Martial law in the Philippines has nurtured a new group of powerful business figures who have eclipsed old established interests that held sway before President Ferdinand Marcos seized total control in 1972.
The fastest rising star and the most enigmatic and controversial among them is a Chinese businessman, Lucio Tan, 47. He came into prominence only about seven years ago and now controls a huge empire that stretches as far as London, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Guam and Papua New Guinea.
In a country where a dazzling ascent, such as Tan's, is unlikely without a strong helping hand, the business career of the former impoverished cigarette salesman has naturally drawn widespread interest.
Tan's profile is unique. Caught in the ideological cleavage of the influential Chinese community, which controls the Philippines' banking, manufacturing and trade and which is largely pro-Taipei, Tan was considered too pro-Peking.
The resources he is able to command have aroused fear and resentment among both the Chinese and the Philippine business community. His clout was best demonstrated last year when the government gave him a license to operate a beer brewery to break the long monopoly of San Miguel, the giant food conglomerate.
Originally beer was listed as an over-crowded industry. Previous attempts by Kirin beer of Japan, for example, to compete with San Miguel, brewer of a famous brand of Pilsen, found closed doors at the Board of Investments. oBut last year, the board was open to Tan, and beer was taken from the overcrowded category. Immediately after Tan's Asia Brewery got the license, beer brewing became an overcrowded industry again.
A letter of credit to purchase a mothballed plant in the United States was issued even before the epiosode was finished. Coming at a time when credit was extremely tight and the Central Bank of the Philippines' monetary priorities were in food production, Tan's triumph was a mirror of how close he has crept to the centers of power.
A high school dropout, Tan impresses all who met him as foxy, quick and a straight talker. The rough edges of an impoverished past still show. Hardly urbane, both adversaries and his own employes say he is a simple man in appearance, often dressed in a loose embroidered Philipine shirt.
But even adversaries admit Tan is an industrious worker. Indeed his philosophy in business, he has boasted to friends and foes alike, is, "If you are in any industry, you must be number one."
His drive to be number one has been largely achieved. His Allied Banking Corp. became the biggest commercial bank in the Philippines, building assets totalling $800 million in just two years; his cigarette company, Fortune Tobacco, is the biggest with 1979 sales of $270 million; his food processing plant, Foremost Farms, is the biggest in the country, and Tan announced he wants it to be the biggest in the whole of Asia as well.
And Tan has vowed, his Asia Brewery (construction has begun in earnest) will take the spirits out of San Miguel.
Indeed his attitude toward life and business has been solidly founded on his avid reading of old Chinese classics. Tan was heard to say he has read more than 10 times the book called "The Three Kingdoms," otherwise known to the layman as "The Art of Intrigue and Double-Cross."
He reportedly engaged a tutor to teach him the finer nuances of China's equivalent of Machiavelli's "The Prince," "The Art of War" written by Sun Tzu, a brilliant Chinese tactician of the post-Confucious era.
Tan's brother-in-law Domingo Chua, who sits on the board of most of his companies, confirms aspects of Tan's life. But like most of his other employes, he immediately shies away from talking about his business tactics.
His phenomenal success has brought him no small number of detractors who are quick to try to find fault with his methods, but none have been able to furnish proof, as if the case with one allegation that he made his initial wealth in the 1960s by placing the "Made in the U.S.A." blue seal stamps on locally-made cigarettes.
It is certain, however, that in 1975 the government imposed a 50 percent tax on all foreign brand cigarettes. Since then, his Hope cigarettes, one of the many his company produces, has become the country's leading brand and Fortune Tobacco has become the biggest cigarette manufacturer in the Philippines.
Having dealt with his enemies successfully according to the rules in the "Art of War," he snatched away Romy Co from a rival Chinese-owned bank to be president of his Allied Banking for $130,000 a year tax-deducted, a salary unheard of in the Philippines. Then in one fell swoop he pirated 30 employes from another Chinese bank, Equitable Banking Corp.
Tan also has offered retired Army generals and colonels strategic jobs in all of his companies. The former chief of the Metropolitan Command, Brig. Gen. Mariano Ordonez, sits on the board of most of his companies. He is said to explain his move as "buying insurance."
Up a creaky flight of stairs in congested Chinatown, an old, wizened businessman surrounded by antiques, says of Lucio Tan: "He dares to do anything." The verdict is unanimous.
Tan's aggressive business tactics are party responsibile for the phenomenal growth of Allied Banking, which he took over as a bankrupt bank to become the biggest bank in two years. Allied Banking worked hard to get clients' deposits increased by $133 million in the last quarter of 1979. In accordance with Philippine banking practices, the Central Bank then rewarded Allied by doubling to $160 million its deposits at Allied for the same period.