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Seminarian, rebel, banker

Executive profile:

MANILA, Philippines — Who would think that a failed seminarian and a political rebel could still succeed and become the chairman of one of the country’s top universal banks?

Antonio Moncupa, chief executive officer of East West Banking Corp., is living proof that a probinsyano farm boy who wanted to be a priest but got kicked out of the seminary and was a political activist who got detained and was even tortured, still managed to reach the top tier of the banking world.

Naughty boy

Tony, as most call him, hails from Dinalupihan, Bataan, where he grew up as a typical probinsyano, along with his eight other siblings. “Malikot ako sa klase, I was a naughty boy in school. I just wanted to play,’’ he says, clarifying that he did not skip or cut classes while he was in elementary school, but he was just not interested in studying. “Maingay lang ako. I was just very noisy in class.’’

His father and mother, who just reached up to second year high school, according to Tony, were his inspiration as they started with “practically nothing,” but worked hard as agriculture entrepreneurs. His parents encouraged all of their nine children to pursue their college education in any school of their choice.

After his carefree grade school days in Bataan, Tony, like most of his other siblings, opted to go to high school in Manila.

He admits to having a bad educational record in grade school and high school because he initially thought studying was not that important. Eventually, however, he learned the value of education and studied hard in college.

Tony’s initial dream was either to become a priest, join the military or become a doctor, stemming from his desire to help people. So his mother decided to send him to a seminary.

From Dinalupihan, Tony first went to the Christ the King Seminary from 1971 to 1972. Unfortunately, he was the “Dennis the Menace” and the priests felt that his temperament wasn’t suited for the normally serene and meditative seminary, and they were not sure he really had the vocation to be a priest. Thus, they asked his father to enroll him elsewhere until college, and maybe he could return to the seminary if he really had the vocation. “Actually they kicked me out,” Tony wryly reveals.

From the seminary, Tony enrolled at Trinity College in Quezon City from 1972 to 1975, where he still didn’t like to study, but enjoyed extra-curricular activities, including ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corp) where he served as battalion commander.

After graduating from high school, he then applied with the University of the Philippines, but failed to pass the entrance test. A similar fate awaited him when he tried his luck with the University of Santo Tomas where he tried to enroll for pre-medicine.

Tony had also wanted to study engineering, but because it would involve a lot of math, which he was not good at, “I ended up in Colegio de San Juan de Letran University,” where he took up Bachelor of Arts.

But after just one year in Letran, Tony realized he wanted to shift to commerce instead and thus applied with De La Salle University, which accepted him and where he earned a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Major in Economics and Bachelor of Science in Commerce, Major in Accounting from 1976 to 1980.

Turning point

It was in DLSU where Tony realized the value of education, as there were a lot of good students. Tony acknowledges that his grades were still not exceptional compared to his batchmates, especially since he had a lot of catching up to do.

It was also in DLSU, Tony reveals that he had contemplated on pursuing his vocation of becoming a priest, but somehow he got exposed to political activists against the then Marcos dictatorship.

“I thought then that, perhaps, Christ’s calling for me was to serve the people, pagsilbihan ang ‘sang bayanan… so that’s where I went,” he recalls.

After college, Tony had the opportunity to work for about eight months with San Miguel Corp.

He was also able to get certified as a public accountant after leaving DLSU, even as he got more immersed in activism.

In April of 1982, Tony was caught and detained, on charges of rebellion up to January 1984, together with the late Horacio “Boy” Morales, a former Agrarian Reform secretary and prominent economist.

Both Tony and Morales were tortured by their captors. Tony was among the recipients of the $2 billion Marcos settlement for political detainees that was litigated and won in the United States.

Tony is philosophical about that phase in his life, harboring no ill will against his captors and torturers. Surprisingly, Tony says he could even share a drink with his torturers, pointing out that he never assumed that he was the only one who was right and acknowledging that his torturers also believed in what they were doing. “They were only just doing their job,” adding in jest, “aba nakaka-pagod din mag-torture no?” (It’s hard work to torture somebody.) Stressing that some things should not be taken personally.

After his release from detention, a former activist helped him get a job with Union Bank of the Philippines in 1985, where he started building his delayed banking career.

He started out as a credit analyst from July to December 1985 and gradually worked up his way to assistant manager and team head of the Credit Evaluation Group from 1986 to 1987. He stayed with Unionbank until 1988.

With a more focused attitude about his work, by 1988 Tony was moving forward fast, this time with United Coconut Planters Bank where he held positions as assistant manager and credit review officer from 1988 to 1989.

He became manager and head of the Investment Department and Corplan from 1989 to 1990, senior manager and head, Planning and Investment Department, Corplan from 1990 to 1991.

By the age of 33, Tony was promoted to assistant vice president and chief dealer, Treasury of UCPB from 1991 to 1992 and onto to vice president and chief dealer, Treasury from 1992 to 1995.

It was about that time in the 1990s that Tony, along with other hotshot treasury boys Vic Valdepenas, Wick Veloso and Eric Cruz used to give throbbing headaches to the old Central Bank Treasury at the peak of the Asian financial crisis.

When Tony was first appointed as chief dealer in the UCPB Treasury department, he absolutely had no background. He attributes his success in the Treasury department to a lot of research and studying. He dispels the misconception that Treasury trading is 90 percent noise and 10 percent research.

According to Tony, it is “actually 95 percent research and five percent noise. It is really about economics, politics and everything else. It’s a lot of research. Of course the dealing room is a lot of energy, very palpable, but the real work is studying and understanding things. A lot of economics, a lot of financial products. Because of a difference in view, l was able to catch up very quickly.”

He recalls that every time new products were offered by the BSP, he would make a lot of money for the bank, citing the importance of knowing and studying so that one is not afraid to make a move… “di ka takot gumalaw kasi nag-aral ka.”

He stresses, “that is why I always preach study, because that is where you will get your confidence and your courage.” Thus, it was in UCPB where Tony credits earning his spurs, moving from Credit, Corplan to Treasury.

Tony emphasizes that preparation is key to catching opportunities when they come along. “If you’re prepared and the opportunity presents itself, you will get it. There is no such thing as waiting for opportunity. It is about preparing for opportunity.”

He made it a habit to study other areas and materials in the bank and enthusiastically participated in numerous task forces. He would wait quietly for hard jobs instead of opting for the easy ones. “Don’t take the easy job, take the bigger challenge, you learn from the bigger challenges…Gusto ko yung mahirap.”

Having proven his skill in the Treasury department, Tony, along with a few other key officials of UCPB, led by the late Ramon Y. Sy, organized the International Exchange Bank or iBank in 1995.

From 1995 to 2006, Tony served in various posts, initially from 1995 to 1998 as senior vice president and treasurer, then as executive vice president and treasurer from 1998 to 2003, and finally as executive vice president and chief financial officer from 2003 until the bank was sold in 2006 to Aboitiz-led Union Bank of the Philippines.

It was while he was in iBank that Tony got a scholarship from the bank to get his Master in Business Administration in 2003 from the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business.

The following year after the sale of iBank, Tony assumed the role of CEO at EastWest Bank, a post he has held from January 2007 to the present.

No need for politics

Tony does not believe in resorting to politics in the office. He acknowledges that “playing politics matters if all things are equal. But don’t take all things as equal, be ascendant in terms of capabilities, the logic is that these business people rose because they are good in business and they understand that to be good in business you have to get good people, otherwise you will fail. If you give what is due, they will appreciate you. They will find value in you. You create your own value, so why play politics?”

The ability to work well with others is also an important capability to develop, according to Tony, “being fair and objective is equally important to get the right people in your team. It is the basis for unity.”

Another important factor for Tony is humility. “Humility is not about being meek. It is about knowing when to stop, knowing what you don’t know, and being able to face up to it. It is about being realistic.’’

He elaborates further that “the truth is your best ally, it will really set you free. We could believe whatever we would like to believe, but if our belief is wrong, it could produce wrong results. If you see reality as what it is, you can respond more properly.”

Tony is aware that some people don’t like his style because he has a different philosophical foundation.

He is a hands on boss. He believes that an executive who just gives orders or just delegates fully will not be effective. “They will never learn. You need to know yourself, the more you know, the more you become fair because nothing is more frustrating to an employee than to give his thoughts to somebody who does not understand,” adding that “everything is founded on good value. Make sure you stand on solid values.”

Tony believes that no one can define a work-life balance for anyone. “We all have to define it for ourselves.”

He says the key is, being realistic and consistent, as it is different for someone who wants to be a department manager and for someone who is a CEO. “There is no universal work-life balance.”

If it ain’t broke, break it

Tony has one revolutionary thought on how things should be done.

He does not subscribe to the old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Instead, he believes that “if it ain’t broke, then break it to make something better or replace it. Otherwise, you might get left behind.”

He also does not agree with the common tendency to look at other’s shortcomings, instead he takes the opposite approach to first look at yourself. “It’s safer, if you think nothing is wrong with you, you don’t need to do anything. If you think something is wrong with you, you try to get better and you will get better.”

He further adds: “You have to be self-introspecting, otherwise you think everyone is wrong except you…well you are actually blocking your own progress.”

Lastly, Tony believes that one must really like what they are doing, “otherwise you will be miserable.” He remembers a sign that says, “I’ll never work, and never will,” because if you consider what you are doing as fun and you like it, it is not a burden.

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