Navigating the Future: The Udenna Way

Mar 23, 2020

Udenna Corporation Chairman and CEO, Dennis A. Uy, at The Manila Times 11th Business Forum (Photo courtesy of The Manila Times)

Whatever you believe to be true about life, one thing is for sure – time passes whether you like it or not. The future cannot be stopped.

And since the future is a mystery, many of us want to get a peek or at least get the best possible guess on what the future’s going to be like, to see if things will play out the way we hoped they will.

Well, we don’t have to try so hard.

It’s very easy to predict the future. 

I can simply say that in 10 years, you’ll be ten years older.

What’s hard is predicting the future correctly. 

The future can be intimidating. But come to think of it, today is the future we created yesterday. I’m here now because almost 20 years ago, I could have said that “this is the future.” 

In a 21st-century world, which is more global, digitally enabled, with faster speeds of information flow, and where nothing big gets done without some kind of a complex matrix, what I’ve discovered is that, successfully navigating the future is not so much about intelligent predictions, data analytics, not even technology. It’s about us overcoming every challenge and seizing opportunities, day in and day out. 

Sometimes, we have to look back in order for us to look into the future. 

Eighteen years ago, Udenna Corporation started in Davao. For lack of a better name, I named it UDENNA, which is the greek word for handsome. (Smiles) 

So there I was, in my  20’s, not sure yet of what to do, but I went on to register UDENNA just to explore my own venture after serving the family business for 10 years. With the little savings that I have and some earnings from trading stocks, I thought of what business there is to be made. I looked around for opportunities and since I’m a foodie, I started a small barbeque restaurant. 

Eventually, the chain grew into 8 branches, which is good, but I saw that there’s a better opportunity in oil retailing. I didn’t know anything about petroleum but I had the confidence because there's a real market.

Since oil was deregulated in 1998, there were only a handful of brands, so we can be one of the first 10 brands in the market. Today, there are over 60 brands, as per DOE, so it was good that we started earlier. I took a leap, went all-out and all-in. But the first challenge came - capital. When you do business, you need financing. In our space, we don’t have venture capitals to lend a hand. So with my limited capital, I borrowed money and held off the construction of my house. I was newly married, so you can just imagine my wife’s reaction. But I overcame that challenge, and with my wife’s trust and support, I handed the land title to the bank to add to my capital. 

Looking back, it wasn’t an easy road. I entered an industry dominated by international players. We were losing money. The JV  fell off and my partners walked away. I was left with three tanks in the depot, 2 million liters each. I was forced to trade on my own. It was a huge risk, having invested all my life savings in it. I spoke to some new oil players and offered them to lease the property, but to no avail. We had no regular revenue streams, so the business struggled like any ordinary startup venture. 

It was tempting to quit, but I knew that we stood a chance because I saw back then that the economy in 5 to 10 years will lean towards the energy sector. So we kept on. I thought that, when all else fails, I can always dismantle the huge storage tanks and sell the metal scraps to make money out of it. 

But then a much better opportunity opened when I made a cold call to Cebu Pacific, a then-rising airline. Guess what? They took a chance on us and gave us the break that brought us the confidence to persevere. Davao Oil Terminal Services Corporation became profitable. As Churchill said: Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

Then later on, one of my employees suggested that we can’t keep selling to businesses and distributors, that we should start retailing. I said, “why not?” But to do that, we have to have a strong brand that can compete against the majors. Kudos to the genius of Bai Manginsay, the Phoenix brand was born. Phoenix grew and in 2007, it became the first oil company to list on the PSE since the Oil Deregulation Law in 1998. The IPO was 15 times oversubscribed and fueled our expansion from Davao to the rest of the Philippines. 

But the growing business posted many challenges. 

We needed inter-island shipping services but nobody wanted to serve us because we had little track record. 

Demand for fuel storage is increasing, but we had no land. 

So what did we do?

Eventually we were forced to buy our own tanker to serve our supply chain. Thus, the birth of Chelsea Logistics and Infrastructure Holdings. Our logistics business has evolved from 1 tanker to 77 ships, and is now a publicly listed company considered as the nation's largest shipping group. 

With the Philippines as the major supplier of maritime laborers globally and our seafarers are among the best in the world, we see a future where our Filipino seafarers board Filipino-owned ships. Is it easy? No. Is it financially challenging? Yes. But can it be done? Why not?

As for our land challenge, we spotted an opportunity to purchase Calaca Industrial Seaport in Batangas to store our fuel, thus the birth of Udenna Land, formerly UDEVCO. What started as an oil depot in Calaca has now evolved into a property company. Udenna Land is now developing  Clark Global City, a 177-hectare master planned mixed-use development in the Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga, and other projects in the high growth areas of Mega Manila, Batangas, Cebu, and Davao with the aim of decongesting our cities and spreading equal opportunity. Is it easy? No. Is it challenging? Yes. But can it be done? Why not?

Eighteen years ago, we were a petroleum company. Today, we are in the consumer space. Phoenix is now into convenience retailing, QSR, and fin tech. I went back to my first love - food - to scale up some of the country’s most loved food brands, Conti’s and Wendy’s, despite others saying that the food industry is a saturated market. We’ve always believed that there is still space, that there is always a place for anybody who’s determined to succeed. That’s also why recently, as you all know, we went into telco through DITO Telecommunity. 

It is very challenging but it also brings with it a myriad of opportunities not just for our company but for the Filipino. It will level the playing field and provide massive access.

Today, the world is moving so fast and yet, Filipinos can’t even venture big time in the tech space. There are a lot of tech savvy Filipinos who have brains and ideas. But they lack capital and the stomach to just do it. It’s hard, especially if one lacks access to capital markets, bank loans or other debt instruments. It entails hundreds of millions, and there are only a handful of VCs here to seed. All financial institutions, at least on the creditors side, want collateral, and it takes a lot of effort and size to issue notes, bonds, etc., if you're not a big conglomerate. But the future is around the tech space, that’s why even though the telco project is so challenging, we are deeply inspired by it. We are hungry to see it succeed.  Is it easy? No. Is it financially challenging? Yes. But can it be done? Why not?

You see, in our group, we have a special culture called the 5Hs. You can only work in UDENNA if you have them. The first H is handsome (smiles). Just kidding. The first thing I always tell our people is to stay Hungry. Hungry for change, for opportunities to do things better, to do things that have not been done before. Then there’s Hard work. Work hard not just to accomplish but to exceed our goals, to not stop when we’re tired but when we’re done. Next, be Honest in all dealings, even if nobody’s looking. Fourth, stay Humble. “Bawal ang hambog.” Stay Humble and keep yourself grounded despite the many accomplishments. Last, be Holy. When all has been said and done, recognize that there is always a Greater Hand at work behind every success. 

We in UDENNA do the things we do because we want to help local businesses grow, compete, and thrive with the resources and expertise we have. We see a future where consumers, particularly our countrymen, are the ultimate beneficiaries. 

What I shared are just some of the challenges we had to endure in the past to reach today, which is the future we were aiming for many years ago. We still have a lot of battles to be won, now on an even bigger scale. When you disrupt something, prepare to be disrupted. The bigger the market position, the tougher. If you observe the industries we are in, they are very competitive. Anybody can enter. But we grow because we work hard to get a considerable market share organically, or through strategic M&As.

But if there is a challenge, why do we insist on doing business?

Because the potential and possibilities of success far outweighs them all. We invest in businesses not because of what they are now but because of what they can be. 

The business landscape has drastically changed globally, and is changing still. 

Comparing the Fortune 500 companies between 1955 and 2019, there are only 52 companies that appear in both lists since it started. Where did the 448 companies go? The fact that nearly nine of every 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone or merged, shows that there’s been a lot of market disruption and churning over the last six decades. It’s not surprising that the tech sector is the key catalyst for this change in the world. 

But can the same be said of the Philippines? 

What were the top companies 20 years ago and the top 20 today?

What new companies are emerging in our country? 

In terms of capital markets over the past twenty years, we see that there's been growth in the Philippine capital markets as shown by the bellwether Philippine Stock Exchange Index (PSEi). However, it's still the same business groups that are in the top ten stocks that are in the PSEi. There has not been a single new entrant into the top ten rankings in the past twenty years.

The future of the Philippines is on its people, and entrepreneurs have a big role to play. We need more new entrepreneurs to rise up. “Magaling ang Pinoy.” There’s no doubt about our creativity and passion. Filipinos will never run short of world-class ideas. To cite, Dr. Leonardo Gasendo, a U.S.-based Chemical Engineer who originates from Bacolod City, invented the self-charging car which was granted a U.S. Patent. His vision is for the Philippines to be the renewable energy capital of the world. Another brilliant example is Dado Banatao, the Bill Gates of the Philippines who developed the first Windows Graphics accelerator chip for personal computers. He’s a native from Cagayan Valley and is now a tech innovator and venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. Dado points out a big flaw in the Philippines that prevents the flourish of tech companies: the lack of venture capitalists. He cites Silicon Valley to be built by entrepreneurs and investors.

I dream of a time when brilliant entrepreneurs have better access to funding and are not forced to sell. And whose companies can land in the top 20 companies of the country. I see a future where the best global entrepreneurs are Filipinos who possess the 5H. I look forward to the day when top global companies are from the Philippines; companies that have a vision for the nation, are doing what is right not only for the business but for the country and all its consumers, and are embracing competition to provide better products and services. Success in business is not just for a privileged few. As millennials would say, “Sana all.”

We in Udenna see a future where just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we don’t do it. We don’t get it done right all the time. But we get it right most of the time. Let’s do our fair share to help other entrepreneurs, to raise a new breed of visionaries, to champion a gritty generation, because the future belongs to the bold and persevering. I always say that I have more balls than brains because business is not easy, especially because of the ever-changing landscape.

We are thankful to those ahead of us who paved the way for entrepreneurs like me to break through. We pay it forward by doing our own share and making a difference in the industries that we are in and giving others that same opportunity.

As we always remind the Udenna Group: we are in the business of business. We set our eyes on industries we are not currently in, to see if there are any gaps we could potentially address, markets we can serve. More broadly, we hope that through our investments, we are able to do our part in building a stronger business community here in the Philippines.

We stand on the back of people who have trusted us, and are cheering for us to succeed. “Mura lang ang pera. Mahal ang tiwala. We realize hindi namin kaya on our own. We need the help of others. Kaya nga may slogan kami, ‘Success is not complete without U.’” This is not just a business for us. It is a mission. We hope that you will continue to support us in our mission to improve the lives of Filipinos. Most especially, we hope that you will support young entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of them who are more brilliant, but just don't have the break or support needed. Let’s cultivate an environment that will allow them to thrive.

So how do you navigate the future? The theme says it all: overcome challenges - there will be many- and maximize opportunities. Is it easy? No. Is it challenging? Yes. But can it be done? Why not?

We, in Udenna, started as a challenger, and we will always be a challenger.


It’s never business as usual. 

We will constantly challenge the status quo, challenge possibilities, challenge ourselves to get up again each time we fall, and challenge ourselves to outperform not just the competition but ourselves - all for God and for the Filipino. 

Daghang salamat.


As published on Business World's "MAP Insights" by Dennis A. Uy, a 2-part column based on a speech delivered by the author at the recent The Manila Times 11th Business Forum in Makati City.

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