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My father, the builder

By BOBBY CUENCA Published Oct 29, 2023 5:00 am

On Oct. 16, I was reaching the end of a very long day. I had hosted a reunion for lunch, rushed to the office to finish off some work, went to the hospital where I had checked on my father. He hadn’t been eating or drinking for several days so my siblings and I decided to get a peg. Despite all this, he was surprisingly strong and he was responsive and talking, albeit in a mumble.

I hurriedly went home to finish packing as I was leaving for abroad the next day. I was completely taken aback when my maids ran into my room screaming and pushing a cellphone to my ear. On the other end of the line, I could hear my dad’s longtime maid, Fe, screaming unintelligibly from my dad’s hospital room. Instinctively, I knew immediately what was happening. I was told that my Dad was barely breathing and had no pulse. A doctor came on the phone and asked me “Shall we resuscitate?” Agitatedly, I told her to wait while I called Mary Ann in Tokyo. She calmly told me to “let him rest.” We had all agreed upon this months before, but it still took all my gumption to utter the most difficult three words I’ve ever had to say in my life: “Do not resuscitate.

Rudy Cuenca ventured out into the world to bid for contracts, thereby introducing the Filipino worker to the Middle East.

Once I’d returned to the hospital with my composure regained, Fe told me that she was talking to him when he suddenly called out all the names of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Then his eyes rolled upwards and he died. A few minutes later, as I stood before my dad’s lifeless body holding his hand, emotions were roiling my brain and a wave of memories washed over me. The question crept into my mind: “What was the measure of this man who was my father?”

Rodolfo “Rudy” Cuenca was born May 1, 1928 to Nicolas Cuenca from Lipa, Batangas, and Cristina Magsaysay of San Marcelino, Zambales. My grandfather was a self-made man (he was at one time a houseboy of the Kalaws, a family I married into), who worked his way up the ladder with intelligence and diligence, capping his career as the Commissioner of Public Works and Highways, the equivalent of today’s DPWH. My grandmother, on the other hand, was the daughter of a member of the local principalia, who was schooled in a Manila convent school.

My dad had a peripatetic childhood and education, as my grandfather was assigned as district engineer to several cities, among them Vigan, Malolos, and Cebu. The various schools he attended were San Carlos in Cebu, Letran, and Ateneo, where he was in high school when the Second World War broke out.

With the Japanese army advancing towards Manila, my dad was immediately evacuated by his father to Malolos and then to their farm in San Jose del Monte. He didn’t stay there very long. Not long afterwards, in a flash of derring-do, my 15-year-old father went back to Malolos to sign up with the guerrillas. To quote his words: “My friends invited me, and the local commander was the principal of the school where I used to study. My first task was to listen to the shortwave radio and make a report… Then some of my father’s friends in Baliwag, Bulacan, asked him to smuggle food to Manila, mainly rice. Since the Japanese army was confiscating rice then, we had to make it look like we were transporting other things—like watermelons—under which we hid the rice. We never got caught, but a close friend of mine was.”

He remained with the resistance, doing many other jobs assigned to him, until the end of the war. He even volunteered for a regiment that would join the US Army in trapping Gen. Yamashita in Nueva Vizcaya, but his father refused to allow it. As a result of his guerrilla activities, my dad was a legally recognized WWII veteran. He could have applied for American citizenship, but didn’t. He loved this country too much.

Rudy Cuenca and wife Yasmin Santos Cuenca on their 50th wedding anniversary.

After the war, he resumed his schooling but, in his off hours, he tried his hand at many activities to make money, such as acting as a steel man driving rivets into bridges, running a small electric distribution system with a 10-KW generator that he bought. He even worked as a cochero for a while. He also worked as a mechanic at the US Army’s General Engineering Depot. During his off hours, he would socialize, being the young bachelor that he was. He and his friends would attend town fiestas and dances. In one of those dances, he met a pretty young lass named Yasmin Santos, the daughter of a local politician who capped his political career as Vice Governor of Bulacan.

My mother wasn’t even 18 when they met. She didn’t know him from Adam but, when she saw him singing I Hear A Rhapsody, she was smitten. (I tell you, my dad was “pabling” from the get-go.) Soon after launching a charm offensive, the courtship began in earnest until finally, on New Year’s Day of 1948, they eloped. Sixteen months later, I was born. My parents were barely 21 years old.

My father had his faults; his detractors would say that his faults are writ as large as, or even larger than, his accomplishments. He was only human, after all. But if you slash through the thicket of accusations leveled against him, one thing is clear. He was a trailblazer who was propelled by ideas.

Now that my dad was now a father, he began his business career in earnest. He became a labor inspector and had a weekend job at the Sta. Ana racetrack while simultaneously studying at FEU. He didn’t finish. Always in a hurry to get going, he set up a trucking business delivering gravel and sand to contractors. While doing this, he decided to go into contracting, despite not being an engineer. Engineering was something he had to learn from the school of hard knocks.

Christmas 2021 with (seated) me, my son Rodrigo Cuenca, Paul’s daughter Patricia, my dad. Standing are my brother Paul, Enzo Cuenca, brother-in -law Boy Tinio and my sister Mary Ann Tinio.

He started by building small bridges and graduated into bidding for small projects where there was less competition, thereby giving him a better chance at getting contracts. He was eventually able to earn enough to buy a property where he put up a gas station, behind which was a yard where he housed his trucks, his office, and his home. During this time, he took a small detour into politics when his cousin, Ramon Magsaysay, asked him to help in his presidential campaign.

As his business grew, he started traveling to Japan to take advantage of the Philippine-Japan reparations agreement and then to the US. These trips gave him a keener appreciation of what was needed in his own country. He realized the importance of planning and building for the future, of having the right equipment to reduce costs and increase efficiency, and taking advantage of economies of scale.

In quick succession, he got involved in setting up several businesses. The first one was Filipinas Cement, which he set up with a group of like-minded contractors, as an answer to the cement shortage plaguing the construction industry at the time.

In Paris last year (seated) my dad at 94 with my brother, Ricky. Standing (from left) are Alessandra Tinio Lengsavath, her husband Jonathan, Ricky’s wife Minotte Rodrigo, and my brother Paul.

The second was the Sheraton Hotel, which eventually morphed into the Hyatt. This was a joint effort with several industrialists, the biggest of whom was Don Eugenio Lopez, who invested the land in Roxas Boulevard where his home stood, into the venture. At that time, there were no hotels of international caliber in the Philippines. This would be the first one. Leandro Locsin was the architect. For the interior design my dad insisted, against a great deal of local opposition, on hiring Dale and Pat Keller, a design team based in Hong Kong with a substantial portfolio of design successes in the region. As part of their engagement, Dale and Pat roamed the entire country and drew on a great deal of indigenous design and art as inspiration. The result was a spectacular Filipino hotel filled with artworks by local artists.

The third, and the biggest, was the Construction and Development Corporation of the Philippines, which was created as an answer to the challenge by then President Marcos to help the government build infrastructure because the government was bankrupt. With that as an impetus, within a span of 17 years, CDCP built the NLEX and the SLEX, the San Juanico bridge, the PASAR copper and smelting plant, the Greater Manila Terminal Food Market, NAIA 1, the Philippine Phosphate Fertilizer plant. Through its affiliate, Hydro Resources, CDCP built the Magat River Multi-Purpose project in Isabela and the Kalayaan Pump Storage Plant. It entered into joint ventures with foreign companies such as the Dravo Corporation of the US, Alfa-Laval of Sweden, Stal-Astra of Germany, BBC-Normelec and Asea Brown-Boveri of Germany and Switzerland for various construction related ventures.

Cuenca during signing agreements and project inspections in Saudi Arabia

Since most of CDCP’s loans were foreign-denominated, he decided to hedge against any peso devaluation by going after dollar-earning projects. For CDCP, this meant seeking projects abroad. The first foreign project was the contract for the restoration of the Borobudur Temple in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, in joint venture with an Indonesian firm. This was a 12-year contract under the auspices of UNESCO. This led to other road-building projects in Indonesia and Malaysia, Hong Kong, and most importantly Saudi Arabia.

It was in Saudi Arabia that CDCP pioneered what would be its most its enduring legacy—the overseas contract worker. This legacy has continuously proven to be the economic salvation of this country, bar none. The idea arose when the Saudi foreign minister advised Marcos that the best way to recover the ever-increasing price of oil was to do construction work, which was plentiful in Saudi. So off my father went and developed a working relationship with none other than the Bin Laden Organization. However, my dad did not go there as a labor contractor, as was the practice of the many others who followed; he worked as a sub-contractor, not only providing labor but also equipment and financing. On his first job, which was to clear a 1,500-hectare site for an oil refinery, he brought in his own earth-moving equipment together with 1,500 personnel. This labor contingent later rose to 5,000 and established the Filipino worker’s reputation for quality. In no time, other contracts followed: the Riyadh outer ring road and the Mecca Storm Water Drainage project, among others.

At its height, CDCP was Southeast Asia’s largest construction firm, ranked 10th in Australasia and 40th in the world outside the US. Prior to CDCP, there were no Philippine contractors capable of doing major projects; they were simply not in the same league as their international counterparts. As an example, in one big project CDCP fabricated their own piles, girders and pre-casting. They operated their own aggregate plant as well as an asphalt plant. Only international companies were capable of doing this at the time. In order to make the tollway projects more financially viable and more easily financed, he also pitched the concept of the franchise contract. In other contracts, he pushed the turnkey concept. All of these propelled CDCP to greater heights.

But life is never without its problems and CDCP ran into some very big ones. One of them was payment. The Philippine government is notorious for late payments and the Saudi government was just as delinquent. Problems caused by rapid growth also started to surface. But what really hit CDCP hard were the events that were precipitated by the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Oil prices rocketed skyward, interest rates, both local and foreign, went up to 35% or more, and the Philippine peso was devalued. This was a triple whammy from which the company could not recover without help. The help came in the form of a government takeover and my father’s career as a contractor was over. I will not dwell on the years that followed. Suffice it to say that necessity is the mother of invention and that we all survived.

My father had his faults; his detractors would say that his faults are writ as large as, or even larger than, his accomplishments. He was only human, after all. But if you slash through the thicket of accusations leveled against him, one thing is clear. He was a trailblazer who was propelled by ideas.

An idea could be as simple as engendering a small industry of local Japanese restaurants when he insisted on putting up a Japanese restaurant called “Tempura Misono” in the Sheraton Hotel, despite a lot of internal opposition. Then, because we were running the Pines Hotel in Baguio at the time, he decided to set up a shuttle service from Makati to Baguio on comfortable, air-conditioned buses. This introduced a whole new class of transportation to the country, which has been adopted by so many bus operators ever since.

Another was his insistence on hiring a foreign interior designer against the objections of an industry strangled by provincialism. In a single stroke, he opened the eyes of Philippine interior designers to the world of international design.

Then there was his singlehanded adoption of an idea that was hardly used at the time, the concept of Build-Operate-Transfer. This idea built the north and south expressways. As time went on, he expanded on this concept with the use of the toll-way franchise and the turnkey contract.

Finally, there was the desire to venture out into the world to bid for contracts, thereby introducing the Filipino worker to the Middle East.

None of these ideas that I have mentioned are novel but, in the Philippines, he was the one who saw them through and created jobs and opportunities for millions of our countrymen. No amount of political color hurled against the edifice of his achievements will diminish this fact. He was, to put it simply, a nation builder.