Crossroads (Toward Philippine social and economic progress)
Philippine Star, 16 November 2011

Some countrymen are in my book of contemporary heroes. My definition of a hero is a person who has contributed to the nation’s progress in terms of his ideas, the immensity of his achievements and the example that he sets for others.

David M. Consunji is such a hero. An engineer, a businessman, one-time secretary of Public Works, Transportation and Telecommunications, he is the builder among builders. As a young engineer, he started a company that bears his initials – DMCI – which has grown into a huge enterprise.

“A master builder.” From the 1950s to the 1990s, he built a wide variety of buildings that demonstrated his versatility: the UP Catholic Chapel, the Cultural Center, and the Folk Arts among public buildings. Among commercial structures, he constructed the buildings of the Philippine Plaza Hotel (now Sofitel), the renovated Manila Hotel of the 1970s, the PNB (Philippine National Bank) at the Escolta and the DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines) in Makati.

More contemporary works in Makati include the Pacific Plaza, the Makati Shangri-La Hotel, Tower 1 of Ayala Triangle and the Rockwell Center Tower.

Many of the first buildings along Ayala Avenue as well as some of the distinctive landmarks in this place were constructed by him. Some of his early works no longer exist – the Rizal Theatre (originally designed as the performance and cultural center for Makati), the Monterrey Apartments, and the San Miguel Building have now given way to new buildings that define today’s Makati skyline.

“Expanded business empire.” His works are also evident in other dimensions – factories, housing condominiums as well as graceful private residences. More recent projects include the construction of the extensions of the Metro rail transit and of the SLEX (South Luzon Expressway) to Alabang.

His company is currently constructing the expressway that will connect the North Expressway and Subic-Tarlac roads northwards along Tarlac and Pangasinan to make the northern trip quicker. The company is managing Maynilad Water, which is half the franchise for water and sewerage distribution in Metro Manila. In addition, it is in the business of providing middle income housing to meet the housing gap.

DMCI, one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, is now mainly run by the next generation of Consunjis and continues to hire professionals as well as create partnerships with strong companies that make the firm forward-looking. Still with construction as its core expertise, it is now also into mining, electric power generation, and management and road building. Unknown to many, also, the man has a thriving agricultural enterprise that produces multiple food products in Mindanao.

“The memoir.” At the goading of former UP President Jose V. Abueva sometime in the late 1990s, David Consunji wrote his memoirs and published it six years ago.

This memoir is good reading, full of anecdotes about his life and the contributions that others have made to his success. It is so unlike many autobiographies in which the ego is massaged over and over till it becomes deafening. In his book, the ego is muffled but the contributions of others shine.

So, we learn more about other people: colleagues, architects, engineers, businessmen, tycoons, artists, and construction workers. Reading him, I learned further about the Zobels and the Ayalas, the businessman Andres Soriano Sr., Father Delaney of UP, Alfredo Juinio, Cesar Buenaventura, Leandro Locsin, among many.

The book was published as a coffee table edition on glossy paper. There are interesting photographs and historical scenes of Metro Manila and the country that give context to the events told.

I suspect however that in this glossy presentation, the book has turned off a lot of would be readers who deserve to read it. It should be made available in a popular edition to reach a wide audience. Everyone and, especially, professionals, especially young engineers, would learn a lot from reading about a truly successful apprenticeship in life.

“Three tidbits from the memoir.”

(1) Young building inspector. David Consunji was able to persuade a project owner that to hire him as concrete inspector at a wage that was much higher than the going wage for that skill was a still a good bargain, arguing that he could do a round-the-clock work of two inspectors working in shifts.

Mr. Albert Awad (the businessman who hired him) was surprised, at the end of the construction, to be reimbursed a sum of money that far exceeded the total wages that Consunji collected as concrete inspector. Finding that the contractor used cheaper materials that still sustained the quality of the work, Consunji required the former to reimburse Mr. Awad the difference in cost to the bill of materials originally stipulated.

(2) In competition with Bechtel. Consunji’s DMCI was a sub-contractor to Enrique Zobel’s huge project to build the Sultan of Brunei’s palace, the Istana. The other contractor was Bechtel, a recognized American engineering firm. It turned out that the work in progress assigned to the DMCI was criticized as falling badly behind the project completion schedule. This put DMCI’s contract under threat of being rescinded.

Consunji reorganized the working plan and challenged his workers to do better by streamlining work processes and dismissing inefficient workers. Then the tide turned. DMCI caught up well ahead of the Bechtel effort which encountered their own problems. The end result was that DMCI was even given the full work and Bechtel was removed. It showed that a Filipino engineering firm could outperform even an established foreign firm under competitive efforts.

(3) The chastened foreign engineer. One day, he noticed a foreign engineer who was doing a piling job at the Manila Hotel renovation site that was technically mistaken. In an effort to help him do a better job, Consunji suggested the proper way to do it. Of course, the foreign engineer was offended that a local engineer would dare to teach him something. His immediate response was to insist he knew what he was doing.

Years later, Consunji met the same engineer working in Spain on another construction job. To his surprise, this time, this engineer approached him and thanked him for his criticisms of his work in Manila. He admitted that Consunji’s comments induced him to learn much more and become a better engineer.

“The best accolade.” During the party that celebrated his 90th birthday, many people gave testimonials about David Consunji. The best tribute came from Fredy, now 88 years old, his college sweetheart at UP, who said, “Dave is a perfect husband. If I had to do it all over again, I’d still marry him.” They have been married for 64 years.