A senior citizen ages gracefully, guided by Lao Tzu’s teachings
A fortune teller once told pioneering motorcycle dealer Vicente N. Ongtenco that he should not expect to lead a long life. The gentleman celebrated his 91st birthday last June and has completed a book of annotations on the philosopher-teacher Lao Tzu. Until only recently, he did not need a cane to walk but now has to adopt the accessory due to a back injury that could have been caused by – get this – either lifting luggage during a trip around the Japanese countryside or leaping on a trampoline in his village’s park grounds.
Giving back to society
Ongtenco, Chairman Emeritus of the Motortrade Group of Companies, is the Energizer Bunny personified. There are just so many things he wants to do; so many dreams he aches to fulfill. However, athough age may have finally caught up with him, Ongtenco is determined to make every minute he still draws breath “to contribute to whatever is good for society.”
Otherwise, he says: “Society is bound to collapse since here we are enjoying the benefits of the universe and pursuing our own personal happiness but do not give back. We’re just like termites that keep eating away until the house falls apart.”
Born in Jinjiang in Fujian province (where many of our Filipino-Chinese tycoons also hail from), Ongtenco came from a rather well-off family whose fortunes his father owned and ran a factory – were ravaged by the Japanese occupation of China even if their troops never physically reached the county. Seeking greener pastures, one of his brothers headed for the Philippines and soon called for Ongtenco to join him.
Then 19, Ongtenco boarded a boat named Mactan from Xiamen port for an unpleasant three weeks’ sailing to Manila. His tummy did not hold up, and matters worsened when they encountered a typhoon. He was never so happy to step on dry land as he did when his tub touched the docks of Manila Harbor. The date: July 4, 1946. The Philippines had just been minted a new republic.
Eventually, the Ongtenco family found their way to Daet, the quiet capital of Camarines Norte, “knowing no one and having no friends,” the former China immigrant recalls. With two of his brothers, Ongtenco set up Bicol Supply Center, an auto spare parts and hardware store that found good custom in the neighborhood, especially from clientele who lived in remote barrios and came town to replenish provisions and repair their vehicles.
Seeking new revenue, they became a Honda dealer, starting off with five units. When they managed to sell one (usually a month), Ongtenco chuckles, he and the employees trooped to a restaurant for mami and softdrinks “to celebrate.” In the 1960s, a motorcycle was sold for about over 1,000 pesos. Even back then, Ongtenco dared to dream beyond his reality, eventually renaming their enterprise the Motortrade Nationwide Corporation (MNC).
“Here was someone who put ‘Nationwide’ as part of the name of his shop and selling only five motorcycles. Perhaps, it was my fantasy…maybe I was crazy, but I felt some day I was going to realize something big.”
Membership in the local Freemasons’ lodge played a significant factor in Motortrade’s subsequent success, Ongtenco acknowledges. “I liked their mantra of ‘univeral brotherhood’. From them, I learned the ability to look at the bigger picture, to look at things on a larger scale.” He rose through the ranks, assuming leadership roles locally, then in the Bicol region until he was appointed to the Supreme Council. “These honors encouraged and built up my self confidence.”
Along with his personal trajectory, Motortrade also progressed, evolving into a multi-brand motorcycle dealer of such Japanese trademarks as Honda and Kawasaki among other prestigious brands and operating more than 500 branches and satellites across the archipelago. Its affiliated group of companies, which includes Motortrade Topline, Incorporated (MTI), Honda Prestige Traders, Incorporated (HPTI) and several others were born out of this mother company. It was incorporated by the Security and Exchange Commission in 1979.
Says Ongtenco: “I proved to be a very reliable dealer for our suppliers. Since I didn’t rely on just selling motorcycles but had the other business of auto spare parts for income, the money from the motorcycle sales was set aside very religiously and remitted to the supplier on time.
We also proved to them that we were able to reach customers that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to reach like those living in remote areas.” Through plain hard work and commitment, Ongtenco gained respect from his co-dealers (and competitors), earning the sobriquet, “Godfather of Morotcycle Marketing.”
Then in 1986, he decided to retire. He was only 60.
When other tycoons – many of whom he is on first-name basis with – would have thought they still had a good 15 or 20 years left to further build their empires, why back out of the game?
“It is my conviction that the business should be passed on to one’s children as soon as it is possible. So that they can learn.
“If something bad happens, they may not be prepared. What then?”
Thomas, Ongtenco’s oldest son, now heads Motortrade as Director/President while the rest of his eight children, four boys and four girls, are involved in various family enterprises such as the Motortrade Life and Livelihood Assistance Foundation, Global Reciprocal School in Caloocan, which boasts a student population of anywhere between 3,500 and 4,000 while students on scholarship account for 30 percent of the population, as well as the Bank of Makati. As Chairman Emeritus, Ongtenco pere left the daily concerns to others, but for many years, he continued to keep a supervisory eye on the company until lately.
Once very active in the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, he had to scale down participation until he eventually resigned.
Ongtenco has always been very conscientious about activity and diet, having experienced many life-threatening conditions. “But I survived and gained strength again thanks to the discipline of exercise and diet.” At 40, a heart ailment threatened to make him an invalid the rest of his life. The warning only steeled a revolve in him that this would never happen. He enrolled in yoga, and later qigong (tai-chi), becoming the Vice-Chairman of the World Academic Society of Medical Qigong and Honorary President of the Canada Qigong Research Society. But he also had to step down from these groups. “They say the meetings are quieter without me. I used to do 90 percent of motions during those times,” he says, eyes twinkling.
Until his back gave out, Ongtenco would join the regular exercise sessions in his subdivision’s park, surprising everyone with his stamina. With that having to be foregone for now, he walks 30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the afternoon. There is a beautiful lap pool in his shady garden, but he built that only for “when I cannot walk anymore.” May that day be a long time in arriving.
“Observe the natural law, receive abundant blessings.”
This counsel, from Lao Tzu, Ongtenco’s favorite sage, is enshrined in a huge scroll dominating his peaceful sitting room.
Experiencing this nonagenarian, whose personality simply defies the passage of time, it is obvious he is happy with his world and has gratefully accepted its manifold gifts.