To the victors belongs the toil—at least when it comes to winning “The Apprentice.” Asian fans of the show were delighted when AXN released an Asian version of the episodic, cutthroat job application dressed up as a reality show. After the show’s CEO Tony Fernandes put 12 contestants—two of them Filipinos—through their paces, a victor finally emerged, and he’s Pinoy.
Meet Jonathan Allen Yabut—who, at 28, is one of the youngest contestants in the show. The BS Economics graduate from the University of the Philippines had previously held jobs at Globe Telecom and GlaxoSmithKline before becoming an Apprentice. Eleven episodes later, he bagged the job and will start work at AirAsia, reporting directly to Tony Fernandes in mid-August.
Jonathan talks to Super at AXN’s finale viewing party about his “palaban” strategy, using misconceptions about Filipinos to his advantage, and rising from humble beginnings to become an inspiration to the Filipino workforce.
Be honest. Did you think you had it in the bag?
I think anyone who gets into the final 12 will always aspire for it; the only difference was that I really wanted it so bad. I’ve always been a fan of the show since college and I told myself that, if there would be a “The Apprentice Philippines” or “The Apprentice Asia,” I’d have to cross this off my bucket list.
Bill Rancic, the first-ever Apprentice (US), is one of my motivators in life. To give you an idea how I was expecting it, if you notice in the preview of the part 2 finale, I was wearing a barong. I packed that barong because I said to myself, if I get chosen as one of the final two, I’m gonna be wearing this in the boardroom—that was my victory outfit. So, yeah, you can say I was really expecting it, but I wanted it more. I wanted it so bad than the rest of them.
Are you proud of how you played the game?
I am proud because I played who Jonathan is in real life. How you see me on camera is how I really am. I think that’s one of the fears of many contestants in this show; they don’t want to play with a facade with people finding out that they’re someone else. What you want is that you won for who you really are and I’m proud that I never changed.
I did play the game, I played it smartly—when you don’t need to talk you don’t talk, when you had to talk you talk. The way I talked, performed, managed people and dealt with conflicts is who I really am.
What was it like behind the camera for you?
I really thought it was going to be rolling 24/7. You basically sold yourself to the devil, that’s what it is. Things that you don’t want to be seen on TV get caught and I think that’s the cost of it—people knowing who you are. Editing will always come into play, in which they want to shape a certain character out of you. We have this WhatsApp group, all 12 of us, and every time there’s an episode we always talk to each other and say, “That wasn’t edited that way or that editing was wrong.” I think that’s the cost of being on TV, but it’s a good cost if, in the end, you’re one of the finalists.
What’s next for you?
Like any other Apprentice winner, it’s immediately back to work. In my case, my first day of work with Mr. Tony Fernandes is on Aug. 15. I’m finishing my documents and I’ve signed the contract with him. The official position is Chief of Staff for AirAsia, and I’m reporting directly to him.
Is this the company you chose to work for?
It was assigned to me by Mr. Fernandes. Majority of his business, around 40 percent, is with AirAsia. I think he also heeded my request when I had some personal moments with him; I told him, “Sir, I love traveling and I think the airline industry suits me best.”
One contestant intimated that he would be earning less if he became “The Apprentice.” What about you?
No, I’ll be earning more (laughs). I’m only 28. If you look at it, I’m still starting out in a middle management position. I’ve been in marketing for only seven years, two years of which I’ve spent as a management trainee for Globe, so it’s really a big jump for my career.
Why weren’t there as many fights or arguments on-screen compared to the US or the UK versions?
Asians are more reserved, more into harmonizing conflicts and resolving them before jumping into a heated argument. However, if you look at me and the way I played my game, I can be relatively more abrasive than the rest. Episode 2 pa lang I had a conflict na with Hanzo. If you bite me, if you bark at me, I’ll eat you in return.
Were there arguments that didn’t make it on-screen?
Definitely. The boardroom is six to eight hours average; you’re only seeing 10 to 15 minutes of it. Tony really takes down, who should be fired and for those reasons andaming laway na nagagastos sa show na ’to. Because it’s only a 45-minute show, you only see the tip of the iceberg.
You and Andrea seemed to have developed a friendship. How did your winning over her affect it?
Andrea is one of my closest friends in the show. We bonded so much such that I think it was an unspoken rule sa aming dalawa, na whoever wins it, the other person who loses will still have respect for the other person, kasi alam naming it could’ve been anyone. I will admit it, even in the final four with Sam and Alex, it could’ve been anyone. The only difference is that there is someone on the other side of the boardroom who’s looking for something for his company and I probably fit best.
Did you feel that luck played a part in your winning?
Definitely. Luck played in the finale, I won the coin toss; it gave me an undue advantage. My teammates, which I got to pick first, were my strongest asset in this episode.
Let’s talk about your “burning eyes.”
Do you see it ba? Do you see it now? I think I’ve used that term many times, that’s always how I present myself to people when I get to know someone. If you ask my former bosses, the word they always use to describe me is passionate. I think it’s the bond between me and Tony. He has an airline business, an F1 racing team, a football team—he does these things because he loves them. He will not go to the cement industry even if it’s a lucrative one because he doesn’t like cement. If you love what you’re doing, it will not feel like it’s a job. I’m passionate about marketing because I get an orgasmic high if I see my work on TV or on a billboard along Edsa. I don’t want to be the mediocre guy who didn’t give his best.
If passion drives you like Tony Fernandes, what industry would you like to be in if you were CEO?
I’ve always told myself that if I didn’t go into the corporate world, I would be a chef with my own kitchen empire, something like a casual/fine-dining concept that will have branches in Manila, Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona, London, something that specializes in Spanish-Filipino cuisine.
Sam mentioned that Tony’s decision to choose you and Andrea was an emotional one. Do you agree?
Definitely. And that’s how I played the game, entering that boardroom, I felt that I already showed Tony what I’m capable of. In order to differentiate myself from the other three, I had to elevate my discussion to something else. All three were saying, “I’m good,” “I’m brilliant,” “I do the job well.”
Favorite challenge from the show?
I love coffee, so the Dolce Gusto challenge was my favorite. It got edited, but I volunteered to be the project manager there.
Who are your other business role models?
It may be a cliché, but I really like what Ayala is doing with real estate. Its projects always have an “Ayala touch, and that, for me, is a good benchmark of a good businessman. I like MVP as well. He does businesses that changes lives of people.
What do you hope to bring to AirAsia?
I think AirAsia needs to expand more outside Asia. This is the time when economic and political power are finally shifting to Asia; gone are the days when all the financial companies and airline companies came from the West. AirAsia is a brand that can prove to the world what Asians can really do.
What was your family’s reaction to your win?
I come from humble beginnings, so my parents didn’t really know what “The Apprentice” is until I showed them an episode of “The US Apprentice.” I had to explain to them, “Ma, Pa, ganito yan ha.” I told them it’s just like “Survivor,” the only difference is, “The Apprentice” happens in an urban jungle so we have marketing and sales tasks. My mom said, “Grabe ’no? Kakatakot pala, buti nagawa mo yan.”
How are you going to adjust to moving to a different country?
I’ve always been a traveler at heart; at age 24 I’ve backpacked my way through Southeast Asia and Europe. Cowboy ako e, you can put me in any situation and I will thrive, as long as I love what I’m doing. I don’t think the adjustment will be that bad; I love the culture of Malaysia, I love Malaysian food.
What lessons did you learn from previous jobs that helped you win?
From Globe Telecom, ruthless excellence in whatever you do. There’s no space for mediocrity, there’s always a better way of doing something that’s already better. From GlaxoSmithKline, leadership and influence. You will never be able to drive a team unless the team believes in you. In Globe I learned to work, in GlaxoSmithKline I learned how to work compassionately.
What misconceptions or beliefs about Filipinos did you use to your advantage during the show?
That Filipinos can be easily pushed around. All these other contestants know na, “O, si Jonathan galing sa isang bansa na maraming domestic helpers.” That’s what I really wanted to prove to them, that there are many world-class talents in the Philippines. They don’t know much about our country. All these contestants, it’s their first time to come here.
How else are you and Tony alike?
We’re very practical. I think that’s what he liked about me. You don’t need to make something beautiful as long as it’s already functional; you add the beautiful stuff later on. That’s what I showed in the Hilton task, for example. There are ways of minimizing costs in everything that you do. Talent, for example, is something that you can pay at a fixed price, but you can always push more output from it. I think that’s the low-cost model Tony is known for.
You mentioned coming from humble beginnings. What was your background like?
Very humble. When I was in high school, sobrang sakto ang allowance. Just enough for a jeepney ride from the house to school and lunch. My mother told me, “We cannot send you to a good school unless you are scholars.” I went to Letran, a private all-boys school, which my parents couldn’t afford if I weren’t a scholar.
What advice do you have for people whom you’ve inspired?
You can never be too small to dream big, there is no such thing as being small. The only enemy of the ambitious is time. It’s not resources or people, just time and the limits you set for yourself.