August 14, 2011

Leon Archibald Po: By his father’s rules

BEFORE the August 5 hearing on the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) overpriced choppers, not too many Filipinos may have probably heard of Archie Po. People who know him are mostly in the tight-knit world of aviation, the privileged few who often charter aircraft to get where they’re going, and those in the market for helicopters.

A pilot himself, Leon Archibald Po owns LionAir Inc., the licensed distributor and service center of the Torrance-based Robinson Helicopter Co., the world’s leader in civil helicopter manufacturing.

He is one of the most sought-after men during the election season. His fleet of choppers and planes provide electoral candidates the needed campaign boost to cross the many islands of the archipelago.

And Po has flown them all—Gloria Arroyo, Joseph Estrada, the late Fernando Poe Jr., Chavit Singson, etc.—representing all colors of the political spectrum. “Of course, we’re non-partisan about it. Everyone is welcome to charter our choppers and planes,” he told me in an interview in December 2009. Even then, there was already an interesting mix of politicians or their representatives ringing him up, requesting his support for the May 2010 elections.

Sincere and unassuming

Archie Po, in December 2009, posing with his fleet of choppers at the LionAir Inc. hangar at the Manila Domestic Airport in Pasay. He is the usual go-to-guy during the election season. (Photo courtesy Asian Dragon)

From the short time I came to know Po, I saw him as a sincere, unassuming man. He is not someone who exactly stands out in a crowd because he is usually dressed down, wearing ordinary short-sleeved polo shirts and faded jeans, his feet shod in rugged sporty shoes. (That coat and tie worn during the Senate hearing was a definite stretch for him.)

As most men are wont to in pissing contests among themselves, he can also talk big, but not annoyingly so. Usually there is a lot of laughter accompanying his storytelling, but he doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself. He is certainly more comfortable speaking among friends in small groups, than in large gatherings where polite behavior and order is required. He takes the occasional drag on cigarettes, but doesn’t consume any alcohol as he is allergic to it, the same way his other siblings are.

Essentially, he struck me more as a dreamer, who merely wants a comfortable life for his wife and children—in the same manner he and siblings were brought up—as well as respectable returns on his various businesses. He is often thinking up of some new enterprise or some new project venture—“malikot mag-isip” is probably the apropos term to describe him.

But as a businessman, he didn’t appear to me as someone who would shake down others to get excessive commissions on deals. In fact, like most Filipinos, he, too, was just tired of the old political setup where red tape, unscrupulous politicians and double-dealing government officials were the norm, that’s why he was looking forward to the 2010 polls. Mostly, we talked about ways he could contribute to help the country regain its once-mighty economic status, a reality when he was growing up in the late ’50s.

But the path hasn’t been easy for businessmen like him.

“The bureaucracy has become a turnoff for most investors,” Po contends. “Alam mo, nagpagawa pa kami ng study nun—‘The Critical State of the Aviation Industry in the Philippines.’ Pinadala ko sa Congress. Pinagawa ko pati ’yung magkano binabayad namin sa gasoline. Kalokohan ’yung mga ibang taxes imposed on us investors. Airplanes are the bridges to our country, then you will impose too many restrictions?”

“In 1978 when I was in Malaysia, we were ahead in the airline industry and in technology,” he continues. “Now, lampaso na tayo. We’re the last in Asia. And now, bagsak pa tayo sa FAA [US Federal Aviation Administration]…Category 2 status na naman tayo,” he rants. It is the only time I hear him raise his voice. But after investing heavily in the local aviation business for some 30 years, who wouldn’t feel exasperated?

With his security now at risk since he came out and testified against some powerful political personalities in the PNP choppers anomaly, Po is understandably having sleepless nights these days. He is constantly on the move and doesn’t spend long hours in any one place, I am told. And meetings with lawyers occupy most of his time. This furtive life as a whistleblower is obviously not the one he had envisioned for himself and his family.

A boy and his paper planes

The toddler Archie, with his father, Joaquin Po Sr., founder of Popular Bookstore. (Courtesy Po family)

The sixth child among eight siblings, Po is a self-made businessman, learning much of the aviation industry on his own. His backstory on how he became an eventual success amid a challenging business environment, and after basically being a screwed-up teenager, is a page-turner.

The youngest boy of Joaquin Po Sr., founder of Popular Bookstore, and Flordeliza Legaspi (there are three other siblings from the elder Po’s first wife who had passed away), the young Po was once considered a brilliant student. “My parents were ultra-proud of me because I was only one of three students [in Lourdes School, Quezon City] who was accelerated to first year high school from grade six. I didn’t pass grade seven anymore,” he narrates.

But somehow, he lost his way while he was in high school, getting hooked on certain vices ­even he disdains to mention now, by the time he reached junior year. He was kicked out from Lourdes, then transferred from one school to another, finally graduating from San Sebastian College in Cavite.

For someone like his father who placed a great deal of value on learning, Po was certainly more than a disappointment. “Ako lang ang pinalayas mula sa bahay. As in ‘I don’t want to see your face!’” he quotes his father. He was 15 then and for one year, he and his father didn’t see or speak to each other, while he stayed with an uncle. They eventually reconciled after a year, when relatives intervened to patch the two up.

Instead of going into engineering at the Mapua Institute of Technology, as his father had wished—the Mapuas were family friends—Po took up a vocational course in aircraft maintenance and enrolled in flying school in 1973. “It’s always been my dream to fly. Any child’s dream is to fly, isn’t it? You start off with paper airplanes and that sort of stuff,” he recalls.

It was in flying school that his talent for business emerged. He borrowed money from his father, and along with a flight school buddy, Edwin Almeda, bought an airplane to lease to their classmates. “I told my Dad it was just like he was accelerating his payment for my flying lessons. I told him to lend me the money, then after we finish [flying school], I’ll sell the plane and give back the money to him.” A year-and-a half later, he fulfilled that promise to his father, and paid back the loan. Not only that, Po graduated in just a year, becoming the youngest pilot at 18 years old.

With a passion for the fast life, Po was also into motorbikes in the 1970s, becoming among the top motocross riders in the country as a member of Team Honda. But after busting up his leg in one ride, he decided to finally put his aviator skills to work.

From crop duster to airline owner

One of his first jobs as a pilot was as a crop duster in Malaysia in 1978, where he earned a fortune. “It was a high-risk, high-return job. You’re flying six feet above the trees but getting paid a bundle. We were paid per takeoff per ton. I make 100 takeoffs and landings in one day at $175 per takeoff, plus basic. Not bad, right?”

No longer just a boy and his paper planes - here teenage Archie flies the real thing in an undated photo. (Courtesy Po family)

By the time he was 24, he felt that the risk was not worth it. “I felt I would die in that job,” Po says. So he returned to Manila in 1980 and became the personal pilot of then Makati Mayor Nemesio Yabut.

He went on to set up Airspan Philippines which, after the Edsa People Power revolt in 1986, became the air transport of choice for high-powered politicians of differing persuasions during national elections. Between elections, Airspan shuttled hotel guests from the airport bypassing the traffic gridlock below.

By the time he sold Airspan in 1997 to JAKA, the Enrile family corporation, Po was heavily involved in Asian Spirit, and became instrumental in helping the airline expand its operations. It was the perfect time for a small airline to take flight. Philippine Airlines had pulled out of its missionary routes after its crippling financial difficulties forced a streamlining of operations, leaving Asian Spirit in the clear to dominate those routes.

He later sold his shares to CATS founder Antonio Ang in May 2007, sensing more difficult days ahead for the airline industry, what with the constant fuel price increases and increasing competition from more flexible carriers. “But by then, I already helped increase the value of our shares,” Po says with pride.

Expanding to tourism

Along with LionAir, which he set up in 2002, Po co-owns Executive Jets Asia (EJA), in partnership with American and Asian air transport experts. Based in Singapore, EJA offers executive jet charters in the region, although much of the business is now into air ambulance service.

“All our jets are convertible to air ambulances,” he explains, adding that the planes, mostly eight-seaters, are chartered by hospitals, insurance firms and individuals needing quick medical evacuations for critical medical conditions. “We bring in patients as far as Nepal and India to hospitals in Singapore, and also from Manila.”

In December 2009, he opened his 59-room boutique hotel in Boracay called Hotel Soffia. “It has always been a dream of mine to build a hotel on this island, which I passed so often during my flying days in the 1980s.”

This is the second boutique hotel to his name after the 48-room Hotel Fleuris in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, said to be a “favorite” among diplomatic embassies and consular offices, because of its reasonably priced rates. “I spent so much money on Fleuris, that I wasn’t looking for an ROI [return on investment]. A free lunch and a free dinner there, that’s good enough for me!” Po laughs heartily. “Like Soffia, it was just a dream to build that hotel.”

Last we spoke, he was considering to build another hotel, this time in Basco, Batanes, and was evaluating other possible hotel and resort sites in the country.

“I think the Philippines has no way to go except tourism. That is what will save our economy, not manufacturing, which is already the stronghold of China,” he stresses.

The hotel business “will give you money, but the returns aren’t as huge,” Po notes. “For years, I was in the business of high-risk, high-return investments. In hotels, eto ’yung mga ‘you’re getting older,’ and so you’ve mellowed down to a low-risk, low-return investment. Returns in the tourism industry are small, but solid. And your base, your property, appreciates. So you won’t go wrong.”

His dad’s respect

When pilots are lacking, Po usually takes the wheel of his choppers and personally flies his customers.(Photo courtesy Asian Dragon)

Despite his 56 years on this planet, Po shows no signs of slowing down. He just wants to accomplish more and do so many things all at the same time. I surmise it’s probably a throwback to his younger years when he still felt the need to prove himself to his father. Then, as now, those who are old enough to have met Joaquin Sr. speak of him with much reverence.

Looking back, the former black sheep says his most joyful days were when he was trying to earn the respect of his father. Po would show his father that he could make good deals, buying up old planes that no longer worked, then repairing them and making them fly again. He built up his fleet from the barest to having a successful charter service, and then moving on to own an airline.

’Yun ’yung mga masasayang panahon ko. I was trying to get my Dad’s attention, his respect. What was touching was, when he told me once, mala-Ingglis pa ’yun e, sabi nya ‘Archie, what are you trying to prove? You’re richer than me!’ ’Yung parang, ‘sobra na e, you look after your health! What are you trying to prove?’ I told him, ‘No Dad, hindi naman ganun. I’m just enjoying myself.’”

The ultimate compliment his father paid to his son was in his final moments before passing on in 1997. “Pinagbilin nya sa akin ’yung mga kapatid ko,” says Po, his voice breaking ever so slightly at the memory. Despite being the youngest boy in the family, his father’s blessing has given him a significant voice in family matters. “At least kahit paano, ngayon, me ‘say’ na ako,” he quips.

I don’t know why Po turned whistleblower especially when he has so much at stake—an unsullied international reputation as a businessman, a huge network of aviation alliances, and a young family to protect. I can imagine it wasn’t an easy decision for him to make, especially with the mighty personalities he is up against. Maybe he is still just that same teenager trying to do what is right by his father’s rules.

(Originally published in the CEO Views section of the BusinessMirror, Aug. 8, 2011.)

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