“Today, I think it’s safe to say that knowledge is not power.” Thus says Lars Wittig, a powerful figure in the corporate world who currently serves as country manager of multinational company Regus in the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam.
But before Filipinos reading this shake their head in disagreement—at least, those who remember the catchphrase of late trivia-man and TV personality Ernie Baron that “knowledge is power”—take heed that the businessman ably proved his point to be valid.
“Is knowledge powerful? Yes. But connectivity, that’s the real power nowadays,” Wittig confidently told The Sunday Times Magazine during this one-on-one interview.
Of course, the corporate bigwig was making the statement from the standpoint of his post at Regus, a global company whose expertise lie in connecting businesses on- and off-line by providing flexible workplaces and even virtual office spaces for both established and startup companies in key cities around the world.
Wittig added that the power of connectivity is even greater at this time when people from countries with challenging infrastructure experience difficulty traveling from point A to point B.
“When the travel from home to traditional workplaces proves to be difficult, it is much more productive for people to work more flexibly, and stay connected through other means. Nowadays, this is what people like and what they ask for especially in view of the current generation of young workers or millennials,” Wittig noted.
As images of Edsa’s daily calvary come to mind, there can be no doubt indeed that a developing country like the Philippines needs the innovative service Regus brings to the world today.
Even if it is an expert today in establishing connectivity for the ever-evolving work place, Regus came to be due to an “inconvenience” almost three decades ago.
In 1989, when CEO and founder Mark Dixon, “a very strong entrepreneur,” in Wittig’s words, relocated his business from England to Brussels in Belgium, he noticed the lack of available office spaces for traveling businessmen. That was when the concept of opening a Regus center came to him, which he opened that very year. The center began offering full-serviced offices that were maintained, staffed and available for businessmenof all types.
Today, providing ready-for-occupancy and flexible physical office spaces is still one of the top services of Regus most especially because the market is unpredictable.
As Wittig explained, “The speed of change today is very fast, there are so many things upsetting the different industries. Even the biggest companies do not know what their needs will become later on. In 1920, if your company was included in the S&P 500 List [the top 500 companies in the world according to Standard & Poor], statistically you would stay in the list for 70 years. Today, a company in that list will stay for barely 10 years.”
What Regus further offers nowadays are flexible terms that would benefit companies whether they are letting go of employees when divesting, thus leaving more spaces; or welcoming new people when investing, thus the need for more spaces.
Likewise, Wittig’s company attracts young entrepreneurs with start-up businesses who are still trying to grow roots in their industries with their virtual office service.
“For the start-up, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t know what your needs are going to be even a year from now because you may have an idea about how big you will grow, but you still don’t know how fast or how soon it will happen,” Wittig rationalized.
“Besides, you might not want to sit too much behind the desk in a nice office; you might have to be out there chasing your first customers, and we help you do so,” he added.
To make such a set up feasible, Regus “amplifies” young enterprises by providing a professional business address, giving local numbers, which Regus will man 24/7, and even handle mails—exactly the same services one would get in renting office spaces without the need to take on a single square meter from a property.
“Now, can I guarantee you success just by doing so? Nope. But I can basically guarantee you that you are going to get more customers faster and probably at a better price too simply because you are in one of the premium buildings in say Makati, Bonifacio Global City, Ortigas, Cebu, Clark, Davao or wherever else we are,” Wittig enthused.
In the Philippines, Regus has a network of 25 locations in four different cities. Globally, the total comes to 3,000 locations in 20 countries and 1,000 cities.
Impressive? But there’s more. Regus also offers business lounges and co-working spaces that both start-up and established companies need.
“When you are in between meetings or it’s too early to go home, and perhaps it’s too cumbersome to go back to the traditional workplace or your regular office, you tend to hang out at one of my competitors—that is the coffee shops,” he chuckled. “But why do that when you can simply whip out your smart phone, find the nearest Regus center, drop in and work with free access to wi-fi and a nice cup of coffee?”
Another bonus one might find amid this modern co-working environment is the opportunity to interact and establish connectivity with other members.
“This is very much the new market, the new way of working,” the country manager declared. And he very much believes too that this new working model is very attractive to millennials who do not want to be measured by time sheets but by the results they deliver. The Philippines, according to Wittig, is abundant with such millennials what with a very young average of 23.5 years old.
“Now if you want to attract and retain them, you have to embrace flexible working too,” Wittig tipped.
Despite being born two decades earlier than the oldest group of millennials—those born in the year 1985 onwards—Wittig is comfortable working with the generation often criticized for bearing “a lot of attitude.” In fact, he admires their constant connectivity as a way to get the job done.
“I love to work the same way as they do—millennials are always connected. Finally, there’s a generation that we Baby Boomers [those born between 1946 and 1964]really have something in common with because we’ve always been blamed for working too much,” the 53-year-old laughed.
Moreover, Wittig admitted he liked the way millennials go about gaining knowledge and how they think outside the proverbial box. But above all, he likes that he shares with millennials the trait of open-mindedness.
“I am very open-minded and so are they. They are very open to the fact that there are a lot of experiences, ideas and practicalities they still need to fill their toolbox with. So, for me they are probably the best generation to be able to work with and mentor,” Wittig surmised.
However, even without the influence of the current generation, Wittig still has the makings of an exemplary and effective leader what with his early exposure and training in the corporate world.
According to Wittig he grew up seeing his father run the office of Chief Executive Officer for a big candy corporation in Denmark where he was born and raised.
“That means, I grew up with a lot of chewing gum and candy,” he joked.
“But I was actually raised on a farm. We had a lot of family living there and working for us. I didn’t have to work but I was offered to do so, and I found out I could make a lot of money that way. Then livestock was introduced to me and I also learned that if I invest in it, I could make more money,” Wittig recalled for The Sunday Times Magazine.
The second option was more attractive for then 12-year-old Wittig who started buying and selling sheep and geese, among others. But while most parents would extend a helping hand to their budding entrepreneurs—much more in his case since he was barely a teenager—Wittig’s father took the opportunity to show him what doing business truly entailed in the real world and became tougher on his boy. The senior Wittig taught him to take on every responsibility that came with his venture.
“I was the one who had to get up ridiculously early in the morning to feed them. I was the one who had to clean out the stables—I did everything myself. But that gave me a good appetite for basic business, merchandising to be exact,” Wittig looked back at his unique childhood.
When he grew up, Wittig could have easily pursued the livestock business but a part of him also wanted to see the world so that when the rare opportunity came for him to train under East Asiatic Company (EAC), the biggest corporation in Denmark with international businesses, he wisely grabbed it.
“If you are very lucky, you can become an EAC trainee. That luck came to me when I was 22 and my career started from there,” he related.
Two years later, Wittig left Denmark to work for EAC in New York. Thereafter, at the young age of 25 he moved anew to Los Angeles to assume the position of marketing manager for North America.
Spending one more year in the US, he eventually flew to the other side of the planet to work as a marketing manager for EAC’s consumer and healthcare products.
Wittig’s dream of seeing the world came true even before he turned 30 as his journey carried on to the Philippines.
In 1992, at age 29, he found himself moving to this part of Asia to lead pre-operational activities for EAC’s then upcoming global cigarette company.
“It was a very big joint venture and I was employee No. 1. Again, a start-up entrepreneurial but in a very corporate setting,” Wittig beamed.
His stint for EAC eventually ended for the Philippines but he stayed on in the country for another year, working as American company Dole’s marketing manager for Asia.
His next temporary home was Singapore where he helped make Hawaiian Tropics’ products gain prominence. Wittig stayed in the Lion City for more than three years before returning to the Philippines to work with Coca Cola in 1998, and then Vietnam a year later for the same beverage company.
By the turn of the century, he finally went home to Denmark to become CEO and owner of Horton International-Denmark before eventually founding Global-Eyes a/s, the first company of its kind in the country dedicated to offering international business development with a pool of advisors and/or export agents.
First in line
While Wittig always excelled in the corporate setting, he also wanted to be involved in entrepreneurial businesses, and did not mind being first in line for young companies.
“I always like that combination of being very entrepreneurial but also the corporate setting because I always want to be challenged with what I am doing, and to have access to very clever, skilled, high-end executives,” Wittig explained.
Perhaps this was the quality that made him the perfect fit for Regus, a company that is all about entrepreneurs.
And so, in 2012, 13 years after his last corporate post in the Philippines, he returned to Manila as Regus’ country manager. Moreover, with the lengthy time he had spent in the Philippines previously, it came as no surprise that Wittig’s leadership style shaped up to be most complementing with his Filipino co-workers.
“I think the Philippines is a very good fit with the way that I work—that is to really understand people and know what makes them tick,” Wittig acknowledged.
As such, the country manager shared that whenever he interviews applicants here, he would always ask for their provinces, the number of siblings that they have and if they are their family’s bread winner.
“I really like to understand people and the Filipinos greatly appreciate if you have a genuine concern for their personal lives and values. And that I do, I must say. So, when I deal with people, I am very transparent. Which often is not very far from the Philippine way of being,” the corporate leader analyzed.
Living the dream
Today, Wittig is not only country manager for the Philippines, he also heads Regus in Vietnam and Cambodia, all because of his stellar performance here.
Regus first came to the Philippines in 1998, at the height of the Asian financial crisis and despite those times grew into four locations until Wittig’s arrival in 2012.
Five years into his position, Wittig has further grown Regus exponentially, not only in raising the number of Regus centers nationwide but also in multiplying the number of inquiries it receives. Whereas 2012 had seen 100 daily inquiries, the current years has tallied 1,000 inquiries per day.
To be sure, managing three different countries for an international company is not an easy task, but because of his excellent time management skills and ability to train a team to complement his working style, Wittig enjoys as much flexibility as his company offers in his personal life.
Now based in the Philippines for good with his Filipina wife, Wittig gets to enjoy time off with friends on a weekly basis despite his hectic schedule at work. Their common interest? Philippine history.
“It’s very gratifying to be with people who are easy to laugh with—Filipinos would often go very far for a good laugh and they would gladly do it at their own expense. And that’s very much how I am and how I think also, and that’s why we are a good fit,” he enthused.
He also sets aside time for his club Rotary Makati West, and is very proud of it.
“To me, that group shows all the values of the best that you can find in the Philippines. They really go out of their way for various projects and one our major projects was the ‘Gift of Life.’ Today that project had financed more than 300 life-saving open heart surgeries for children,” he shared.
As the interview shifted to discussion on values, The Sunday Times Magazine finally asked Wittig what has enabled him to live what he gratefully describes to be a “dream life.”
“For me, you have to very authentic in your choices. You can’t make the world happy, but whatever your choices are, you must feel right about them and live them out.”