The Ultimate Bottomline: People
Young Presidents' Organization Regional Conference, Shangri-la Hotel, Manila
October 31, 1996
I. The Bottomline in Business:
You have asked me to speak on the theme of your regional conference, "Beyond the Bottomline". The bottomline is, according to Webster, that line at the bottom of a financial report which reflects profit or loss. In the context of men and women in business like yourselves, the bottomline is the ultimate traditional measure for success or failure. While I find nothing wrong with making a profit – even a large one – as long as it is made fairly and squarely, I am happy to know that you, the younger generation of company presidents and CEOs, are interested in going beyond making a buck.
Perhaps this means that you are ready for a re-definition of the word "bottomline" to include other, non-financial concerns. The dictionary tells us that besides that precious last line in your financial statements – "bottomline" could be an adjective to describe thinking that is pragmatic or realistic. And, as a noun, it could mean the salient point, or the crux of the matter. In other words, whether adjective or noun, the use of the word "bottomline" connotes being hard-nosed and grounded, firmly rooted in actuality.
Which brings me to the first point I would like to take up with you today, that is, reality. To business executives, reality may mean the materials you work with, the factories you run, the markets that you target, the products you sell, and how these impact on your bottomline. While this is a fair definition of what is real in your world, there are other realities which are just as concrete, and which you and your businesses affect whether directly or indirectly.
I'd like to explore with you the reality of most of humankind. Appreciating it will require all of the pragmatism that has served you well in your swift and phenomenal climb to the top of your organizations. And it will test your capacity to pinpoint the root of an issue, the crux of the matter, the larger bottomline, and unexplored areas beyond it.
Let us talk about people, ordinary people who live all too simple lives, who work for the sole purpose of keeping body and soul together and feeding and educating their children. Many of them work for your enterprises, or companies like those that you run. In the Philippines, and other parts of Asia, Africa and South America, many of them even leave their homelands to work in less hospitable climes just to earn enough for their families to live on.
Imagine their homes. Many of them have no permanent addresses; they are squatters or refugees living in patchwork hovels, on borrowed time on borrowed land. Their children play in whatever makes for a playground. Often, these are tiny patches of muddy ground surrounded by putrid canals which serve as the only drainage in the area. There are no decent toilets where they live, but makeshift outhouses with no plumbing. Their neighborhoods are alive with families and many many children, and they carry the stench of poverty and underdevelopment.
These are the real stakeholders in your business enterprises, and in the economic growth of our nations, the quality of their lives, whether or not they will have jobs tomorrow, whether or not their children will get the education they aspire for, are affected profoundly by every twist and turn of your traditional financial bottomlines. Yet, quite often, they are not even factored into those bottomlines.
To us who have led our societies as their economic and political leaders, the continued existence of such communities should be a source of concern, and shame. It implies that even as we crow about the glowing bottomlines in our profit and loss statements, we have not succeeded in resolving the crux of the matter. We have not given all our workers, all our people, a better life. We have not uprooted the causes of their poverty.
As we approach the turn of the century, as our businesses and cities are modernized and we speak of investments in the billions and trillions of dollars, as the world loses its boundaries because of the giant leaps it has taken into outer space and cyber space, how can it be justified that the majority of the world's peoples still live under such dire conditions?
Could it be that we have not done enough for them? Perhaps we have been too preoccupied with doing things for ourselves, we have forgotten about the rest of our fellowmen. Perhaps we thought that generating jobs and paying our workers legal wages and legislated benefits was enough. Perhaps we have mistaken giving periodic charitable corporate handouts to salve our consciences, for solid social investments.
II. The bottomline in Governance:
I agonized over questions such as these throughout my six years and four months as President of my country. But I learned that there were answers and I found them in the people I had sworn to serve.
The lessons I learned in my Presidency are probably the same ones you have learned in yours. Though your operations are necessarily on a smaller, more limited scale, the concerns are the same: The bottomline of all human endeavor should be people. How does what we do affect their lives, their health, their comfort, their surroundings, their happiness? Whether running a government, developing property, or manufacturing and marketing a product, we must realize that people should be central to our thinking and planning. For what is the point of making all of that money if it does not benefit the larger society?
Given this reality, I would like you to think in terms of development. Surely you are familiar with the term. Whether as developers of real estate or of business opportunities, business executives like yourselves have been involved in one kind of development or another.
Whether it is government or private business that enters an area with a social project or a business proposition, it must observe the basic rules of development. First, we must look at the community as more than a source of income and profits. We must look at them as people with their own lives and family histories, which precede our entry into their lives. And they have a host of needs like health, nutrition, education, security, leisure and sports, and in general, happiness and contentment.
Second, we must approach development as an integrated process, which involves not only people but their surroundings as well. Development demands that the full human potential is realized through a process that is in harmony with the environment.
Third, still with people topmost in mind, the development process demands that the people be consulted and invited to participate in the planning and execution of the project. The people know what they need and want; they know the area better than anyone else. The wise developer builds up rapport and trust with the community, taps its collective wisdom, goes into partnership with it to develop its resources.
It was in the 1950s when the idea of development as we know it today was first introduced. It is the logic of the simple rules of development that has propelled international agencies to make funds available for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help communities help themselves.
This same energy has now been imbibed by corporations and business groups that have, set up projects all over the world for the development of the communities they operate in, the care of the environment, the education of the children, the protection and promotion of human rights, the improvement of the quality of life of their employees, the feeding and housing of street children and other vulnerable groups, the promotion of democratic ideals, and other noble causes.
In the Philippines, we have seen the flowering of social development initiatives as business acquires a moral conscience. In the Seventies, Filipino businessmen put up the Philippine Business for Social Progress, an NGO funded by annual income-based contributions of the country's top enterprises. It has established itself as an initiator of community-based and community-generated programs for poverty alleviation, livelihood generation, the improvement of governance, people empowerment and the like.
After the re-establishment of our democracy in 1986, the involvement of the business community in social programs and nation-building reached new heights. The larger corporations set up their own foundations through which corporate earnings are channelled for the nurturance of social projects. Some shining examples come to mind: The PLDT Foundation set up by the Philippine Long Distance and Telephone Company is using the company's telecommunications facilities to provide a website for NGOs and cooperatives to conduct their business through, to organize themselves, to reach consensus on issues and speak with one voice when necessary, and simply to allow them to keep in touch. Truly, this is an example of people empowerment through a social investment.
I am proud to be a part of the Metrobank Foundation whose commitment to education has sent over one hundred deserving students to school each year. Moreover, it has invested in the upliftment of the teaching profession by providing stipends for science teachers and initiating an annual nation-wide search for the best teachers in the country and providing corresponding rewards.
I am also personally involved in a foundation established by businessmen and community leaders from the province of Pampanga who have organized the Sulung Pampanga Foundation to help the victims of the lahar flows following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
There are many other examples of how corporations have gone beyond the bottomline and become involved in improving the life of the nation. They are involved in regenerating marine life by rebuilding damaged coral reefs and saving endangered bird, animal and plant species by reviving our rivers and forests. They are helping communities pick themselves up through financial aid for livelihood projects, housing and the like. Some have made it their cause to re-infuse society with positive values via the creative use of the mass media.
Today, the serendipitous discovery of many enterprises worldwide is that their success is closely tied in with that of the society in which they operate. If society prospers, then the company prospers. The better the people's incomes, the better is their purchasing power, the wider is the market for industry's goods. The more upwardly mobile the people are, the higher are their aspirations, the more sophisticated are their needs the larger the demand for what business has to offer.
III. Personal and Internal Bottomlines vs. External Expectations
Unlike Presidents and CEOs of corporations who can go to any number of excellent management schools around the world, there is no school for Presidents of nations. Some may get to the top of the heap the conventional way, by rising in politics and getting experience in governance along the way. But others, like myself and a growing number of democratic leaders around the world, simply found themselves thrust into a position of power. One fine day, I found myself literally holding the bag. The buck stopped right where I sat and there could be no excuses for failure.
Yet our people's expectations were too high to be fulfilled: They needed jobs and justice, food and freedom. They demanded reforms that would guarantee them equal opportunities, equality before the law, access to education, health and social services. But the government's coffers were empty; we were saddled by a gigantic public debt, and our bureaucracy, police and military were carry-overs from the martial law days when they lorded it over the rest of the Filipino people.
Quickly, I learned that although the world applauded and praised us profusely for our bloodless transition from dictatorship to democracy, this would not easily translate into much needed financial or developmental aid. The bottomline was, we were largely on our own and we would have to sink or swim on our own devises.
I also learned that not all Filipinos basked in the afterglow of our fairy tale revolution. The forces of evil lurked in the dark corners waiting for the opportune time to pounce on our democracy, dismantle the reforms we had undertaken, set back the progress we had achieved, and create a new dictatorship with themselves at the helm. My government experienced seven coup attempts mounted by Marcos loyalists, misguided messiahs in the military, and businessmen and politicians who had been displaced by the restoration of democracy. The last one, in 1989, did the most damage to the economy and the credibility of government to hold things together.
Another valuable lesson I learned was that helping the people achieve their full " potential involves a process of development so that it is balanced and sustainable. In other words, it cannot be pursued by one sector at the expense of another, and it should benefit not only the present population but generations still to come. The future must never be sacrificed for short-term gains for the present.
Such mega issues which affected the lives of individuals and their families are daily fare to a president. In our drive to improve the economy, we often ran the risk of making hasty decisions which would create immediate positive impact, but also bring about negative effects in the long term.
IV. The Ultimate Bottomline:
But perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned as President was to keep faith with the people. That was my ultimate bottomline. I learned that if I kept my focus sharply on the people as the be all and end all of all of government's efforts, I could not go wrong.
My government came to power on the shoulders of the people and it was on them that I learned to put my trust. Through people's organizations and NGOs, I consulted them on government's plans, listened to their reactions, found common ground with them, and invited them to help government implement our common vision. My trust was not misplaced because when push came to shove, when our democracy was endangered by coup attempts, it was the people who stood staunchly by and came to its defense. When the safety of our countrymen was compromised by natural and man-made calamities, it was the people who came to aid government in their rescue and rehabilitation. Today, just ten years after the EDSA revolution, the Filipinos are some of the most empowered people in the world; their role in governance is secure, as defined by the authors of the Philippine Constitution of 1987, and in various laws enacted over the last 10 years.
What then is expected of persons in positions of leadership, like I was, and you are in now? I believe that it is not much more than to do our very best to do the most good for the greatest number. My late brother-in-law, the businessman, Ricardo Lopa, put it so well in 1971 when he was asked about how he conducted his business:
"We'd like to know that these things we are doing now can somehow benefit many people long after we are all gone. They probably won't know who we were, or even care. But that's not important. The idea is to try to do things that you believe might do the most good for the greatest number."
At the end of the day, the ultimate bottomline is the fulfilment of the mission that is integral to all of us who are called to positions of leadership, and that is, service to others. In the final analysis, this is the only bottomline by which our lives shall be measured. Nothing less shall be expected from the stewards of the planet's wealth and power.
Which brings me to the last point I would like to take up with you today, and that is, the need for reflection. As you careen your way to success, working as if there were no tomorrow, you must take the time to stop and reflect on what you are doing. Ask yourself the hard questions, like, what is the relevance of your work to your family, your employees, and the larger society. What you are working so hard for. How much is enough? When do you have too much? What is the point of acquiring so much wealth and power? Have you given back as much as you have taken?
I leave you with this thought. All the best in your conference. May it allow you the time and space to reflect and may you come out of it fired up with the logic and imperative of service to humankind.
Thank you and good morning.