At no time are one's values and principles more critical than in this turbulent time of COVID-19, economic recession, and social unrest. We revisit the story behind the remarkable manifesto of AIDEA’s President & CEO.
July 18, 2020
Images courtesy of AIDEA
The seeds of innovation thrive in times of danger. Without danger, there is no risk. Without risk, there is no need to change. Without the need to change, there is no need to innovate. The story of AIDEA is one of risk-taking, change, and innovation.
Imagine the Philippine peso devaluing from 50 today to 80 to the dollar within three months. That would be the equivalent of what happened during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997—almost 60% devaluation of our currency. From 26 pesos to the dollar in May 1997, it plummeted to 41 in July. And the worst was yet to come. That was the crisis I came home to in 1998.
The narrator is AIDEA President and CEO Jojo Tolentino. His narrative is a melding of three interviews I did with him over six months, with several consultations between clarifying parts of his story, motivation, and thinking over the years. I wanted to get at the impetus behind the firm that started 25 years ago—a failing 17-man Manila branch of British firm RMJM that evolved into the Filipino-owned AIDEA Inc., now 275-strong with 800 completed projects in five continents. I wanted readers to hear his voice uninterrupted (except for this note) by the reporter. The narrative was published in BluPrint’s Manifesto Issue in 2018.
Why are we revisiting one man’s manifesto?
A manifesto expresses two things: conviction and commitment. Conviction is based on principles, values, and goals—usually, change for the better. Conviction voices one’s purpose and meaning. But it doesn’t end there. Good manifestos articulate your commitment—what you are willing to do to bring about your highest ideals. If you are self-aware and honest about how your actions stack up against your convictions and commitment, chances are you stay true to the person you want to be.
Tolentino did not start out with a grand manifesto. But in his 30s, he knew his values and did not forsake them during AIDEA’s difficult beginnings. His story is set against the 1997 financial crisis, which made the close of the 1990s a tumultuous time for Asian businesses.
The early months of 2020 have been extraordinarily disruptive and shocking to the entire world. COVID-19, economic recession, draconian rule, social unrest, and heightened international tensions—no previous period in our lifetime has been so agitated and uncertain. It is easiest to give in to our worst selves when chaos and confusion rule, when institutions don’t work. Now more than ever, we must hold fast to our convictions and stay true to our commitments. It is time to reevaluate who we are and whether we stand only for ourselves or also for others. What is your manifesto? Tolentino’s story shows fidelity to a higher purpose holds us steady no matter how violently the world around us shakes.
Tolentino is generous with his expertise but has always been reticent about his professional success, which is ironic because he is obsessed with helping his clients succeed.
It’s a mindset Tolentino wants every Aidean to imbibe, and which he will share at the webinar, ‘Advising Clients in a Brave New World’ on Wednesday, July 22. The title of his presentation is, ‘Survive or Thrive: Partnering for Success.’ The webinar is the first of three LIXIL Design DeepDive™ Live Sessions – Philippines themed ‘Build A Better Normal.’ Watch it from 2:00 to 3:15 PM (UTC+8), live on the American Standard Facebook page.
Now back to the story. Tolentino describes himself as easily bored, always looking forward to the next strategic innovation. But while he gets his thrills being an early adapter, what AIDEA is today has everything to do with remembering the past and the company’s rocky beginnings.
Lessons of the past
1998. British firm RMJM had just opened a branch in Manila and offered me a position as managing director. Friends and colleagues advised against it. Why trade the stability and security of my job with HOK in Hong Kong for the uncertainty of the Philippines? The people hiring me said that despite the economic meltdown in the region, RMJM’s prospects were good in the Philippines. As a matter of fact, they said, RMJM was not letting go of people but adding staff. I did not want to pass up on the opportunity to run an office, so I accepted the offer.
But on checking our numbers and correspondence with Regional Headquarters in Hong Kong, I discovered the Manila office was in bad shape! HQ wanted to close us down but decided to give Manila one last shot by reassigning the ex-pat Managing Director and then replacing him with a cheaper, foreign-trained Filipino architect. Me.
None of the Manila employees knew the real score. I told them the truth and got a lot of pushback. The white boss gave us raises and bonuses last year and the year before, they said, and now this guy’s telling us no raises this year? If the ex-pat couldn’t make it work, what makes this guy think he can?
“Look,” I told them. “There are some things you don’t know that I know. You can choose to leave the company because you feel there is no hope of saving it, or you can stay and help me build it.” I was 32 years old. Telling people the unpleasant truth and asking them to prepare for tough times ahead was the hardest thing I had ever had to do.
All of them stayed. They didn’t have much choice. Markets in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and the Philippines were in free fall. In 1998, the dollar-peso exchange rate slid further down from 41 to 46, and the plunge didn’t stop until the peso dropped to a record low of 55.75 to the dollar in 2001.
How did we survive?
Since the Philippine construction industry was contracting, I marketed our services to other RMJM offices. They agreed to outsource work to Manila, to keep the cash flow going. We tightened our belts and didn’t give raises for three years. But, we didn’t lay off anyone. The thinking was, it is better for all 17 of us to sacrifice a little than to let some of us suffer a lot.
Five principles need to be at work for strategic innovation with bottom-line results to happen. Some strategists say seven principles, others say more, but know at least these five:
- Understand your environment.
- Lead internally.
- Lead externally.
- Aspire in a big way.
We knew we had to change but didn’t yet know how. We were in unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, and it was vital we assess our environment and ourselves honestly. For me, this was the time I learned to lead internally—to build relationships with my team, to win hearts and minds. I lived and learned these lessons:
- Believe in yourself. Many of us are plagued with self-doubt. Don’t be. It doesn’t do any good.
- Be honest with yourself and your team.
- Set the example. Model what it means to put the interests of the team first. If you want them to work hard, you work harder than them. If you want people to come in early, you come in earlier. You want them to stay late, stay late as well. Don’t ask people to make sacrifices while enjoying the perks of being the boss.
- Empathize. Show people that even if you are the boss, nothing is beneath you—delivering documents to DHL at the airport when everybody’s exhausted, or buying food for them, so they don’t have to go out. In those days, we would pull overtime for weeks at a time. People were going home at 3 AM then would come back to work at 8 or 9. I convinced RMJM Hong Kong to let us book cheap hotel rooms near the office so people could catch some sleep. When you show people you have their welfare at heart, they will trust you.
- Most of all, share your purpose with them. WHY do we do what we do? If you are authentic, they will listen. Purpose is a powerful motivator. If they share your purpose, they will help you fulfill it.
This business of ours is about making people successful. The key is to make all the stakeholders successful because a project is no good when only one or some are successful—the developer makes money, while the users suffer. Or the developer and users are successful to the detriment of the environment, the surrounding communities, or the government.
It’s the architect’s job to balance those needs. Everyone should benefit from what we do. If not, then we redefine the success benchmarks, so everyone enjoys an equitable measure of success. It’s our responsibility to help others see we all are called to give a leg up to those who have less and to safeguard the future of those who haven’t been born yet.
What we do is client-centered service. The aspiration is human-centered design. We talk about making people’s lives better. How do we do so beyond the physical? How do we help people live happier, more fulfilled lives? These are the questions that occupy us now.
Back in 1998 to 2000, however, our ‘WHY,’ our purpose, was survival—to put food on the table. To save jobs. Our situation was not sustainable. We needed to generate our own business so we would not be dependent on other RMJM offices. If all we did was service them, we would not be treated as equals and would have no control over our budget and future.
We spent this hungry time learning the market and marketing the company. We took risks to break into the market. The strategy was, no matter how small the project and the fee we would do excellent work to make clients remember us.
The very first project we got on our own was for Procter & Gamble, my former clients in Hong Kong. We did a small office expansion for their plant in Cabuyao, Laguna. Then there was Oakwood Residences beside Glorietta 4, which wanted a canopy over their front entrance, which we did for P120,000. Then, the Makati Stock Exchange wanted their lobby door relocated for better feng shui. We got 70,000 for that. Because of those two projects, Ayala Land invited us to bid for the MRT 3 Ayala Station interiors. We asked for P4 million. Ayala haggled us down—I won’t say how much!
Clients like Ayala and P&G kept coming back and giving us work. In 2001, Ayala Land gave us our first big local break with The Columns, a condominium tower. Since then, we have done 60 buildings for Ayala. In 2004, we won our first big international contracts with Procter & Gamble to do their offices in Moscow and Dubai.
The lesson here is: Don’t market for projects. Market for clients. Don’t regard your work as a business transaction. Look for relationships and invest in them. If you want to succeed, do everything you can to help your client’s business succeed. However they define success, you help them reach that.
The secret sauce
People ask, “What’s your secret to a successful relationship?”
- Know them better than they know themselves. Research. Google them. Check their social media. Interview them. What is their vision of the future? What keeps them awake at night?
- Be of service. We designers are so into our creations that we forget we serve clients. Many of us feel clients exist for us to become successful. We don’t tolerate that attitude in AIDEA.
- Be authentic. We all know what it’s like when somebody is nice to us because of ulterior motives. Clients can tell when all you’re after is personal gain.
- Be honest. Don’t promise everything, but go out of your way to help. If there’s something I don’t know, I extend my relationships and network to the client to help get the best advice for their business.
- Help without expecting reward. Some people come right out and ask for an introduction fee or a piece of the action. We’ve never done that. And yet, nine times out of ten, when the people we’ve helped in the past need an architect, they remember us.
- Choose clients whose values and business practices match yours. I look for culture fit. I stay away from prospects and client reps that do shady deals because they will surely ask you to do unethical things. And once that starts, it never ends.
To risk nothing is to risk everything
I believe this. By 2002, RMJM Manila had its first taste of big projects that we had acquired ourselves. We knew the local and foreign markets and wanted to expand our reach overseas. We learned our lesson from the Asian Financial Crisis. We could not afford to remain a single-market base business. But RMJM Hong Kong was risk-averse and had no plans of investing in Manila.
So in 2003, I took all my savings and bought RMJM out to become AIDEA, an all-Filipino-owned firm.
Vindication came in 2004 when we signed a global frame agreement with P&G to do all their regional and national offices. More projects started pouring in. But, as people in construction know, the money doesn’t pour in at the same rate as the workload, and it is months after project completion before we get fully paid. We were having difficulty making ends meet. We were on dangerous ground once again. We could not afford to keep hiring people. We needed to increase productivity, ensure quality, and create a competitive advantage for our firm. We turned to technology for solutions. We converted to BIM.
BIM bam boom
We committed all the mistakes you could think of, and for six months, our productivity as low as 40%. But by the year’s end, we had regained our pre-BIM productivity level, and in two years, we were saving 40% on manpower. We restructured AIDEA to make our BIM program more effective, developed a digital learning system so that knowledge was not retained in a person but in the system, and held seminars with invited experts to keep us up to date.
By this time, all five keys to strategic innovation for bottom-line results were in play:
- We knew our environment. The internal and external risks; developments in the industry; that the future of our industry would be digital, virtual, and integrated.
- We were leading internally. By 2004, we had a dozen promising young leaders under our wing. Almost all of them are now on AIDEA’s board of directors. In the same way we invest in our clients’ success, we invest in our people’s careers.
- We were leading externally. We were beginning to influence people, to connect minds, initiate partnerships, and collaborations. Employees who left AIDEA to work abroad became our ambassadors, connecting us with prospective clients.
- We aspired big time. Innovation strategists call the gap between a company’s aspirations and their current state ‘the innovation gap’—the gap where innovation lives. Because we knew what we wanted to be and had no illusions about our strengths and weaknesses, we could identify our huge ‘innovation potential’ and next steps.
- We were empowered to work effectively. More importantly, we were empowered not just to plan and propose, but also to make decisions and to act, which was not the case when AIDEA was still RMJM.
Now you might have noticed a little wrinkle in our story. How did we afford this conversion to BIM if I had used up my savings to buy out RMJM two years before? I told Graphisoft, the makers of the BIM software ArchiCAD, “Let AIDEA try your software free of charge for three months. If we have problems with it, we’ll give you three months to fix the bugs, and then we’ll try it out another three months. If everything goes well, then we’ll start paying for the licenses.”
Graphisoft agreed! They had nothing to lose. No one in Asia had converted to BIM yet, and they wanted to break into this market. If we succeeded, we would be their first success story. We shared the same thinking: By helping us succeed, they too would succeed. Over the years, we have helped each other out. We test their new products before they come out on the market; we exchange ideas and point out areas for improvement.
Here’s a secret: I knew right from the start that we wanted Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD. We had done our homework and were fully committed to BIM. I just needed that breathing space because we were down to our last 100,000 pesos!
More risks, some gains
How far are we willing to go to fulfill our purpose? Down to the last peso. For three years after buying our independence from RMJM, I didn’t draw a salary and was putting in my personal money to keep the company operational. I have a very high tolerance for risk, but there are three things I won’t endanger: people’s safety, our employees’ security, and our professional reputation.
Four years ago, we created an in-house software development team to automate repetitive processes so we could spend less time producing and more time designing. After three years, the investment started yielding results. Our team has been able to create several powerful BIM add-ons, like one that generates construction documentation automatically from the 3D model, so what used to be a six-month job is now a one-month job for us.
Also four years ago, we established a company with a Danish partner to marry Virtual Reality with BIM so clients can experience their project in 1:1 scale. Creating a new business from BIM was not our end game. The objective was to optimize efficiency and enhance the co-creation process with clients and co-designers, but we’ve been getting expressions of interest from contractors and architects in Japan and Europe so these innovations may become a new revenue stream.
Because AIDEA has gotten big, we’re currently institutionalizing a design process aligned with design thinking—we call it AIDEAtion—so our people don’t forget the basics: research, empathy, mapping, and talking to people. We’ve got 3D printers, but we’re not getting rid of our low-tech prototyping processes anytime soon—foam boards, clay models, paper.
What I like best about going back to the basics is the emphasis on inclusivity, empathy, and immersion—the deep dive. Not all schools teach this, particularly for projects where there are many users beyond the clients paying for the project. We want the people we’re designing for to feel they matter. We want to help people live happier, more fulfilled lives. Once you’ve successfully navigated a deep dive, there’s no going back to the shallows.
We are designing a country
The reason we can now afford to start thinking this way is that we’ve invested in automation, so we don’t have to spend the bulk of our time on parts of the job that don’t require decision making and that no one wants to do anyway.
We want to get to the point that automation allows us to do deep dives as a rule, and not as a luxury. Where we can test prototypes in VR to design developments that promote neighborliness and quality life for families and address social concerns in vertical developments, such as young children getting enough exercise and practicing social skills, or caring for our aging parents without sending them off to a home.
When I visit Scandinavian countries, I feel the people are happy. They have time for themselves and for the family because things work. Filipinos deserve better than what they’re getting now. Part of the solution lies in government policies, and our role is to support such policies by designing livable cities that empower people and are conducive to behaving civilly and working efficiently. There’s a lot the local AEC industry can initiate. We need to take much more seriously the fact that we’re not just designing buildings; we are creating communities. And all of us together are designing a country. That’s why vision and leadership matter. We need to share a vision of our country.
For that matter, I think the Philippines should be designing ASEAN. Part of the driving force behind AIDEA is the notion that we are helping reverse the brain drain in the Philippines by giving Filipino architects and designers opportunities to do world-class work and be compensated equitably without leaving their homeland. If we all set our sights on ASEAN, there would be more than enough work for all 40,000 Filipino architects.
In a very short time, because of ASEAN integration, the practice of architecture in our region will be borderless. That requires change—the way you run and structure your business, the way you deliver your service, the way you think about design and approach design, the way you train your people, the way we educate our future architects.
Our professional organizations’ programs are not geared toward promoting and exporting our services. They are not anticipating and preparing for the challenges of the future. Yet we have everything to gain by preparing. Of all the ASEAN member states, the Philippines has the biggest population of architects. There’s so much work in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, which are all building their countries.
We can’t afford to continue operating as a single-market-base business. What happens when our economy falters? That’s a short-term risk. The long-term risk of not integrating is when ASEAN gets its act together as a borderless economy, the Philippines won’t just be left behind, and our neighbors could well dominate our market and other potential markets.
Success is a moving target
People think I’m successful. I think I’m still me, just busier. I still feel the same way I did when I first started the firm—the same excitement, the same drive. I don’t feel I’ve accomplished all that much. I don’t look at what I’ve done; I look at what I can do. I look for the next mountain to climb. In the big scheme of things, success today is really just one point on a journey to something better. When you’ve succeeded there, then it’s on to something better again. The same holds true for failures, and we’ve had many!
I don’t think in terms of legacy, probably because of my personal circumstances—I don’t have kids. Not because my kids would be guaranteed a position in the company. I don’t believe in that. I didn’t name AIDEA after me because I wanted our young leaders to feel that when they take over, the company is theirs. Perhaps that’s also the reason I don’t think about personal success and am focused instead on the client’s and our employees’ success.
Danger, preparedness, and success
The path to growth and excellence is fraught with danger. It demands that we take risks, that we learn, and that we make a change. Most people hate change. But listen! Staying the same never makes progress.
I love living dangerously. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years since I left my job in Hong Kong. I get high when I take calculated risks. The more people say something is too difficult, the more I want to do it! I love the thrill of innovation, and I don’t mind the nine failures it takes to get the tenth try to work. I believe in relentless innovation because change is relentless and I’d rather prepare for change and meet it head-on than let it sneak up on me from behind.
I relish the uphill climb—it has its rewards. No one wants to hear the story of a man just sitting on a mountaintop. It’s in the grueling ascent that lessons are learned, bonds are tested, and the best memories are made. There’s a quote from a mountain climber that describes what the climb to success is like, the success we try to achieve for our clients and AIDEA:
Climbing mountains is a dangerous affair.
You don’t climb mountains without a team.
You don’t climb mountains without being prepared.
You don’t climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards.
And you never climb a mountain by accident.
Climbing mountains is always intentional.
I interviewed Jojo Tolentino again in April 2020, while AIDEA was preparing to come out of quarantine. Ruminating about their upcoming 25th anniversary this year, Jojo Tolentino says, “This global crisis coincides with our silver anniversary year. The current situation compels us to recognize what CAN be done. It moves us to live up to the bravery that inspires us, to work harder and smarter to surmount challenges that we couldn’t have imagined a year ago. We can’t think of a better way to commemorate a milestone than to rise to this unprecedented occasion.”
AIDEA is one of the largest architecture firms in the world. Largest in total project square meters and dollar revenues, the metrics UK-based BD Online uses to rank the WA100—the world’s top 100 architecture firms. When I interviewed Tolentino in 2018, the firm had 250 employees and had just opened a branch in Clark, Pampanga. It ranked 47th in the WA 100. Today, 275-strong, the firm ranks 45th.
Just as Tolentino did not lay off a single employee in the early struggles of the company, AIDEA did not let go of any employee nor diminish their compensation during the government-imposed lockdown against COVID-19. The challenges of keeping the AIDEA family safe, now that it has grown so large, is greater now than 20, 25 years ago. The stakes are higher. The Asian Financial Crisis threatened livelihoods; COVID-19 endangers livelihoods, wellbeing, and lives.
At no time are one’s values and principles more critical than in a time of danger. Who do we say we are? Do our convictions and commitment extend beyond caring for ourselves? Do we believe in helping others keep their jobs, grow, and prosper? Are we committed to keeping others safe and healthy? Can I be counted on to help preserve and regenerate the natural and built environment? Do I design and build to make a name for myself or do I design and build to make the world a safer, healthier, resilient, happier, and inclusive place for our children and their children? How far am I willing to go to stay true to my manifesto?
Watch ‘Build A Better Normal,’ the three-part LIXIL Design DeepDive™ Live Sessions – Philippines and join the discussions. Stream the first live session, ‘Advising Clients in a Brave New World,’ live on July 22 from 2:00 to 3:15 PM at the American Standard Facebook page.
Joining Tolentino are speakers Christine Bruckner, Director at M Moser Associates and Sigrid Zialcita, President and CEO of Asia Pacific Real Estate Association. Responding to the speakers and initiating the Q&A with the audience are reactors Cherie Fernandez, VP for Developments at Federal Land; Toni Vasquez, CEO and Principal Architect of T.I. Vasquez Architects & Planners; and Dexter Lee, Managing Director of Luana Lifestyle and Leisure Hotel and co-developer of Lotus Central Mall.
BluPrint is the exclusive media partner of LIXIL Design DeepDive™ Live Sessions – Philippines, co-presented by LIXIL brands American Standard, GROHE, and INAX. Design DeepDive™ Live Sessions is a LIXIL Asia Pacific regional activity, with the first webinar series hosted by India and ‘Build a Better Normal’ hosted by the Philippines.