The COVID-19 pandemic has irreversibly changed our way of life, some sectors more than others. The business world has been forced to adapt to supply chain disruptions, a devastating decrease in face-to-face interactions due to lockdowns and social distancing restrictions and the subsequent financial fallout.
Many companies have been forced to pivot and diversify in order to survive; in some cases, they’ve thrived. The Philippines, so close to COVID-19’s ground zero in Asia, was particularly affected by disturbances to overseas transport traffic.
When government infrastructure projects, vital to the maintenance of these supply chains, were thrown into uncertainty as one of the world’s strictest lockdowns took hold, Udenna Infrastructure Corporation (UIC) COO Jomel Fuentes saw a chance to help.
“For our government infrastructure projects – airports, seaports, urban rail – we went back to the drawing board,” he says. Aware that a reconfiguration of these projects could not only improve import–export operations for the country, but also improve UIC’s cashflow at a financially prudent time, Jomel put his team to work.
“We submitted new models for these projects to the government for further negotiation,” he says. “We also looked within the Udenna Group for possible clients. We found DITO Telecommunity. And then once we secured a contract, we built an experienced team to deliver. As a result, my team has grown from 11 to 57 during the pandemic.”
The company signed a US$200 million contract to build cellular towers and lay fibre optic cables for UIC sister company DITO Telecommunity, which Jomel credits as a major win in a tough time. “That’s a major focus for this year – to secure the right people to drive that project and the right partners to fund and achieve our government projects,” he says.
Aside from being an arm of the Philippines’ giant Udenna conglomerate, UIC is one of the country’s most active infrastructure solution providers. It was a good match for Jomel, who joined as COO in January 2019 and hit the ground running, ramping up the company’s public–private partnership (PPP) proposals to government.
“There was an opportunity to take advantage of the present government administration’s openness to accept private sector help with infrastructure through PPP schemes,” he says.
“So I immediately began looking for the right partners and funders for these projects.” That UIC has the ear of both the Filipino government and business community is down to Chair Dennis Uy, who founded the Udenna conglomerate in 2002. “He’s well placed and well known within the business and government communities,” Jomel says.
The right culture brings unity to a team. It gives a team a strong sense of belonging and encourages them to go the extra mile in what they do.
“Because of these, we can quite quickly turn around delivery of the right proposal to local government units and national government agencies alike, particularly when it comes to the PPP scheme.” The culture established by Dennis nearly two decades ago is still in place today; a point of pride, even for a newcomer like Jomel.
“Culture is extremely significant because it affects the organisation’s most important asset, which for me is always human resources. It’s people,” he says. “The right culture brings unity to a team. It gives a team a strong sense of belonging and encourages them to go the extra mile in what they do. To me, that’s a cornerstone of our success and I sleep well knowing we have that culture in place.”
High on Jomel’s list of leadership priorities is making sure his team sleeps as well as he does. To do this, he does whatever he can to make sure they have the right tools for the job. “To make my team leaders successful, I have to deliver what they require,” he says. “If I have to beg for certain facilities or resources, I’ll do that.”
Another driver is his appetite for knowledge. “You need to be able to know the nuts and bolts, the reasons why, the ways to find innovative funding,” he says. “The more you learn, the more you can improve upon the way things are.”
One way Jomel has done just that is to encourage his managers to think and act like entrepreneurs within the organisation. “They may not own the company, but if managers take the attitude that what’s been entrusted to them is their own business, there’s no choice but to succeed,” he says.
This philosophy comes from Jomel’s experience at various startup companies throughout his professional history. The building principle for these businesses, he says, is the CASH acronym: C for cash, or the money involved; A for action-oriented or result-oriented thinking; S for constant strategising or thinking like a business leader; and H for human resources, “the most important asset for us”.
“I’ve found this acronym crucial for startups, and especially during a pandemic,” Jomel says. “Also, a leader doesn’t compete with the heads of their teams. There’s a great personal satisfaction that comes from seeing your team leaders succeed.”
As UIC’s telecommunications contract looms, scores of newly created local jobs also sit on the horizon. Jomel believes the project – along with the government infrastructure proposals – is the most worthwhile of investments.
“It’s an investment in the country,” he says. “It’s also a way for us to source and preserve a new income stream, so important during a pandemic.” At the same time, the company, and Jomel in particular, is learning at a geometric rate to prepare for the challenge.
“UIC hasn’t had a lot of involvement with the construction of airports, seaports, urban rail or even telco construction,” he admits. “But we’re in it right now, so we’re learning as much as we can, as fast as we can, from the right partners. We need to innovate to do these jobs right; you’re helping a community, a government, a country. Whatever your hard work is, it’s a legacy you’re building.”
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