That first meeting at Les Deux Magots was heady. We were excited and bubbled with old family stories. In Paris, we had more dinners and a shopping expedition to the flea market at the Marche Aux Puces Saint-Ouen. The pleasant bonding in Paris was followed by more get-togethers in New York and in Mactan. Later on, I asked Manny if I could write about him. I want to find out how you became a businessman, I said. He agreed.
To most people, Manny is the successful businessman who is the CEO and principal shareholder of Plantation Bay Resort and Spa in Mactan, Philippines. To me, Manny is my first cousin.
I recall, before Plantation Bay existed, Manny’s visits to my entrepreneurial mother. This was back in the early 1990s and he would sit and pick her brain about the resort hotel he wanted to create. He did build Plantation Bay, from the ground, carving 11 hectares of dry Mactan land into a kind of fantasyland with seafront and a huge manmade pool at the center, surrounded by clusters of colonial-style buildings to house 260 rooms. Plantation Bay has a variety of restaurants, shops, tennis courts, pools, meeting rooms, spa, and other leisure facilities, making the resort feel like a complete little world. Plantation Bay claims it’s the Number One choice of travelers.
Aside from owning a home in Barcelona, Manny keeps an apartment in Plantation Bay. His typical day at Plantation Bay is this: Breakfast with the general manager or other officers. Morning briefing. Inspections and quick meeting some days. Lunch by himself. Reading and writing in his room, with the TV turned on for background noise (typically, DVDs of old TV series). When he is out-of-town -- and he is fond of traveling -- Manny continues managing the resort via emails with hotel officers.
His love for Plantation Bay is apparent: one of his happiest moments was the 20th year celebration of resort business in 2016 when they had a fireworks display and which started with a rock version of “Amazing Grace.” “It was heart-thumping,” he declared.
I realized that for decades, Manny had poured himself into Plantation Bay. Sitting in the Kilimanjaro Kafe for breakfast and studying the Korean tourists, I mentioned that Plantation Bay was his creation and it was a good one because he made vacationers happy; he gifted them with memories that will last their lifetimes.
I asked if he considers himself a successful businessman. “Yes,” he said. I asked if money is his sole measure of his success. He said money is just part of the notion of success. He talked of other factors such as the chance to exercise both creativity and managerial competence in a variety of disciplines such as food, architecture, interior design, recreation activity design, marketing, property development.
Indeed, Manny scrutinizes restaurant menus and food preparation; he goes through great lengths to find the right brand of butter, coffee, wine or beer; he experiments with recipes until they find the right one for croissant or fabada, for example. He is involved with room designs, choices of furniture and fixtures, hiring and firing, and just about every persnickety detail in that resort.
He also started health care programs that extend to the surrounding communities of Plantation Bay. Manny’s brainchild includes the Las Vegas-style performances by workers who have to audition and get paid extra for their performances.
I wondered who had taught Manny to be innovative, to step out of the “box.” “Who mentored you?” I asked.
“Various people have helped me throughout my life, some without even realizing the extent to which I benefited from their random acts of kindness. This makes me all the more aware that the most important ingredient in success is good luck, and a knack for seizing on undeserved lucky breaks,” he replied.
I had not expected to hear Manny talk of “luck” and had assumed he would credit hard work and his abilities with his success. He had gone to the Ateneo and Columbia Universities, and he had worked for years in international banking and finance.
I also assumed his life had been choreographed toward success, but his statement about this was, “My life was never carefully planned. I just wandered from one situation to another. I took a Humanities major (at the Ateneo) because it would allow me to finish college early, not because of any deep conviction except a general belief that broad knowledge would be good for me.”
I did not – do not -- believe his life has been that random because I knew of his business ventures when he was just a child. In Washington D.C. where his father had worked, Manny and another neighbor child had a newspaper business (they sold one copy). He and another child also ran a proverbial lemonade stand. Later, in Cebu, we cousins used to play Monopoly and Manny always ended up with the most number of houses and hotels. In grade school, he rented out his comics to his classmates, “to support my comic-book addiction ... and for something to do during summer.” At school, he discovered that many children did not bother returning their soft drink bottles for their 5-centavo deposit, so he collected the empty bottles to “earn money to buy treats for myself.”
One summer in Cebu, he and another boy cousin, concocted a business of selling scrap metal. They had seen men picking up metal from the side streets and the two boys realized there was money in that “garbage.” They used the family car to hunt for discarded metal. It was the earnings from the scrap metal business that he invested in the pawn shop owned by our two old maid aunts. As luck (or bad luck) would have it, the shop was burglarized, and Manny had his first lesson about the uncertainty of investments when he lost everything.
Despite the public persona of being a successful businessman, and unknown to many, he is interested in what I call “New Age stuff.” He has hired Feng Shui masters for Plantation Bay. He collects crystals and talks about their “energies.” He is interested in the healing qualities of herbs. He seems to believe in karma and is generous to his employees. “I have had a chance to help people improve their lives and broaden their horizons, not just by providing employment and a nurturing environment, but by sharing business skills and personal values,” he says.
At times, he has felt the sting of betrayals by those close to him, but he shrugs this off: “I have a short memory for things like that. It takes a lot for me to sour completely on a particular person, and my unrewarding experiences don’t transfer to others.”
When asked what qualities have helped him become successful he says, “Determination and an appropriately optimistic outlook in life. Choosing work that I enjoy. Willingness to be different. Sweating the details.”
I had one more question for Manny. Throughout the years, I’ve visited him in his different homes and almost always he occupied the room that had no windows or had blackout curtains -- the “cave” I called it. “Why do you like windowless rooms?” I asked.
His reply was: “I actually like two kinds of room - those with spectacular views, and those which allow me full control of my space. Open rooms can be a window on a beautiful world. Dark, enclosed spaces are comforting, womb-like.”
His suggestion to young entrepreneurs is this: Recognize when opportunity knocks. Sweat the details. Action and experimentation are better than endless analysis and discussion.
He ended the interview with this missive: Be grateful for all your blessings.
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the author and editor of 20 books. Her recent books are Please, San Antonio! & Melisande in Paris, and The Newspaper Widow. Her official website is ceciliabrainard.com.
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