Many property development firms in the Philippines cater to the mass market. Why wouldn’t they? In a population of 103 million, such projects can achieve big returns on investment and don’t require as much work or thought to complete compared with the more bespoke projects. They also don’t require much in the way of imagination or creativity. “It’s low-hanging fruit,” says Anna Bettina Ongpin, Vice-Chairman and President of property development firm Alphaland. “The market many firms aim for is a much bigger one than what we go for,” she states.
Alphaland’s motto is ‘Unique!’ – and Anna acknowledges Alphaland will never be all things to all people, nor does it intend to be, structuring its business to serve the top end of the property development space exclusively – an area she says is severely underserved in the Philippines.
“We’re very selective in the projects we undertake. It can’t just be, ‘Well, this is a project that will appeal to the top end of town.’ That’s not good enough. Our projects must be unique and compelling,” she explains. “Our chairman [!roberto!] is himself unique in that his ideas and vision are very unusual. He always thinks outside the box. He wanted projects that he himself would want to live, work or hang out in.”
A large portfolio of projects
Asked about the range of projects under Alphaland’s purview, Anna’s passion immediately shines through, citing developments like Baguio Mountain Lodges log home development, Balesin Island Club, City Club, Makati Place, Southgate Tower and Mall, and Aegle Wellness Center. Her favourite projects are the ones that conjure the greatest childhood memories.
“Balesin’s easily my favourite,” says Anna, adding that she spends at least a couple of weekends every month there. “I’m a beach person, and it has a personal connection for me because my family used to go there in the 70s when it was still a very rustic resort. We used to have a house there and I just loved wandering off for the entire day.”
The Baguio Mountain Lodges
Regarding the Baguio Mountain Lodges, Anna’s excitement and passion is unwavering, saying, “There’s nothing really like it here.” The property has an elevation of 5,300 feet above sea level and is a 15-minute drive up from the city proper, already at a high altitude of 4,300 feet. Again, memories shape Anna’s impression of the project.
“When I was growing up, Baguio was a quaint, rustic, charming place with not much traffic. Now it’s polluted and there’s tonnes of traffic. It’s all built up, with buildings on top of each other. The city has kind of lost the charm of those summer vacations. Our property draws on notions of the way the city used to be,” she says.
“It’s quiet, serene. The air is cold and still smells like pines. We have fireplaces that you actually need, and the logs are imported from Scandinavia. It’s like being transported to another world.”
High profits in a niche marke
Despite the niche market the firm occupies, Alphaland achieved profitability in 2016 with PHP7.7 billion net income, a 7.5% increase on 2015. That doesn’t mean Alphaland is without challenges, though. In particular, congestion at Manila International Airport hinders access to the exclusive Balesin Island Club. Recent government regulations, including a curfew from midday to 7pm, were, in Anna’s words, “hurtful to business”.
“That put a real damper on our operation because a lot of people like to arrive or leave in the afternoon. Now we limit our flights to mornings and evenings,” she says.
In response, Alphaland has spent money on installing runway lights on the Balesin property. It has also acquired a second, 68-seat ATR 72-500 aircraft, bringing its tally of planes owned
to five: two ATRs, two Cessna Caravans and one Jetstream.
The plane acquisition has increased Alphaland’s capacity so it can now transport as many as 500 members and guests to and from the island daily. Further, Anna adds, Alphaland is about to unveil its private hangar at the nearby Clark International Airport.
“Flying out of Clark is great because there’s no slotting and there’s no air traffic and everything is very organised. Unfortunately, it’s two hours away from Manila, but if you live in the north, it’s probably a better deal for you than driving all the way to Manila,” says Anna. “Most of our members live closer to Manila, so improving Clark won’t solve 100% of the problem, but our hands are tied because of the government.”
Supplier relationships are crucial
Despite possessing a project portfolio unlike any other property development firm in the country, Alphaland’s approach to supplier relationships is very much by the book. Since its founding in 2007, the firm has maintained a loyal relationship with construction suppliers that have consistently met deadlines and offered the best value and service.
However, Anna notes, “Nothing is written in stone. We’ll always consider new suppliers that come along and offer us really good service and value,” she says. “It’s never a done deal just because someone’s supplied us PVC windows for the past six years.”
A how-to for doing business in the Philippines
As for foreigners wanting to do business in the Philippines, Anna says that, while quite Westernised compared with the rest of Asia, there are still facets of the local culture they need to understand in order to do business efficiently. For example, Anna says getting the required permits to complete projects takes a longer time in the Philippines than it does in Western countries and even in many Asian countries.
Especially for those wanting to start up new firms in the country, Anna thinks it is helpful to maintain a very collegial attitude and not be bound by the traditions of an established big company, like the hierarchical structure of many Western organisations. “We were an American colony for 50 years, but some things are hard to change. The work culture is very different from that in the US or even in Europe,” she says.
“It helps having a business partner who can guide you through the ins and outs of the workplace culture and the ways to get things done. Also, hire the best people and enjoy the people you work with. If you don’t like the people you work with, they won’t like you and the company’s not going to go anywhere.”
Hire the best people and enjoy the people you work with. If you don’t like the people you work with, they won’t like you and the company’s not going to go anywhere.
But throughout Anna’s career, which includes stints in law and management consulting in the US before moving to Alphaland, she has found that crossing cultural boundaries boils down to working in a team, gathering information, and considering other people’s preferences when making decisions. “
This is very helpful when you’re at a meeting and you have differing opinions on something. It’s important to understand where other people are coming from, rather than just butt heads and not get anything done,” she says.
“Even though it’s a completely different culture here in the Philippines versus the work culture in the US, the same lessons still apply. I apply these lessons and this knowledge every day.”