By Annalisa Burgos
Entrepreneur Dennis Uy is in the right place at the right time. His mentor, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, has been pushing his "Build! Build! Build! Infrastructure Plan" to reduce congestion in Metro Manila, connect all parts of the country and promote inclusive economic development for areas that had largely been ignored under previous administrations.
Uy is poised to be the Philippines’s next self-made billionaire, taking on large-scale projects once reserved for legacy developers. Still, he says newcomers in the Manila-centric system raise eyebrows, especially if you're from "the province."
Uy says his merit and accomplishments are often overshadowed by suspicion. When a country's wealth is controlled by tycoons in their 70s and their families, lines are often blurred between business and politics, making it challenging for entrepreneurs to break through.
But there seems to be a sort of changing of the guard, with the passing of icons like Henry Sy and John Gokongwei giving rise to a new generation of Filipino billionaires. Among the heirs, Uy is an anomaly that doesn’t fit the traditional mold.
For one, Uy encountered a lot of resistance when he tried to expand Phoenix Petroleum: “Coming from Davao, going to Manila, maybe stepping on other markets that doesn't belong to us. People think: who is this Phoenix here, this one should be punished, maybe he’s doing some hanky panky and that’s why he was able to get some market.”
Now, with all the interest and intrigue surrounding the new China-backed telco Dito Telecommunity, critics are playing up Uy’s connections to China and President Duterte, calling him a puppet of the administration or an opportunist benefiting from cronyism and preferential treatment. Uy was the biggest contributor to Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign, donating $570,000 (PHP 30 million).
“It’s really unfair. You have to recognize the hard work that we've done,” Uy says. “But I won't lose sleep over it.”
Uy says he's not winning government contracts to earn revenue; he’s building businesses. “I'm not trying to be popular, I'm just happy to do some business. Happy to serve our customers, our stakeholders, our team, our family. … At the end of the day, I have some time with my family and my kids, my wife and make a difference in the industries that we are in.” Industries like oil and telco long dominated by families on Forbes’ rich list. Uy debuted at no. 22 with a net worth of $660 million.
While Uy’s track record and business acumen earned him respect in some circles, there’s no denying that having a friend in high places like Malacañang has its benefits, even if it’s just for boosting confidence and optimism.
Uy says the bullying he experiences now pales in comparison to 2011, when he was accused of oil smuggling despite playing it straight. Uy’s competitive tactics didn’t win him many friends among those tied to big oil interests. “I can go after the clients of the majors and say just get from me ‘cause I know them, me being from Davao,” he says. “I can decide faster compared to the multinationals or the big companies and give them better terms and better service.”
Four years after its IPO, the Bureau of Customs accused Phoenix of making fraudulent petroleum shipments worth $97 million (PHP 5.1 billion), failing to pay taxes and submit accurate documents. “It’s politics and extortion,” says Uy, who recalls wanting to give up, sell and move to the U.S. or anywhere more friendly to entrepreneurs.
During that difficult time, a demoralized Uy approached one of his trusted advisors, someone he had known for decades as a businessman in his hometown – then-Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. He says Duterte has never done him any favors, but he did offer some unorthodox advice. Uy recounts it: “Nahawan mo sarili sa salamin. Mag practice ka, hundred times, p****g ina, p****g ina, p****g ina. [Look at yourself in the mirror. Practice cursing at yourself a hundred times.] All of a sudden, from a very depressed mood to the fighting mood now.”
Teaching him how to fight back is one reason Uy considers the 74-year-old a “father figure,” one that made his first presidential appearance at the PSE on July 9, 2017, to support Phoenix’s 10th anniversary as a listed company.
“As mayor of Davao City, I personally witnessed how it grew from a single gasoline station in the city into one of the fastest growing oil companies in the Philippines,” Duterte had said in his half-hour speech on the PSE floor, adding that he looked into the smuggling allegations and warned a customs official in Manila to stop harassing small businesses in Davao. The Court of Appeals dismissed the smuggling case against Phoenix in 2014.
Fighting Crab Mentality
Like his mentor, Uy remains a fighter, not only against naysayers and extortion, but a “crab mentality” mindset he says is discouraging entrepreneurship and preventing inclusive economic growth in the Philippines.
“Sometimes you don't expect people to be successful,” because there’s a sense of entitlement, he says about dealing with haters. “I had to carry on and go with the business, gain more confidence, talk to our creditors, all our stakeholders.”
“Our mindset should be we should be a nation of entrepreneurs. Look at China. Look at Korea. Look at Japan,” Uy adds. “We are built to be a service economy. Number 1, OFW, service. Number 2, BPO. Number 3, tourism. It's all service. But if you look at market caps, it's 20 percent control, 80 percent. It's all the same names. I'm not saying that it's bad, but you have to have a stronger middle class.”
Annalisa Burgos is a freelance journalist with 20 years of experience covering Asia and the United States. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @annalisaburgos and on Facebook: facebook.com/annalisathejournalist. The views expressed are her own.