Monday, October 13, 2008

Money Matters...?

“It’s just money…Why do they dwell on it so much?” This thought kept recurring on my mind as we were having dinner with my uncle a few days ago and the topic of conversation for the entire course of the meal was business and money. Of course, these kinds of get-togethers never fail to mention the usual, “Business isn’t good as it was before,” favorite line of Filipino-Chinese businesspeople. The talk then went from the difficulties of handling business today to viable markets for certain products to delegation as means of expansion. Even the talk about marriage was connected with business and money. It was an interesting dinner table discussion, but my first reaction to it was my usual one, “Oh this is grown-up stuff.” Immediately after that though, it struck me, “Actually it’s not that far-off anymore. One and a half years to go and I’ll be involved in these things too.”

That got me to a pensive mood as I thought about what I am currently doing to prepare myself for the proverbial ‘real world.’ My mind then drifted to some business ideas that I’ve been dreaming up, and I evaluated silently if they could actually be implemented. I recalled attending a talk before about blue ocean strategy - a business concept where instead of forcing my way into a crowded market segment, I create my own market. Then I suddenly thought of CSR, that business should not only be profitable but beneficial to the community as well. And I contemplated on how ideal it would be if I have a business that encompasses both blue-ocean strategy and CSR.

Something I heard broke my dreamy trance, the discussion on the table now turned to the lives of tycoons. I learn from my dad that there was once a store known as Shoeworld near Shoemart in the early 1960s. This Shoeworld was many times bigger than Shoemart at the time. Because of its dominance, Shoeworld grew complacent while Shoemart continued its aggressive expansion.

The story then skipped to a meeting my dad attended a long, long time ago. In that meeting, many old Chinese businessmen ridiculed Henry Sy’s ‘stupid’ move of throwing away so much money to construct an oversized and isolated shopping center – SM Megamall. As it turned out, Megamall went on to become not only one of the country’s most successful malls but also the pivotal springboard for the SM empire. In the end, it was Henry Sy who got the last laugh. The breadth of his vision and his steadfast execution of it led to the disintegration of Shoeworld and made believers out of the old narrow-minded Chinese businessmen.

As an aspiring entrepreneur, I am always fascinated by these kinds of stories. I love reading the success stories of great businesspeople like John Gokongwei, Tony Tan Caktiong, Socorro Ramos, and even foreign businessmen like Li Ka-Shing, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffett. I often fancied patterning my life with these great people. There was even a time when I foolishly wished to have been born poor so that I could emulate their inspirational rags-to-riches stories.

Life, however, rarely unfolds in the way we want it to. It is naïve to think that I can emulate the successes of these entrepreneurs simply by following their life stories. We live in different times, more complicated times. The outlook for business at the moment is bleak. The global financial crisis shows no signs of stopping. It is a multitrillion-dollar problem that has already sunk fortunes, destroyed careers and crippled economies. Day by day, the news only shows how it has worsened. Another bank closes down or is bought up. A country files for national bankruptcy. Market indexes around the world plummet to all-time lows. What a time for the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to strike, just when we’re about to enter the workforce. Suddenly I realize how difficult it is to start and manage my own business, much less emulate the successes of those esteemed tycoons. If there’s anything I learned in my course, it’s that managing a business is an extremely complex endeavor.

As I drift farther from the comforts of childhood and move ever closer to reality, I begin having these grim realizations - that life is never a bed of roses and that there is no sure formula for success. The ladder to financial security can often be very fragile. One economic downturn can end a well-established career. One swindling business partner can obliterate a fortune. One wrong investment can flush away an entire savings account. Only a select few are destined to be rich.

Faced with unpredictability, there is indeed much to fear. Yet when I look back once again at the life stories of the great people, I see how they approached uncertainty in their lives. True entrepreneurs embrace risks and maximize opportunities. Only in trumping adversity do these champions emerge. Although I hardly have a business personality, I want to pattern my life with those inspiring businessmen at least in this aspect, that I also have to maximize whatever has been given to me and just learn to accept the unpredictability of the future.

More than that, I also think that the strength to combat adversity has to always come from one’s passion. These business tycoons found success by following their passion. It’s always easiest to find success and to cope with failure if the endeavor is connected to something that we love doing.

I will end this entry by reflecting on what was discussed in my Philo orals. Near the end of my oral exam, I stated that the greatest thing philosophy imparted on me is that it empowers me to move out of my box and see the world in a more open and multi-dimensional way. My teacher then asked me, “As a Filipino-Chinese taking up Management, do you sometimes feel boxed?” I immediately gave him a No with some pretentious ready-made reasons, but in reality it was hard for me to answer his question. Indeed, business runs in my blood; it is a relatively safer and more straightforward path compared to other pursuits. Yet I stand by what I’ve said, that I will not allow myself to be boxed.

This sembreak is an opportunity to explore and rediscover the things we’re truly passionate about. In my case, it’s immersing in interests such as reading, writing and drawing, movies and basketball. Aside from these, life becomes all the more colorful because of the people whom we share it with. Cliché as it may sound, I believe that finding one’s happiness and living a life of love still weigh more than a billion-dollar fortune. Although this is becoming an increasingly money-driven world, it’s still important to free ourselves from the box of societal norms, find what we truly want, and understand that there is more to life than just business and money. Indeed, there are greater ideals than just money. Yes, in the end it’s just money.

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