My first assessment of the COVID-19 crisis was that it differed because we could not isolate or protect our business purely through financial measures. The widespread impact of public health was so intertwined with the economy, and the pandemic’s global ramification which affected our overseas customers made it even more daunting.
We are thankful that despite the pandemic, Filinvest Development Corp. (FDC) has still registered a 3-percent growth as of the 3Q. This was a result not of reactive measures to the pandemic, but of decisions made many years ago—lessons learned from previous crises. It was a combination of diversification strategies and financial prudence. During these times, setting aside a cash hoard is imperative. FDC went about raising a $200-million bond issue and Filinvest Land an P8-billion local bond issue at favorable rates as evidence of investors’ continued trust in the group.
This crisis brought out four key lessons and insights.
First was the need for combined constant learning and agility. In a crisis where the enemy is not only invisible but unfamiliar, you need to be one step ahead. Our business plans have taken a shorter and more agile approach, ready to be adjusted to anticipate possible curveballs.
On the banking side, EastWest, out of prudence, set aside three times of previous years’ allowances provisions to ensure financial strength, in anticipation of possible credit losses. Our most hard-hit industry, hospitality, had to reinvent itself to be relevant during COVID-19 times—for example, partnering with the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) to host the teams in Quest Hotel and Conference Center Clark for the PBA bubble.
Second is the need for empathy. With personal health at risk, it is no longer purely business. Workplace and customer safety becomes your first and basic responsibility. When designing our workplace and testing protocols, we started by taking a survey so we could understand not only our workers’ health conditions and risks involved, but also their living conditions and the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 in their homes, and the pertinent risks to the older family members they live with.
Early in the pandemic, we were approached by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine frontliners for living quarters. We fixed up the Palms Country Club for them. It is this sense of empathy that made us offer the use of the Filinvest Tent as a Mega Quarantine Center without being asked, and recently to allow its further expansion. The Filinvest Group also committed a 100,000 vaccine order.
Third is understanding accelerated transformation. This starts with the transformation of mindsets internally and among our leaders. We were gladly relieved that our early investments in IT infrastructure provided the foundation to allow us to communicate with our customers and our EastWest Bank and Filinvest Land team to work from home. We are now even more convinced that we need to move faster toward digital transformation and in preparing not only the customers of today but also those of tomorrow.
During the pandemic, EastWest launched Komo, the first exclusively digital banking service approved by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas for a local universal bank, together with a slew of digital products such as the ESTA Chatbot and EasyWay to make banking easier. We are also rolling out the first phase of the smart city infrastructure in Filinvest City in anticipation of what sustainable communities should expect in the future—a plan that actually started even before the pandemic.
Lastly, this crisis of global scale is a sign of things to come—the coming of a new emerging markets century. It highlighted that regions of emerging countries with access to less scientific and financial resources could surpass those of more developed economies in such a critical endeavor. Also, that there is a place for societies with greater discipline and concern for the common good to create a more sustainable world.
I learned the importance of unity and social responsibility in times of crisis. I learned that finding ways to help and participate was more effective and useful to society. There will always be time for stating what could have been done better in hindsight, but in a pandemic, working together, helping, and moving fast are more crucial.
Josephine Gotianun-Yap is president and CEO of Filinvest Development Corp. FDC is one of the country’s leading conglomerates with interests in property, hospitality, banking and financial services, utilities, and infrastructure. This column is an edited version of her remarks in the Makati Business Club’s “Leading in Extraordinary Times” series.