A banker redefines the true meaning of success
Philip G. Soliven could have stayed in the heady world of banking and finance if not for a quiet epiphany that happened over time and spurred by frequent forays into the countryside.
The former trader, who has chalked up stints in Boston, Hong Kong and Singapore, was doing for Cargill, the Minneapolis-headquartered provider of agricultural products, what he knew best: managing money. But visiting rural communities as part of understanding the business he was engaged in led to an outlook change. “I began to realize there was a world of difference between the financial space and what was happening on the ground in the farms,” Soliven recalls.
These encounters made him redefine his long-held concept of success. “In the financial space, that means making money…making a million bucks in the equity market. You’re not going to make that on a farmer, but if you can help him increase his income by a hundred pesos a day, that makes so much more of a difference and changes his and his family’s lives.”
A child of the waning years of the Marcos regime, Ateneo-bred Soliven yearned – as did his peers – to spread his wings, hopefully, overseas. The First Bank of Boston gave him that welcome professional break, sending the foreign exchange trader to its head office in Boston in 1984 for a corporate role. Soliven grabbed the chance. Then a year later, he was sent to Hong Kong as manager of the bank’s corporate banking business where he put in seven years. In 1991, he relocated to Singapore as vice-president for corporate banking.
In 1995, Soliven joined Cargill as a Singapore-based manager in the Financial Markets Trading Group, looking after the group’s investment portfolio for the Philippines. In a step that made great sense, he moved back to his homeland, assuming the country lead role, and up until 2016, the responsibilities of Asia-Pacific regional treasurer, even including overseeing “a small activity in Brazil.”
Established in 1865 by William Wallace Cargill when he bought a grain flat house in Conover, Iowa, the conglomerate boasts to this day being the largest privately-owned concern in the US in terms of revenue. About 25 percent of the grain export in the US is handled by Cargill and around 22 percent of the meat in the country also falls under their direction. It’s America McDonald’s go-to supplier for eggs. In Thailand, it is a dominant poultry producer. In the Philippines, it claims to be the largest exporter of coconut oil.
Soliven is a man who has truly found his purpose in work, and it shows. Usually at his desk at 7:30 am, he exudes crisp energy, matched with fast-clip speech. He muses: “I’m glad I’m in this company that is able to change people’s lives. How many have the chance to do that?”
In these days when selling out and reaping a windfall is the temptation of many family-founded enterprises, the company is still firmly controlled by Cargill’s descendants, who take up a 90 percent share. But it’s professionals like Soliven as well the current chairman David MacLennan, who enrich the organization with their special skill sets.
He observes: “One of the good things about working in a privately-owned company is that you can think longer term. In a public company, one has to please investors every quarter.
“A private company has less of that dilemma. They can allow a longer time frame for an investment to materialize.”
Cargill has indeed proven itself a true partner to the Philippines, and will mark its 70th anniversary next year. The office was set up in Manila in 1948, Cargill’s first Asian outpost, to buy and export copra to San Francisco for processing. Eventually, a copra processing facility was built in 1991 in General Santos City, South Cotabato, followed by a toll crush arrangement with Granexport Manufacturing Corporation in Iligan.
While the ride has not been exactly smooth – “We and the Philippines have obviously been through a lot together like through some of the darker days in its history and economy,” says Soliven. “But we appreciate the potential of the country, especially Mindanao where the agriculture promise is tremendous. It’s the place to be!”
He also adds: “The present environment is pretty good for us actually.”
Job creation and sustaining the environment figure at the top of Cargill’s concern list.
With its recent launch of a joint poultry project in Batangas with Jollibee – specifically to produce the best-selling Chicken Joy for the Luzon outlets – some 1,000 jobs are expected to flourish. “When you invest in something, it supports and increases the supply activity. We are actually buying chicken from the farmers and creating investment in poultry farming,” reasons Soliven. “That’s why investment in agriculture is so vital.”
Running an ethical and environment-respectful operation likewise informs Cargill’s production methods. According to Soliven, there had been no certification of local coconut oil, which has resulted in an ongoing program with other partners to develop one. “To get a certification, one has to adopt good practices, from growing to processing to handling. As an exporter of Philippine coconut oil, we want to ensure that it continues to be accepted by markets like Europe. For sure, companies will be asking for it to be able to tell a good story to their customers,” says Soliven. “And we also make sure that all our plant facilities meet international environmental standards as we are a global company producing for export to countries around the world.”
Fit from the start
Now a 21-year Cargill veteran, Soliven takes pains to ensure its legacy will continue in the next generation of executives. For certain job positions, he comes in to meet the applicant, reasoning: “We are looking for a cultural fit from the very beginning. We don’t want to spend time to manage the person. It’s important that the person reflects our core values of integrity, respect for others, commitment to serve and passion for success. It starts with those.”
And job seekers need not have an exclusive university education on their CVs. “We’re an agricultural company,” says Soliven. “So most of the work takes place in the countryside. Ateneo and La Salle don’t yet have vet med programs. And most people are hired in the provinces where they are going to be assigned.”
Since Cargill is such a broad organization, opportunities for professional growth are rife. Moving team members around and putting them in different roles is a common occurrence, with Soliven a prime example. The banker turned into an agricultural manager. “You could be in our food and nutrition business, then try being in the food ingredients field, which means selling to companies that produce snack foods, which is different from selling animal feed products to a farmer. Or you could venture into the poultry space. These are all very big businesses for us the Philippines.”
With two of his three children – Mica, 26, and Billy, 24–leading their own lives as a bond trader and law school student respectively, it’s only Manolo, 17, in K-12 at the Ateneo, who’s left with a regular schedule. Soliven met his wife Mita, also a banker with an international institution, when they were both with First Bank of Boston. She was based in Manila when Soliven met her during one of his return visits.
Regular travel is the most effective bonding technique, chuckles Soliven, saying: “They’re tied to you then, and there are few distractions.” The family was most recently in South Korea where the kids had never been to. Otherwise, weekends are set aside for dinners out together.
While bringing home work is unavoidable due to Cargill’s vast global network, Soliven de-stresses listening to music, which he has been passionate about since he was a teenager. “Ask my wife how many earphones I have. I’ve got them all,” he grins. To earn extra income as a student, he and some friends provided DJ and disco music services for weekend parties. Jazz and classical are his preferred genres, but he also listens to selections from his children’s playlists.
He makes it a point “to buy music in order to support the industry.”
Of his rambunctious Soliven, he reveals the motto is “Survival of the Fastest,” especially during reunions – if not, one doesn’t get to eat the choice morsels from the buffet. With the passing of Soliven’s “Tito Max,” one of Philippine media’s most colorful figures, and “Tito Vic,” the realtor, it’s his father Guillermo, who has become the patriarch.
Perspective and empathy
While the product of a privileged Ateneo education, Soliven feels its enduring “Man for Others” principle prepared him to interact with those across the great economic divide.
“Having faced first-hand poverty, it has given me the right perspective, which is important. It has helped me to empathize and see good things despite that current state.
“I have seen many poor people in the countryside, but I don’t necessarily see many unhappy people.
“The Ateneo taught us to have a genuine desire to help others improve their lives, and I’m lucky to work for a company that helps others improve their product. Even if just a little help, it means the world of difference to them.
“That is also meaningful to us because it means that we can sell their produce at a higher price. It’s a win-win situation for all.”
There are challenges handing the new generation of executives and employees. Here’s how Soliven sees it.
• I think it’s true to some extent that millennials have a sense of entitlement.
• I sense an impatience, which has to do with their career advancement and learning new things on the job.
• It’s not difficult for them to decide to up and go and move on to a new workplace, especially if they feel they’ve learned all that there is to learn. For them, there’s no such thing as employment for life.
• For the company, they prove to be a challenge, but we just have to manage each other’s expectations.
• Millennials can continue their short-term thinking and make certain demands. That’s fine, but they need to accept and be told they also need to achieve certain things. The good thing about millennials is they are more accepting of performance-based evaluation.