“Even before I could start my first job, I got fired!” says Nilo Mapa, Senior Vice President, Investments and New Builds, Consumer and Logistics for JG Summit Holdings Subsidiaries and Affiliates, as he talks about the early years of his career, one which took him from the United States to Europe, and then for the last 25 years, back to the Philippines, most of them spent in various capacities within the Gokongwei Group.
After that less than auspicious start in the late 1980s, Nilo’s career has been on a steadily ascending path. Today, at JG Summit Holdings, his input is vital in shaping the conglomerate’s business strategies. As the Gokongwei Group strives to attain its ambition in this brand-new decade, Nilo’s role will only become even more critical and placed under the spotlight.
DOING HIS PART
Nilo’s current task, as one of the group’s chief strategists, is to provide mergers and acquisitions investment advisory on consumer-facing businesses and logistics, including project management, and to provide proper business stewardship.
“By that, I mean making sure that these businesses that we enter into are able to leverage on the ecosystem of the group and that the new businesses will be able to utilize and have access to certain capabilities and resources of the company as a whole,” he says.
Among the most interesting aspects of Nilo’s work is looking into “new builds,” which means exploring untapped areas for growth for the different business units of the Gokongwei Group. “That could mean geographical growth, it could mean getting into new verticals [businesses catering to a specific market and specific needs], and it could be an acquisition of brands.”
The continuing digitalization of the conglomerate has also spurred Nilo to look further into digital opportunities such as e-commerce and e-distribution. Closely aligned with this is a very important development in the conglomerate, the recently announced joint venture with logistics powerhouse, DHL. The move, according to the official corporate disclosure, leverages the strengths of both parties to enhance domestic supply chain and transportation operations including improving safety, compliance, and customer experience in the Philippines.
It’s a deal that Nilo was instrumental in putting together. “DHL is a great company, a world-renowned company, one of the top corporations in the world,” he says, not hiding his admiration for the logistics giant. Partnering with them made perfect sense. “If you look at each of our verticals, a lot of our business depends on supply chain and logistics. So, if you are operating in this space of fast-moving consumer goods, while it is important to have strong brands, it is as important to make sure that your supply chain is a source of competitive advantage. Without an efficient supply chain, our products will not get to the market on time, and we will never fulfill our desire to put the customers first.”
LEVERAGING THE ECOSYSTEM
The Gokongwei Group includes the JG Summit conglomerate (composed of URC, Robinsons Land, Cebu Pacific, Robinsons Bank, and the JG Summit Petrochemicals Group), Robinsons Retail Holdings, Inc., and Summit Media. Aside from these core holdings, it has substantial stakes in companies like Meralco, Global Business Power Corporation, PLDT, and United Industrial Corporation, among others. JG Summit is also a major partner in the Luzon International Premiere Airport Development Corporation (LIPAD) consortium, which operates the Clark International Airport.
With its ecosystem, the various companies and business units can find win-win synergistic opportunities to drive each of the BUs to full-value potential and exploit growth opportunities, such as supply chain and logistics. With the new venture with DHL, companies in the Gokongwei Group can co-locate warehouses and pursue relevant automation in the operation of such, integrate transport requirements so that they are able to optimize truck loads and truck routes. The various companies can also extend supplier financing to its truckers with Robinsons Bank, and in the future, develop warehouse parks with Robinsons Land.
Besides driving better efficiency in the Group, Nilo opines that the new logistics venture will further boost the conglomerate’s efforts to meet its long-term sustainability goals. “One of the key objectives of the joint venture is to drive our sustainability agenda including more efficient use of fuel, providing advanced level of training for the drivers, promoting road safety, and driving industry innovation through technology,” he says.
AN INTERESTING CAREER
“When I was a freshman, I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” says Nilo when asked about what his plans as a young student were. After finishing high school in Manila, he enrolled at NYU, earning degrees in Economics and International Finance in just three and a half years. Instead of flying back to Manila during his breaks, “I stayed for the summers, studying and working to save money and to save rent,” he explains.
With a couple of summer jobs spent at investment banks, it seemed a career in finance was on the cards. But it wasn’t meant to be. “I was headed towards a job in Wall Street until the stock market crashed in 1987.”
This point is literally where our story starts: “Even before I could start my first day at the job, I got fired. The company I was to work for had to go through a retrenchment and retracted its job offer.”
Thanks to his area of specialization at NYU, which involved studying the economies of socialist countries (“I just found it fascinating”), he landed a job in Scandinavia, where he spent his first three working years. After that, it was on to the next part of his long-term plan—getting an MBA—which he accomplished at the International Institute for Management Development, in Lausanne, Switzerland.
While there, he became acquainted with a few senior executives from one of the biggest corporations in the Philippines who also attended the prestigious business school. Persuaded to join the company, he found himself back in Manila in 1995, joining their corporate planning group; he later became the chief finance officer of their liquor and soft drinks divisions.
By 2002, another golden opportunity presented itself. “As we have a lot of common friends, I would bump occasionally into Lance [Gokongwei],” says Nilo, explaining how he first became acquainted with JG Summit’s president and CEO. One thing led to another, before he knew it, Nilo was introduced to both Mr. John Gokongwei, Jr., the founder and late chairman emeritus of JG Summit, and Mr. James Go, the conglomerate’s current chairman. This meeting would lead him to join Robinsons Land as the general manager of the Commercial Centers division.
Very candidly, Nilo admits to being a fish out of water in this new endeavor. “I knew nothing about real estate!” he says, laughing at the memory. “I was a finance guy through and through, and I was quite shocked with the job offer to be a general manager of a real estate company, much less a mall developer, and I wasn't really a big mall-goer.” Of course, Nilo stepped up his game and adapted quite quickly. “In a way, I knew it was related to what I knew coming from a consumer-oriented business, because malling is all about consumers and consumer experience as well, right? Having the right portfolio, having the right product mix, curating the right tenant mix, understanding the catchment of the area, who the potential mallgoers would be.”
Nilo would be involved in projects like Robinsons Midtown, Robinsons Tacloban, Robinsons Place Dumaguete, Robinsons Laoag, and even Robinsons Magnolia, a development just a stone’s throw away from where he grew up. After staying for 8 years at RLC, he moved to another company in the conglomerate. In 2010, he joined Universal Robina Corporation as the Executive Vice President & Managing Director for the Branded Consumer Foods Group (from 2010 to 2018), later becoming EVP & Managing Director for corporate strategy (2018 to the present). At URC, he entered into joint ventures with Danone (DURBI), Calbee, and Vitasoy. He also led its geographic expansion to Oceania (with the acquisition of Griffins and Snackbrands) and set up shop in Myanmar.
In August 2019, he was appointed to his current role at JG Summit Holdings, one where his involvement stretches to every business unit, subsidiary, and affiliate of the conglomerate.
A CULTURE OF STEWARDSHIP
Nilo counts himself lucky that he joined JG Summit when he did, as it afforded him the opportunity to interact with both the founder and the current chairman on a regular basis. “Since 2002, I’ve been in constant contact with both Mr. John and Mr. James, even during the Robinsons Land days and when they were still very, very, involved in the business. it's just has been such a pleasure working for the family,” says Nilo.
What’s the best advice he’s learned so far? Nilo says that’s impossible to answer as there are too many to mention, but eventually he gives a measured and thoughtful reply. “I have been under the guidance of Mr. John, Mr. James, and Lance for almost two decades. One thing that I have learned that applies to business and life is that we will always one day have to face a Goliath which can come in many forms and circumstances. One shouldn’t fret, it is actually cool to be a David, especially if you are on the side of right. As someone once said, right is might.”
Like many in the 75,000-strong workforce of the conglomerate, Nilo takes inspiration from the founder’s values and way of life. As Nilo’s job title might imply, overseeing investment and new builds, the entrepreneurial skills of Mr. John are what he seeks to emulate every day.
Being entrepreneurial, in Nilo’s opinion, isn’t just about the willingness to take risks, but also the ability to discern when an opportunity makes sense in the long-term. “It is about being practical and pragmatic at the same time. So, for instance, we know what our DNA is, we know what we are capable of. We know what resources we can access. Getting into exciting but unrelated businesses, to others that might sound entrepreneurial, but for me, that is not necessarily pragmatic and may appear to be very, very high in risk. Being a true entrepreneur is trying to leverage those distinct capabilities where you have inherent advantage,” he says.
After close to two decades working for the conglomerate, Nilo still finds plenty to get excited about when he comes to work every morning. “I've seen this company evolve over the past 20 years. And I don't see it slowing down. It creates a lot of possibilities, not just for the young ones, but even for people like me to learn and be exposed to new ventures. But being in the company, I realized that my role also has to evolve to one that is closer to mentoring and guiding others, building the next generation of leaders.”
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
As the conglomerate moves forward in the 2020s, it will do so for the first time without the presence and guidance of its beloved founder, Mr. John. It’s a testament to his long-term vision and leadership that he laid a solid foundation for the next wave of leaders to firmly stand upon.
Nilo’s confident of the conglomerate’s ability to withstand any headwinds that the future may bring, thanks to its four major strengths: “One, the portfolio of the company. We have really strong brands, strong companies. Number two, it's the strong leadership of the company. The third, we have the entrepreneurial spirit, finding ways to reinvent ourselves and at the same time, drive each of the core legs into their full potential. And lastly, I believe that there are true merits of being a family-owned company; they embrace a more long-term mission. Yes, I'm sure they look at the daily stock price, but they don't use that to make quick knee-jerk decisions. It's all about thinking about the future and thinking long. If you ask me, whether we are capable of achieving our ambitious objectives, without a doubt.”