the line? When does his work as a businessman end and when does his work as a senator begin? When the senator personally called SEC chair Barin and Francis Lim and his board to pitch for his business interest, something was wrong somewhere,” the lawyer said.

But whether this issue is Villar’s Chappaquidick is something else. Added the lawyer: “If it can’t kill him, it can only make Senator Villar stronger. That’s politics.”

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.