As the Director for Strategy and Investment Relations at Universal Robina Corporation, Jose Miguel “Mickey” Manalang knows all too well that “things won’t always go according to plan” – one of the key pieces of advice he usually shares with people who come under his wing.
A 19-year veteran of the Gokongwei Group, it might seem – as he does have an impressive job title after all – that Mickey’s career went exactly as he mapped it out. That couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, he considers himself extremely lucky that he even got a shot in the first place.
Through a job fair at Ateneo de Manila University, Mickey sent his CV and application form to URC. However, he ended being recruited by JG Summit, the parent conglomerate, which was preparing to launch the second batch of its Management Trainee Program in 2003. “I went for an interview and I tested well, but during the interview, they told me that my grades were not the best,” recalls Mickey.
He candidly talks about how he enjoyed the college life “too much”, that he had to shift majors, from Management Engineering to Economics, in his junior year. “During my interview, I told them that I learned from that experience. When I got kicked out of my course, it was a wake-up call to buckle down, work hard, and I was able to graduate on time.”
He adds, “If you're not going to be working hard, then all of your talent is useless. And no one's going to be a harder worker than someone who's learned from his mistakes. I guess they took a chance on me and, well, 19 years later, I'm still here!”
The Roller Coaster Ride Begins
Accepted into JG Summit’s Management Trainee Program, Mickey did three six-month stints in different companies within the Gokongwei Group, starting with Sun Cellular (now part of the PLDT Group), Robinsons Retail, and finally at URC.
At Sun Cellular, Mickey remembers learning the ropes from Howard Go, whom he considers his first mentor. “He taught me about being transparent, not playing politics,” says Mickey.
It was only three months into the job that Mickey realized his superior was a scion of the family that owned the company. “He was very low key, very humble, very approachable,” recalls Mickey. “He was also very encouraging of questions. I remember my first week, sobra kong kulit, I had so many questions about the company, about the industry, and he was very patient answering everything. I think that was my best learning from that experience. Be transparent and open, and don't be afraid to ask questions.”
In Robinsons Retail, where he was tasked to continue a project concerning the centralization of the Supermarket Division’s accounting department, he learned the value of empathy, especially for employees. “You always have to remember that behind the numbers, there are real people there.”
During his training at URC, Mickey appreciated coming into contact with senior leaders, such as Mike Liwanag (currently the Senior Vice-President, Investor Relations & Special Projects of JG Summit Holdings) and the industry-renowned marketing guru Bienvenido “Pet” Bautista, who had recently joined URC at the time. “The biggest lesson I learned there is, the financials don't lie, in terms of performance. You can couch whatever you want, but numbers don't lie. That was also very foundational for me. Mr. Bautista would always tell Mike that ‘You cannot grade what cannot be measured.’ He really had a very performance-driven bent and also drove a lot of accountability for the people who are responsible for the numbers.”
After completing his training, Mickey was recruited by URC’s Snack Foods marketing team to join its divisional group, which he thought would be a dream job. “I really wanted to join the marketing department. It was very glamorous. It was at the center of business decision-making at the time. I thought that by joining this divisional group, I could find a way to end up in marketing. At the divisional group, we provided a lot of financial analysis for the snack foods division. This was the time that there was no commercial finance team yet, so we were the precursor to the commercial finance group.”
In 2007, after a company reorganization, Mickey finally got the opportunity to handle URC’s Jack ’n Jill brand. Soon, however, he realized that marketing wasn’t for him; he enjoyed working in finance more.
Luckily, there was an opening back at the parent conglomerate. “I joined the Corporate Planning Team and it was a pretty exciting time. I was tasked to help with investor relations, mergers and acquisitions, and also strategic planning for the JG Summit group.”
New Challenges Ahead
After three years in Corporate Planning, Mickey was being groomed to become its Investment Relations manager, but as he explains, “the story of my life, there was a re-organization again!” Instead, Mickey ended up becoming the executive assistant of the late Patrick Ng, who was the Managing Director of URC-International. “He interviewed me and the next thing you know, I’m on a flight to Singapore, where I stayed for the next three years.”
Mickey with the late Patrick Ng, former managing director of URC International. In Mickey's words, "The best mentor I ever had." IMAGE Courtesy of Mickey Manalang
"Stayed" might not exactly be the right word, as the job entailed flying to URC offices all across Asia every week. “I’d fly out either Sunday night or Monday morning to a different country, stay there three or four days, and fly back to Singapore. Literally do some administrative work, do laundry, do some planning, and the following week? Repeat. Those three years, literally every week there was a flight. We'd fly on a regular basis, to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. I burned through so many passports when I was there.”
Despite the challenges, Mickey looks back on this experience as one of the most valuable in his still budding career.
“I was very, very blessed to be under the wing of Mr. Patrick Ng. He was really a great leader and he'd been with the company for almost 50 years. Great leaders empower other people, while holding them accountable. He was not afraid to say that he didn't know, but he would always try to find out. He was able to make very tough decisions, and he was able to consider them from multiple perspectives, not just the financials,” says Mickey. “For him, integrity was non-negotiable. He also highlighted the value of patience, just listening and being understanding. He could be a tough decision maker, a tough boss, but you know that he's not shooting from the hip. Anything he decided on, it was really well thought out, and very forward looking. Best mentor I've ever had, honestly.”
Though he was grateful to be imbibing so much knowledge from a remarkable business leader, Mickey determined it was time to come home when he learned that his wife was pregnant with the couple’s first child in December 2012. “I didn’t want to be an absentee father,” says Mickey. “So, I worked with my boss over the next six months to find a replacement, and then I transitioned out. By the end of June 2013, I was back in Manila. In July, my daughter was born.”
Today, Mickey and his wife (“the most supportive wife ever,” he says) have three daughters aged 8, 6, and 2. “They’re three lovely girls. I’m outnumbered at home!” laughs the 40-year-old.
Home to Bigger Things
Back in Manila, Mickey once again landed on his feet, returning to URC’s Corporate Planning department. “It was very good timing,” recalls Mickey. “This was the point when URC was on a roll. They were surging upwards with the launch of Great Taste White, and we were doing a lot of evaluations of partnerships.”
Because of his international experience, Mickey was given a major project, to set up a 50-50 joint venture between URC and the Japanese snack food giant Calbee. “After we set up the joint venture, I helped handle the Corporate Planning group for the Philippines, then for International, but after a few years was given the opportunity to again be involved with Calbee-URC – but now as the general manager.” After overseeing this venture for almost 2 years, Mickey was then tasked to help with corporate strategy, which expanded later into other areas such as enterprise analytics and commercial finance, before settling into his current capacity as Director of Corporate Strategy and Investor Relations.
In essence, says Mickey, corporate strategy and IR is “primarily a support function. We help the senior leaders with making key decisions and following through on the progress of those decisions and their commitments. It's a lot of pressure, actually, but very enriching.”
His role covers three major areas. The first is in guiding the strategic planning process within URC, where Mickey supports the company’s various business units and functions as they align their plans with URC’s overall strategic plan. “I also work to provide visibility on their progress against their commitments, which will help the various business units and functions course correct as necessary,” adds Mickey.
The second aspect is focused on mergers and acquisitions. “The team is looking for opportunities to reshape the portfolio of URC, also aligned with the overall URC strategic framework (OGSM, or Objectives, Goals, Strategies, and Measures). There's a lot of exciting work being done here to justify acquisitions and divestments, looking for candidates to purchase or invest in. I'm also supporting our newest company, URC Equity Ventures, a corporate venture capital fund. It helps make investments in smaller companies, companies that we believe will help shape the future of the food industry.”
The third part of the job involves investor relations. “I’ve come full circle from where I was back in 2007 to 2010. In IR, it’s all about clearly communicating URC’s strategies, performance, and value to external stakeholders since we're a publicly traded corporation.”
Asked about the future prospects of URC's stock, Mickey is upbeat. "We're still a very dominant company in the Philippines and we have a very good growth trajectory outside. We have a very strong leadership team guiding the company forward. And you know, our best assets are our employees. We've got very passionate, entrepreneurial employees, who really embody this malasakit culture, and really take care of the company. Once the numbers turn around and improve after this current crisis and commodity costs settle, I think we should be more than okay,” says Mickey confidently.
As with many other industries, the COVID pandemic greatly affected URC’s operations, and hampered the progress of the company’s five-year OGSM, which was implemented in 2018. “In strategic planning, we talk about the three R's. You can refine your strategic plan, you can renovate your plan with major changes, or you can reset everything — tear it down and start from scratch,” shares Mickey. Responding to the global health crisis, URC had to regroup and refine its core strategies.
“The COVID-19 pandemic definitely delayed our glidepath a bit, but it has also helped drive changes to our foundation to help us become stronger as we navigate the post-COVID landscape. We’ve seen shifts in consumer behavior such as importance of health and wellness, in-home consumption, and the ‘affordable premium’ segment accelerating through the pandemic, which we’ve addressed with our new products and category entries,” shares Mickey.
“New business models rolled out, such as e-commerce, s-commerce, and community selling, have also grown through the pandemic and are here to stay. These are testament to how we have further reinforced and refined the strategies we set back in 2018: our Where-to-Play strategies of Growing our Core and Expanding for More, and our How-To-Win strategies – being enabled by a People and Planet Friendly Culture, developing Products and Brands People Love, being a Preferred Partner of Choice for our customers and suppliers, and transforming our Product Supply Chain to better serve our consumers and customers.”
In part, URC’s stated vision is to be “the best Philippine food and beverage company, with a powerful presence throughout the ASEAN region, carrying a wide portfolio of delightful brands of exceptional quality and value, equipped with efficient systems and motivated people.”
Mickey shares that URC intends to achieve this mission by continuing to “focus on our purpose of delighting our consumers and customers with good food choices, all building for the long-term. When we talk of being a sustainable enterprise, we talk about sustainability in two ways – from a financial sense (as a food and beverage business that will remain strong and healthy), and sustainability for our stakeholders – our employees, consumers, customers, investors, and the communities we work with. It’s the same spirit with which Mr. John built this business, and which we hope to continue well into the future.”
From Mentee to Mentor
It’s been an amazing journey for Mickey in the Gokongwei Group over the last 19 years, one he couldn’t have envisioned in his wildest dreams. He says he is still learning a lot from his interactions with URC’s top brass, including President and CEO Irwin Lee, Chief Finance Officer Pancho Del Mundo, and Chief Strategy Officer Shanie Ann S. Kawpeng, but now he also has the opportunity to pass on his acquired knowledge to the company’s new blood.
“My career has always been about adding value,” says Mickey. “I want to continue doing that, adding value to the company and also to the people under me, the people under my wing. I want to continue developing my team, sharing as much as I can and open up opportunities for them also, so they can learn as much as possible, and so they can have the same opportunities that I did.”
Asked about what advice he’d give to people starting out in their careers, Mickey offers three tips: “Number one, your reputation is built on how you act. Practice integrity and honesty, and don't hide problems because of fear. It's easier to get things out in the open and address them head on, rather than hiding them and hope nobody notices. That's never going to work.
“The second, which is related to that, is to work hard and continue learning as much as you can. That also means knowing that you don't know everything, and not being too proud to ask for help or say that you don't know. It's better that you admit you don't know and then try to learn, and other people can help you learn also.”
The third key advice was touched on earlier: “Number three is that things won't always go as you planned. There are some people, they graduate college or they get into the workforce and they have this starry-eyed notion that ‘This is going to be my trajectory: I'm going to be a manager in two years, I'm going to be a director in six years, I'm going to be a vice president in X years, etc.
“Things will not go as planned and you should not hold yourself to that level of stress. Your career is a journey and, most importantly, it's also a marathon. Before you get on the marathon, you make sure that your foundation, your values, are clear before you even set out. Don't worry too much about other people's trajectories. Just make sure that you, for yourself, that you continue learning, that you continue adding value, and the career progression will come.”
For more information on URC, visit urc.com.ph.
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