It is well past noon when Manny and Mark Villar finally sit down for a late power lunch at the Makati board room of Vista Land, one of myriad vantage points from which the real estate mogul oversees his vast business empire.
Father and son are wearing stylish, slim-cut suits and white button-down dress shirts–no doubt chosen specifically for the photo op–but like any uniform, they subliminally express unity of purpose and power.
Since quitting politics after his failed presidential bid in 2010, Villar Sr. seems to have gotten his mojo back, expanding his holdings and finally making it to the “Forbes” magazine list of the world’s billionaires—the first full-blooded Filipino to do so.
At 65, he looks trim and energetic, a fact he attributes to a rekindled passion for his first love: business.
“I’m not in politics anymore,” he declares. “Nililigawan ako, pero hindi ako tatakbo. Wala akong balak. I could work for a candidate, but right now I’m consumed by what I’m doing.
“I like the discipline and the challenge of business,” he adds. “In politics, bola-bola lang—you just have to look competent, OK ka na. But when you compete in business, quantifiable ang performance mo. You can’t just look competent, may quarterly earnings ka. Kung mahina ka, malulugi ka.”
Although he rose to become Speaker of the House and Senate President, Villar seems unsentimental about the nearly two decades he spent in politics. As with any hard-nosed businessman, it boils down to the bottom line.
“I was wealthier before I went into politics—the best proof that I did not enrich myself in public office,” he says. “And now that I’m back, I’ve recovered what I lost.”
And then some. Earlier this year, Forbes magazine calculated his net worth at $1.6 billion.
But success for Villar is a family affair.
As the wealthiest senator, his wife Cynthia wields considerable influence in the upper chamber.
Having imbibed both business and politics as mother’s milk, from the cradle, as it were, the three Villar children are following squarely in their parents’ footsteps.
Eldest son Paolo is president and CEO of Vista Land & Lifescapes Inc., the family’s flagship real estate company.
Youngest daughter Camille, after a brief flirtation with show business as co-host on Willy Revillame’s variety show, is poised to take over the family’s retail business.
It is middle son Mark, now 36, who has inherited the political mantle. Now on his second term as representative of the lone district of Las Piñas, he is contemplating whether to stay on in the House or seek higher office.
Having recently completed his MBA from the University of Chicago, he also has the option of joining the family business, should he choose to do so.
“We’re a team,” admits Mark. “We each have our own roles to play. My brother is on top of the business, I’m in public service because our family also wants public service to be one of our legacies, and my sister’s helping out in both. We’re happy with our roles, and all of them contribute to our goals as a family.”
Now there is a third politician in the family. Last October, Mark wed congresswoman Emmeline Aglipay, Diwa party-list representative.
The couple are expecting a daughter–the Villars’ first grandchild–later this year.
Despite their considerable wealth and influence, the Villars choose to live comparatively modest lifestyles–at least by billionaire standards.
Manny and Cynthia Villar still live in their Las Piñas home. They drive Toyotas, not Ferraris. They do have a house in the United States, but it’s a modest townhouse they keep for sentimental reasons, and for their annual family vacation.
Manny Villar chalks it up to his modest beginnings in a Tondo slum, a fishmonger’s son who parlayed a borrowed P10,000 into a business empire through “sipag at tiyaga,” bywords that he later used as his political slogan when he ran for the presidency.
“My upbringing was thrifty,” he says in Filipino. “Even though Cynthia’s father was mayor of Las Piñas, her mother was also a penny-pincher. So we never had a problem living simply. We never developed the taste for luxury.
“If you’re an entrepreneur, you never have any money anyway because you put it all in your businesses. Even my personal cash ended up being invested because I couldn’t pass up the opportunities. We ended up eating at McDonald’s. This went on until our Initial Public Offering in 1995. So for 20 years, talagang sagad. When we could finally afford luxuries, we found that we weren’t used to them,” he says.
Up to now, he says, he still flies business class, because he can’t see the point of spending more money on first.
Early on, the couple decided to bring their children up the same way.
“We made a conscious effort, because my wife and I always felt that if you’re born wealthy, there’s always the danger that you could grow up spoiled. Maganda kung maihanda mo na ang character nila,” he points out.
The Villars kept as tight a rein on the family finances as they did on the business. The children were given modest allowances, even though they could well afford to give them more.
“Me and my siblings are very happy about the way we grew up,” says Mark. “We never felt deprived, but we were never spoiled. That was the only life we knew, ever since we were young. So we never got used to high living. We didn’t look for it. Even when I was in college, I was happy just to have the occasional pizza.”
“The values that we have, a lot of them were learned by example,” he continues. “You have to show your children that this is the right way to live your life. It was more effective because it was something that we saw every day in our parents. For me that was very effective—you walk the talk.”
Mark recalls that when he and older Paolo were enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, they made a point of meeting up on weekends, because that was the only time they could charge their meals. Otherwise, they had to make do with their allowances.
The brothers also didn’t have their own cars until they graduated, and even then they had to take out a car loan from their first jobs.
Mark doesn’t seem to recall a time he felt the need to rebel against the career path chosen for him.
“I idolized my father when I was young,” he says. “When my dad listened to Frank Sinatra, I started listening to Sinatra. When I saw him reading business magazines, I started reading business magazines, too.”
He doesn’t feel intimidated by what his father has accomplished in his lifetime.
“It’s never been an issue with me,” he says. “Actually, I’m inspired by it. If I could even come close to what he’s accomplished, I’ll be extremely happy. I can only do my best. Whether or not that’s enough, I don’t know, but it’s definitely inspired me to push myself a little harder.”
Enjoy the climb
As for Manny Villar, he’s at that point in his life when his thoughts turn to legacy.
“When you’re older, you realize that you have to enjoy the climb because there’s really nothing there when you get to the top. You climb and climb, and then you die. It’s really about the journey,” he says.
Wealth is just a way of keeping score, he adds. “I’m competing in the field of business, and the amount of wealth that you have is how you keep score. As a businessman, I feel good that I’m able to contribute something concrete. When your business grows you are able to employ more people, you pay more taxes, you’re able to help more people with your foundations. Klaro ang score mo.”
As far as his heirs go, he says he’s happy to have brought them this far, but the rest is up to them.
“The one thing I can’t give them is that fire in the belly,” he says.
“When I was young, winning was a matter of survival,” he continues. “It wasn’t just because I wanted to win, I had to win because I had to survive. That’s how I developed that fire in the belly. You can have education, and wealth, but without that fire in the belly, you won’t go far. And that is something I can’t give them—they have to create it for themselves.”
Manny Villar nobody’s running mate, says wife