How Eugenio "Geny" Lopez Jr Founded and Grew the ABS-CBN Empire
This feature story was originally titled as The Empire Builder, and was published in the December 2004 issue of Tatler Philippines. Majority of the House committee on legislative franchises adopted the recommendation of its technical working group to reject the bills seeking to grant the ABS-CBN network a 25-year-long franchise last 10 July 2020 after alleged numerous violations of the terms of its old franchise.
In his time, Eugenio "Geny" Lopez Jr was extremely wealthy not for what he owned, but for what he gave. He used money to create businesses that would improve the Filipinos' quality of life and to bring out the strengths and skills of his own people. His business philosophy was firmly anchored in public service. "Love people, use money," Geny was once quoted saying. "Often, businessmen make the mistake of thinking in the reverse of this axiom: Love money, use people. I have found that money should be looked upon as a tool to satisfy human needs. From here, everything else follows, including bottom lines that confirm how well you have done in the people business."
He was arguably the first business leader to talk about the soul's need for higher purpose in management, and by pointing out this paradox: "Spiritual fulfilment is conducive to long-term corporate success."
Geny followed his father's example of ensuring business growth by believing that financial returns resulted from good acts. He summed up the raison d'être of their family businesses: "We want people to have ready access to accurate information on events that affect their lives. We want them to enjoy their leisure time with good entertainment. We want them to be able to make telephone calls when they want to, to have reliable sources of electricity and potable water at the least cost, and to get to their destinations through well-built roads."
Geny's entrepreneurial spirit and charitable bent had been a Lopez tradition. He hailed from one of the country's oldest families, steeped in business and politics. Raul Rodrigo's Phoenix: Saga of the Lopez Family traces the clan's history back to the early 1800s in Iloilo. Patriarch Basilio Lopez, a merchant of mixed Filipino and Chinese blood, became the mayor of Jaro, a distinction given to the richest and most influential Filipino. His son Eugenio pioneered sugar planting in the Visayas in the mid-19th century. By the 20th century, the Lopezes owned the biggest sugar mill in the country and became the largest Filipino supplier of sugar to the United States. Eugenio's son, Benito, produced El Tiempo, the first daily newspaper in Iloilo and was also vice mayor of Iloilo City and a nationalist. Benito and his wife Presentacion Hofileña sired the second Eugenio in the lineage, who later became the founder of the future Lopez business empire and Fernando, who became Ferdinand Marcos' vice president before Martial Law.
Geny Lopez inherited Don Eugenio's progressiveness and generosity. The elder Lopez surpassed the haciendero or sugar planter archetype and ventured into airlines, shipping, education and media. He made a bold move to buy the Manila Electric Company or Meralco from the American owners. Under the new Filipino management, Meralco eventually became the largest firm in the country and also one of the best-run utility firms in the world in 1969.
As the eldest and Don Eugenio's namesake, Geny said in the family biography that he was the centre of his father's attention. Rodrigo described Geny as a "rascal" in his youth. Although he was lackadaisical academically at the Ateneo, he showed leadership skills and was elected president of his pre-law class. When he became a disciplinary problem, Don Eugenio sent Geny to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, where he developed his trademark compulsive neatness, self-motivation and, invariably, his hands-on bullish management style.
While studying at VMI, Geny met Conchita LaO in Washington D.C. When he returned to the Philippines after graduating from VMI and studying at the Universidad Central de Madrid in Spain, he married Conchita in September 1951 after a whirlwind courtship. Immediately after their wedding, they left for Boston. Geny studied at the Harvard Business School, which gave him the tools to be a powerful and efficient leader. In 1952, Conchita gave birth to Eugenio Gabriel "Gabby" Lopez III in Cambridge. They had six more children: Gina, Marisa, Raffy, Berta, Ernie and Ramon. Today, the scions hold key positions in the family businesses and philanthropic activities today.
The very first full-blown broadcast of Alto Broadcasting System was on October 23, 1953, of a party of Tony Quirino, the brother of then-Philippine president Elpidio Quirino. In 1956, Don Eugenio and his brother and then vice president Fernando founded Chronicle Broadcasting Network, which initially focused only on radio broadcasting. On the year after, the Lopezes acquired ABS and by 1967, the two stations were merged as ABS-CBN. Geny was tasked to run the media organisation. He had the knack for working with the most brilliant minds in the business to help the station become the leader. Broadcaster Jim Lindenberg and engineer Slim Cheney taught Geny all aspects from business, program and engineering. As ABS-CBN's general manager, Jake Almeda Lopez imparted Geny the soul of management.
Under his vision, Geny made television and radio more accessible to a mass audience. It did not only bring profits but also raised the standards of media operations and gave the public quality entertainment.
"He had a certain magic in the way he dealt with people that you couldn't find in the other Lopezes," notes Rodrigo, the family biographer. Don Eugenio exercised power over people, but he was aloof. Geny can take off his engineer's hat, and you could fish with him in his yacht. He was very much a man of the people."
Amando Doronila, editor in chief of the defunct Lopez newspaper Manila Chronicle, has fond memories. "Geny liked the good life. He recognised his editors' culinary tastes. During strategy meetings in Baguio or elsewhere, he liked us to have dinner or lunch in good restaurants. He would ask me to suggest the menu. Whatever hard issues had been decided and internal differences had been expressed in the workshops, the final dinner ended all these. Nothing more was heard about the rows after that." Rodrigo adds, "He could make people do extra things out of love of him and for the company." In the late '50s, ABS-CBN was tiny compared with the Elizalde's Manila Broadcasting Company. Geny motivated people to make their station No. 1. He told employees, "My father once said to me, 'We have enough money to not to work for a hundred years.' So why am I with you on a Sunday? Because I'm trying to build something."
The biographer describes Geny as a visionary. "Geny could see the future decades ahead, and he pushed toward it. If he failed it, he'd keep trying until he got it right. He felt the public deserved to be better informed so he wanted an all-news station in the '50s, but his efforts in radio failed. It wasn't until ANC (ABS-CBN News Channel) was established in the mid-'90s that he got what he wanted. He also envisioned linking the Filipinos by microwave in 1969-70 with "Bridges on the Air" that connected the nation by one TV network. When he chose to go via satellite in 1988, his finance team said it was not economically viable. Geny made an intuitive leap, and made money in a couple of months. Advertisers saw the potential and jumped in."
In 1966, Geny introduced colour television programming in the Philippines at the cost of PHP2 million when the total asset base of ABS-CBN as leading network was some PHP11 million. "It was a single investment relative to the price of the company, and he had the nerve to do it," recollects Rodrigo. Geny Lopez was never motivated by profits. It was the process of establishing ABS-CBN's leadership and serving the public that stimulated him.
During Martial Law, Geny was arrested by President Marcos and was used as a hostage to acquire the Lopezes' business interests, particularly in television and power. In prison, Geny deeply developed his spiritual side by meditating twice a day, which became his habit until his final days. "Meditation is my anchor in life. I get a lot of strength and wisdom from that," said Geny in Phoenix. "Meditation has helped me in the sense that it has made me more compassionate, more generous and a more caring individual."
After five years in prison, Geny and Sergio Osmeña III fled. The family biography described the escape as an embarrassment to Marcos. Their dramatic escape was made into the movie Eskapo: The Serge Osmeña-Geny Lopez Story in 1995.
From 1977 to 1986, Geny lived in San Francisco biding time by selling Filipino delicacies to the Fil-Am community. It also gave him the chance to bond with his younger children. Geny returned after the EDSA Revolution in 1986 to regain the family businesses. The charismatic Geny reunited with his former employees. He re-established his ties with Freddie Garcia, who became president of ABS-CBN until his retirement. Garcia devised new programming and marketing strategies for the network to regain its old glory. Geny's son Gabby went on to create new businesses for ABS-CBN.
Rodrigo points out that Geny had a sense of civic duty and responsibility of being a publisher, which was inculcated in him by his father. The Manila Chronicle was at its peak during the era of Don Eugenio. From 1986 to 1994, Geny supported the Chronicle and its innovations despite its modest circulation and advertising revenues.
As a boss, former colleagues described Geny as incomparable, and perhaps it is hard to find a leader who embodies his brilliance, discipline and generosity today. Doronila best describes Geny's management style. His former employer made decisions quickly and was a strategist. "He did not lose time on details. He put problems in the framework of concepts. He was quick to understand the concepts underlying solutions to problems. He didn't have an accountant's or bookeeper's mania for details. During directors' board meetings—including bank boards (PCIBank) and the Manila Chronicle—he did not take down detailed notes. His schedule for the day was written on small pieces of scratch pad which contained a short list of key words. The technique of reminders was the same regardless of whether he chaired a newspaper board meeting or other businesses outside of media. When decisions had been made, implementation followed swiftly," says Doronila.
On how Geny put people first above money, Doronila explains, "During conflicts among the Chronicle's top executives and editorial department, he decided on the spot whom to back up. There was no ambiguity or procrastination. One knew exactly where he stood. You didn't have to second guess about whether you had his support. Geny had a deep sense of understanding of editorial independence of a newspaper, either from public authority or from the paper's owners. He always supported the editor in chief, in whom he had inherent confidence. There were times when editorial independence of the Chronicle caused problems between the company's financial interests and the government. When authorities complained about the paper's criticisms, Geny would say, 'The editors exercise freedom of the press. I don't even tell them what to do.' The truth is, he never told us in the Chronicle to slow down on criticism. We knew the independence of the paper had caused financial setbacks for the Lopez family interests. The financial interests of the Lopezes were not our concern in editorial department. Our attitude was to produce an independent paper that presented intelligent and useful information."
The soul of a business is not found in the bottom line, but in the way our activities touch the lives of the public. Without a soul, a business or a person is nothing
— Eugenio Lopez Jr
Although the Chronicle was hailed for its reportage, editing and innovations in lifestyle journalism, the format did not bring mass circulation and financial success. "The formula accounted for the narrow financial base of the paper. Geny knew he had to pay a price to have a quality newspaper. Although he always emphasised that the newspaper had to be viable on its own and should not depend on subsidies from the more financially stable Lopez companies, he had to sustain the paper by pooling resources of his friends for capitalisation. We were never made to understand the editorial department was beholden to his business partners. I had a sense that Geny and his father, Don Eugenio, had a romantic attachment to the Chronicle as the symbol of their contribution to quality journalism."
Geny knew the power of appreciation as a tool for building organisational success. He showed it by hiring the best talents, delegating responsibility, focusing on what was working in the organisation and rewarding people. Rodrigo quotes Geny as saying, "My dad would say, 'If you want to make money, give it away.'" The biographer adds, "His people talked about the yearly bonus. The envelope and the handshake showed how happy he was."
Doronila recalls,, "Executives hardly asked for salary increases. The raises came as a surprise. Geny knew how to recognise a good piece of work." Geny was also involved in philanthropy, although it was done quietly, a tradition that he inherited from his father.
In 1993, Geny concentrated on Benpres Holdings, the mother company of ABS-CBN, Meralco and other subsidiaries, PCIBank, First Holdings and other businesses. From 1994 to 1999, Geny ventured into interests outside media and electric power. He established Bayan Telecommunications Holdings Corporation, Manila North Tollways, Maynilad Water, Rockwell Land and other companies.
In 1994, Geny and Conchita separated. A few years later, their marriage of more than forty years was annulled. However, they remained good friends and even double-dated with their respective partners. He spent his last years with Susan Reyes, a businesswoman and civic worker. By most accounts, the partnership was accepted by the Lopez children.
Geny wanted to see the businesses were stable. At 70, he was quoted in Phoenix saying, "Above all, I want to see the culture of sharing and public service be made very much a part of our company's life. Also I want to see the leadership of each company professionalised, then after that, others will take over from me. I think by then, I would have done enough."
Geny was diagnosed with cancer in 1994, starting with a spot in his lung. After five years, the cells spread to his brain and spinal cord. He died in June 1999 in San Francisco. He was 71.
Rodrigo believes that the family businesses still thrive on the corporate values of public service instilled by the elder Lopezes. Geny once said, "The soul of a business is not found in the bottom line, but in the way our activities touch the lives of the public. Without a soul, a business or person is nothing."
Read more: Remembering Philanthropist and Eco-Warrior Gina Lopez
- Images Lopez Museum and Roberta Lopez Feliciano