Chairman & CEO, Ayala Corporation
Harvard College, 1981
LIFELONG LESSON FROM HBS
"The ability to find solutions to challenges increases exponentially when you tackle them with a team. Success comes much more easily if you can create the right environment for a group to address issues together."
ADVICE TO STUDENTS
"Never underestimate the importance of the 'softer' management lessons you learn at HBS—the ones that revolve around working with and leading others. As your responsibilities in any organization expand, the people-related issues become increasingly important. The technical tools that seem so important when you are a student will help only up to a point."
Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje
Jaime Zobel didn't plan to start his career in the family business. However, after completing a training program at the venerable Ayala Corporation—the largest and most widely diversified conglomerate in the Philippines—and attending HBS, he accepted a short-term position at Ayala and never left. Today, Zobel embraces his role as the leader of the 173-year-old firm, where his innovative, entrepreneurial style of management has benefited both Ayala and an island nation that faces significant social and economic challenges.
At least once a year, Jaime Zobel, his brother Fernando (who shares leadership of the Ayala Corporation as its president), and a handful of brothers-in-law travel the back roads of destinations such as Tasmania, Baja Mexico, or South Africa on adventure motorcycles. "The novelist Milan Kundera said that when you're riding a motorcycle, there's no past or future, there's only the present," Zobel observes. "I agree. It's liberating to have some time when the moment at hand is all that matters. So often in business we are reflecting on the past or looking toward the future."
The past, for the Ayala Corporation, includes an impressive history entwined with the Philippines' own complicated political and economic evolution. Representing the seventh generation of his family to lead the company, Zobel inherited a legacy of prudent management that preserved Ayala's interests through times of revolution, colonial rule, dictatorships, and war—not to mention earthquakes and volcanoes. Established in 1834 as an agricultural trading house, the $16.3 billion grouping of companies today is involved in almost every sector of the Philippine economy, with major holdings that include Ayala Land, the Bank of the Philippine Islands, Globe Telecom, and Manila Water.
Zobel says that future challenges include sustaining growth across Ayala's wide spectrum of businesses while "tapping more forcefully into opportunities in Asian and global markets." A strong believer in the "implicit social contract" between business and society, Zobel is intent on "keeping our agenda aligned with the Philippines' pressing needs as an emerging economy." Zobel's tenure with the company began in 1981. "My father offered me the opportunity to test the work environment in the Philippines at Ayala for a three-year trial period," he recalls. Although considering other options, Zobel took to his work at Ayala "like a fish to water." He stayed on, and when his father retired from the presidency in 1995, Zobel, still in his mid-30s, became president and CEO. In 2006 he was appointed chairman, retaining the role of CEO while his brother Fernando became president and COO. "My father placed a lot of trust in us," observes Zobel. "Unlike many Asian firms, where the senior generation has trouble letting go, he gave us freedom to sink or swim."
The brothers have pursued a strategy of maintaining Ayala's core strength—extensive, large-scale, high-end real estate development in and around Manila—while expanding their investments in the middle market real estate sector, water utilities, financial services, telecommunications, electronics manufacturing,...