David M. Consunji in his office, photographed by Ed Simon of Studio 100, September 2012

The David who was Goliath: David M. Consunji

Our CBDs would be unrecognizable without Consunji. We remember the engineer who built our cities.

  • September 5, 2017

  • Wriiten by Judith Torres

  • Photographed by Ed Simon

Engineer David M. Consunji died Monday, 4 September 2017, at the age of 95.

Name ten outstanding landmarks built in the 1960s and 1970s, and chances are, Consunji built all ten. Name another twenty built in the Eighties onwards, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion his company, DMCI, built them as well.

The man—or as everybody called him, the Chairman—had some 330 built projects to his name. These include the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Center, Philippine International Convention Center, Westin Philippine Plaza, Manila Doctors Hospital, and Rizal Theater.

Our CBDs would be unrecognizable without Consunji’s structures. Imagine Makati City without Ayala Triangle Tower I, the Philippine Stock Exchange Plaza, Roxas Triangle, Makati Shangri-La Hotel, the Glorietta 4 mixed-use development, and the army of banks DMCI built: Far East Bank, Citibank, Urban Bank, Equitable Bank, BPI and UCPB, to name a few; not to mention the many infrastructure projects connecting these CBDs and the outlying cities together. Someone else could have built them, of course, but then imagine the impact on business and the man on the street had the cost and time of construction increased by 20 to 40 percent.

From the very first project Consunji undertook as a contractor, he was obsessed with finishing best and finishing fast. He knew shorter construction times meant bigger savings and earlier returns for his clients. As a young man, he was constantly looking for solutions to make this happen. He was not above asking for advice from those who knew more than he did, and, later on, giving it to those he felt needed it—whether they wanted his advice or not. To paraphrase the saying, everyone is entitled to Consunji’s opinion.

That, in addition to his no-nonsense common sense, is why David M. Consunji was such a good ‘get’ for interviews. The man had strong opinions and no filter.

I was privileged to document three interviews with him, in 2009, 2012, and 2013. The one that stands out is the conversation with architect Joven F. Ignacio in 2009, which lasted almost three hours, where Consunji talked about his younger years, before David became Goliath.

The interview was first published in BluPrint Volume 3, 2009, and then updated with annotations for BluPrint’s 2013 special issue, 55 Heroes and Mentors. We publish the annotated version here. Recalling his fiery spirit, his wry humor, and impatience with laziness, we wonder if any can ever come along to fill David M. Consunji’s giant shoes.

David M. Consunji in his office, photographed by Ed Simon of Studio 100, September 2012

Consunji was the second of nine children. His hero was their eldest brother, Jorge, to whom Consunji credits much of who he is today:

My mother died when I was very young. Our eldest brother was always our leader. Jorge was good in everything. He was good in music, he was good in math… he was good with people… he was good to all of us. He took up Electrical Engineering in U.P., he was always at the top of his class. He was two years older than me. One day we were talking about courses and he said, “What? You’re going to take up Agriculture in Los Baños?” He wouldn’t hear of it. He said, “You’re coming with me.” He brought me to U.P. Diliman and said that my future lay in Civil Engineering.

By Consunji’s account, he was a mediocre student: I didn’t cut class, but I didn’t pay attention either!

Disaster struck the family when Jorge was shot in 1945 during the Japanese occupation. The rock of the family was suddenly gone. Their father was sickly and out of work, and a few years later, would be assassinated by Communist insurgents, the Hukbalahap. David, whose studies were interrupted by the war, had to work hard to graduate in 1946. Despite the difficult times, David managed to fall in love and get married but was still out of work. Reality came knocking hard on their door. He had a wife and seven younger siblings to feed. It was time, David realized, to buckle down to work. He started as a concrete inspector, then found work as a foreman with his cousin and eventually began accepting small contractual jobs.

The pay was P400 a month—in 1948, that was a big amount! But that job was only for only ten months. So after 10 months, I had to look for another job. Happily, I met this guy who happened to be a friend of Peping Marcelo of Marcelo Rubber. He said, “You’re from U.P. You can do this. 500 bucks. Design and build.”

Design he did. But David ran into problems getting his designs signed by building officials. So he sought help from his former professor, Alfred Juinio.

He told me, “You come back here with all your books from first year to fourth year—bring them all! Then, you will do nothing but read!”

This turned David into a voracious reader and an earnest learner, making up for the years he wasted in school not listening to his teachers. The months of intensive study under Juinio’s guidance paid off in due course.

In 1951, David registered as an individual contractor, and was immediately known as someone friendly, smart and eager to assist, often helping architects, other engineers and even city hall building officials do their work for free.

I didn’t charge them a cent. Nothing at all. In exchange, they would pay me with halo-halo!

He would take jobs for a song if the project interested him. He quickly became a skilled negotiator, leveraging numerous job offers to get better pay from would-be employers. David was 34 when he decided to open his own contracting company with a team of loyal men who enjoyed working with him. DM Consunji, Inc., was established in 1954, and its first project was constructing chicken houses for the Bureau of Animal Industry.

The following year, David would embark on one of his most memorable projects, the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice in the University of the Philippines, designed by Leandro Locsin. It was the first circular church in the country, and had a highly innovative, lightweight, thin-shell concrete dome. Here, David got to try out his ideas for a better way of mixing and delivering concrete. Many contractors at the time tended to add too much water so that the concrete would flow more easily through chutes. His experiment using a series of platforms was a success, but what made the project unforgettable was that the whole morning that his gang was pouring concrete for the dome, it was pouring rain all around them except for the construction site, which miraculously remained dry as Fr. Delaney, the parish priest, said prayers non-stop for God’s mercy.

Consunji shakes his head as he recounts this story almost six decades later, still amazed.

We (Consunji and Locsin) both were blessed with good fortune after finishing the UP Chapel. Architects were not so tough on me after that, and I got shortlisted all the time.

David’s first big break occurred soon after, when San Miguel Corporation contracted him to do their Coca Cola Plant in Tacloban.

One day, a man was waiting for me at home. He was the Vice President of San Miguel, Dr. Adriano. He said, “I’m having a bigger pipe laid in front of your house. It won’t affect your property, but I just wanted to let you know.” That was the old people’s way, to serve notice. And then he said, “You know, I think I know your father and mother.” It turns out he was my dad’s teacher in Chemistry, and he knew my mother from Manila High School. “Why don’t you work for us at San Miguel?” he asked me. I told him I couldn’t possibly qualify. He said not to worry, that he would take care of me. So I became a contractor for San Miguel, for a job in Tacloban, Leyte. At P300 or P350, I was the lowest paid contractor, but I didn’t mind.

David’s smart construction methods, practical solutions, and efficient project management broke construction time records at his first job with San Miguel, astonishing the bosses. What normally took SMC’s contractors 18 months to do, David accomplished in 12.

The boss had me called in. He asked me one question: “What did you do to finish the job so quickly?” I told him:“Simple. I kept in mind that I work for you and if I finish quickly, you would be able to make use of the plant sooner.”

David bid and won the contract to build a second plant for San Miguel in Pampanga. He charged the same daily rate of P1,000 a day. And although someone bid the same rate as he, David’s quotation still came out the least expensive because he estimated he could finish the job in two-thirds the time of his competitor. From then on, it was clear that D.M. Consunji was a name to watch out for.

At that time, I was quoting the fastest completion times possible while my competitors all seemed to be quoting the longest times possible. I think for many of them, construction was just a job, contracting was just something they did. They didn’t have the passion. I took advantage of that.

The young Consunji was different from his peers because he made it a point to invest heavily in equipment and machinery, and was always the first to use new tools, such as pneumatic drills to bolt trusses and frames together instead of manual drills. He was always looking for solutions and finding more efficient ways to execute quality. He achieved this through thorough planning, exhaustive preparation and precise system frameworks.

In addition to exactitude and speed, Consunji credits his success as a contractor to his scrupulous fidelity to the architect’s vision. To underscore his point, Consunji names some contractors who failed to get repeat business because they followed their clients’ whims and the projects came out badly.

The contractor should know how to read and follow plans. One evening, I had a long chat with the architect of Madama [Imelda Marcos], Jorge Ramos. He was doing work in Ilocos Norte, in Paoay.

“Dave,” he asked me, “How is it that you are able to get exactly what the architect wants?”

“It’s simple, I told him. I carefully study the plans. Then I talk to the architect. How do you want this to look? What is the idea behind this? What do you want to achieve? Then I internalize his concept. And then I do what he wants. Not what I want, because it is he who is the author, not I.”

That’s why Gabby Formoso, when he was building the house for Iñing [Eugenio] Lopez, that big house in Antipolo, asked for me. But Iñing Lopez, he didn’t know me from Adam. So one day, in the middle of construction, Iñing asks me, can you change this? Can you change that? I tell him, “Sure, but consult Formoso first. That’s how I work,” I told him, “and if you don’t want me, well, that’s up to you.”

Lopez decided to stick with Formoso’s plan, and Lopez and Consunji got along well after that.

Consunji eventually worked with all the great architects—Pablo Antonio, Carlos Arguelles, Cesar Concio, Alfredo Luz, Juan Nakpil, Jorge Ramos, Jose Ma. Zaragoza, and of course, Leandro Locsin.

This is not to say that Consunji’s relationships with architects were one-sided affairs. As he gained experience, he engaged them in spirited debates on the best way to carry out design concepts. He often challenged them on their knowledge of materials and processes, and called them out when he believed that their plans were ill planned. Later on, he would even berate some of them for the increasing influx of foreign architects and design consultants.

I blame the Filipino architects. “Mga gago,” I would tell them, “it’s because you don’t do your homework that you are losing out!” The foreigners do their plans so much more meticulously. You know, it is difficult to include specific details if you don’t know what specific details to include. It is even more difficult to include details when you don’t know what to do with them! When I used to tell this to the old architects, they would get angry. I told them not to get angry because it’s the truth.

Consunji believes that the Philippine construction industry has come a long way since he started. And though he still worries that Filipino architects and contractors are still short on planning and efficiency because we are short on knowledge and trade skills compared to other countries, he is more optimistic than ever before. Consunji’s interests have expanded to include agriculture, agro-forestry, mining, real estate and community development, his various companies united under DMCI Holdings, Inc., founded in 1955. One of his passionate advocacies is trade skills training, where he is putting serious money where his mouth is, and is a source of satisfaction that helps the incurable workaholic sleep better at night.

In 2007, Consunji placed number 19 in Forbes’ published list of the Philippines’ 40 Richest, with a net worth of USD 210 million. In 2010, Forbes listed him as the 12th richest Filipino with a networth of USD 715 million, and in its 2013 report, Consunji jumped up 7 places to rank the 5th richest Filipino, with a net worth of USD 2.8 billion.

Chairman Consunji turns 91 this November, still sharp, and still larger than life, a giant among men.

The article above was published in BluPrint’s 2013 special issue, 55 Heroes and Mentors. 

Consunji’s wake is at the Capilla de San Francisco of Santuario de San Antonio Parish in Makati City and will be open to visitors until Friday, 8 September 2017.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be made instead to the UP Engineering Research and Development Foundation, Inc. and Orani Suhay Foundation, Inc. 

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