Nothing beats experience, savvy

Why Felix Mabilog Jr. remains sought after


FELIX-MABILOG20150505HOW many of the Philippine car industry’s pioneers are still very active today, and remain very much sought after by the industry? And the wisdom and knowledge accumulated by that still active pioneer over the decades are enough to write a management or inspirational book.

As one anecdote goes, that still active pioneer proposed a small change in the assembly method of Volkswagen Beatles at the now defunct DMG plant in Libertad, Mandaluyong, which resulted to a doubling of its output for that car model instantly. The change was simple: let the line workers do work only on one side of the car being assembled, instead of letting them do the work randomly at each side.

Indeed, it is hard to beat the vast knowledge, extensive experience and savvy of Felix Mabilog Jr., concurrently president of Columbian Autocar Corporation.

“I was around at the start of the [car assembly]program which they called initially the Philippine Car Manufacturing Program or PCMP. That was in 1972 or something. It was Martial Law then and started with [President Ferdinand] Marcos,” he said.

Mabilog added the Philippines was among the first countries in Asia to venture into car manufacturing.

“At that time, Singapore was nothing, Bangkok, Thailand was nothing, and Indonesia was years behind us in terms of the economy. Even Korea has not started anything at that time. We were next to Japan at that time,” he added.

However, the PCMP flopped because there were too many industry players vying for a market that was estimated at only 12,000 buyers per year. Apparently from only three firms, the number of companies increased to five.

Originally, the PMPC selected Volkswagen to represent Europe, Chrysler the United States, and Toyota for Japan.

By the second year of the program, the participating car firms should have 40-percent local content in their products, Mabilog said.

However, the adding of two more participants to the PMPC led to the failure of the program, which Mabilog blamed on it being “politicized.”

Columbian Autocar Corporation (CAC) president Felix Mabilog Jr. poses with the patrol vehicles Mahindra will supply to the Philippine National Police. Mabilog is spearheading efforts to put into place a dealer network that will support the Mahindra brand in the Philippines.

Columbian Autocar Corporation (CAC) president Felix Mabilog Jr. poses with the patrol vehicles Mahindra will supply to the Philippine National Police. Mabilog is spearheading efforts to put into place a dealer network that will support the Mahindra brand in the Philippines.

How Mabilog found himself entering the car industry almost looked like a fairy tale, because he was among the first Filipino youngsters who were invited by the now defunct Prince Motors of Japan to learn about car manufacturing in Japan. Prince Motors eventually merged with what is now Nissan Motors Limited of Japan.

“They [Prince Motors] wanted to put up an assembly plant in the Philippines. The local partner was the former owner of Philippine Saving Bank, the Picache family,” he said.

When Mabilog graduated from De La Salle University (DLSU), he was immediately hired by a construction company that put up the cannery of Dole Philippines in General Santos City. But in less than a year working for that company, he was contacted by his former professor at DLSU to join graduates from the school who would go to Japan for a three-month training in Tokyo under Prince Motors. The training was under the aegis of the Japanese government and the participating firm in Japan. That was in 1965.

The training exposed Mabilog and the three DLSU graduates to the facets of car assembly and design, and saw them working at the factory of Prince Motors. It was a stint any engineering graduate from the Philippines would surely envy.

But after Nissan bought Prince Motors, the plan for the latter to put up a car assembly plant in the Philippines fizzled out.

“So when we were waiting [for Prince Motors to come into the Philippines], I saw an ad from Volkswagen looking for engineers,” he said, adding he sought the permission of those who planned to bring the Prince brand into the Philippines first before joining DMG.

While his three-month training with Prince Motors in Japan went for naught in so far as establishing that brand in the Philippines is concerned, he admitted it imparted him precious skills and knowledge that would be very useful in his next automotive stint.

“It helped a lot. When I worked with Volkswagen, at that time they were making five units a day and they had so many people. They were making it by groups, and not by line production,” Mabilog said, noting there were inefficiencies in the way the DMG plant assembled its vehicles.

“I started as an engineer trainee [and]I was actually working at the assembly line. I was welding. I was being laughed at by my fellow engineers who came ahead of me. They said ‘Japan trained, tignan nga natin [let’s see]. Pinahirapan nila ako. [They made things hard for me],” he recalled.

It turned out Mabilog joined DMG at a very bad time, because the company was just marred by a workers’ strike and new entrants to the company somehow faced discrimination.

Because of the strike, DMG’s owner, Domingo Guevarra, made it also a policy that it would be him who would hire the new workers of the company. Upon seeing the credentials of Mabilog, the most prominent of which is his training in Japan, Guevarra told Mabilog: “So you were trained in Japan…you’re hired!”

As expected, Mabilog’s being directly hired by Guevarra did not sit well with the old timers of the plant, so it was up to him to prove his mettle. And something popped out of his mind.

Mabilog undertook a time and motion study that showed if a laborer concentrated his work on just one side of the car, or at the front or back, the company could immediately double its output without adding personnel.

“With the people we have, we can easily double production. The Guevarras were surprised [at my recommendations],” he said.

But the workers at the plant could not complain when the recommendations of Mabilog were implemented because it indeed doubled the plant’s output of Volkswagens. From then one, Mabilog rose from the ranks and overtook his superiors, including those who belittled him and gave him a hard time when he started at DMG.

“Lahat ng mga naging boss ko, naging tao ko [All of those who became my bosses became my subordinates],” he added.

The highest position Mabilog attained at DMG was vice president for materials and manufacturing.

At one time before he reached that position, however, Mabilog wanted to leave the company for greener pastures because he and his wife were already expecting their first child. But he was held back by the owners of the company and was offered a higher position and pay at DMG’s marketing division. If it were not for the better offer from DMG’s owners, Mabilog would have joined the Philippine unit of Ford.

While marketing was something new to Mabilog at that time, because he was with DMG’s manufacturing division, he believed he could eventually learn the ropes of marketing.

Unexpectedly, however, Mabilog was not welcomed by DMG’s marketing division with open arms. Apparently, that division was racked with the usual intrigues at the work place like factionalism and professional jealousy.

“I went to marketing. I started as assistant distribution manager. When I entered there, I was belittled because I was from manufacturing,” he said.

After stints with marketing services (promotions and advertising) and field operations in the marketing division, the son of the owner of DMG informed Mabilog that he was among the three candidates considered for promotion to marketing director. The other two was an old-timer with the company and a former manager of the Philippine unit of Colgate-Palmolive.

After six months, Mabilog was chosen to become DMG’s marketing director. Besides being the best in skils among the three of them, Mabilog also got the backing of DMG’s managing director, who was a German from Volkswagen.

After a fruitful stint as marketing director of DMG, Mabilog was summoned back to manufacturing to handle the materials management system of the company.

“They [Guevarras] asked me ‘do you want to go back to the plant,’” he added.

So he was appointed senior vice president for manufacturing in 2012. After cleaning up the materials section of DMG of people who were making money from deals and theft, Mabilog was appointed vice president for materials and manufacturing, a position he held for four years.

“I did not mind if they [thieves]were the relatives of the owners. Trabaho lang ito [This is work],” Mabilog said.

But DMG was hit by factors beyond its control, particularly the peso depreciation. Also, Volkswagen could not compete with the Japanese brands, whose production base in Japan was much closer to the Philippine compared to Germany.

After DMG closed shop, Mabilog thought his days with the car industry were over.

“I wanted to look for a job [but]not in automotive” he said.

Although Mabilog informed his network of friends and associates that he did not want to work in the car industry anymore after DMG closed shop, he eventually ended up meeting one of the top officials of another car company in the Philippines. That person was Harold Hoffman who was the president and general manager with Canlubang Automotive Resources that was owned by the Yulo family. Chrysler Philippines Corporation preceded CARCO, which became Philippine Automotive Manufacturing Corporation and later Mitsubishi Motors Philippines Corporation.

“We had dinner at [Hotel] Intercon. He was kind, that Mr. Hoffman,” Mabilog said, adding, however, that he told the American that he did not want to handle the manufacturing section or division of CARCO.

While Mabilog accepted the position of assistant vice president for materials management in 1980, Hoffman asked him to head CARCO’s manufacturing later.

Mabilog said Hoffman told him “I’ll make you VP [vice president]for operations.”

Apparently, CARCO’s manufacturing was plagued by labor problems at that time, which gave Mabilog a new challenge.

“Grabe pa unyon dun. Then yung anak ni Yulo, siya ang hari-hari dun [The union there was a headache. Then the son of Yulo was also the king there] because his father owned the company,” he added.

Instead of confronting the union, however, Mabilog thought of a different approach: make the union officials his friends and allies.

He recalled saying to officers of the union “Pag mali ang kumpanya, labanan ninyo. Pero if tama ang ginagawa ng kumpanya, tulungan ninyo ako [If the company is wrong, then protest. But if the company is doing right, please help me].”

By practicing pakikisama [going along with others]and helping the officers of the union when they are in need, Mabilog was able to win the goodwill of the union officers in six months. He was also able to stop the theft of parts from the plant, which was believed to be going on for many years.

But the fortunes of the car industry turned sour after the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. on August 21, 1983. CARCO was forced to lay off workers as demand for new vehicles plunged. Mabilog chose to be retrenched along with the workers.

In 1985, Mabilog found himself working with pharmaceutical and consumer goods firm Mead Johnson, thinking that his days with the car industry were behind him for good.

But Hoffman never forgot how Mabilog impressed him at CARCO. The two got to meet again with the American offering him another stint in the car industry, this time with Columbian Autocar Corporation (CAC), which was marketing the Kia brand in the Philippines and was planning to get Mazda and BMW.

It turned out Hoffman’s son was a friend of the son of the Jose Ch Alvarez, the chairman of CAC, who was looking for someone who was knowledgeable in car manufacturing and marketing, and could handle labor unions.

Mabilog said Hoffman told him “They [CAC] are looking for you, please try to talk to him [Alvarez].”

Although Mabilog would talk with the then general manager of CAC, he told Hoffman that he was not looking for a job.

“I was not interested anymore [in the car industry], I can play golf three day a week [with my current company]. I did not have problems there,” he added.

Though he was dodged the offer to work at CAC, Hoffman kept convincing him to do so and the car firm’s owners offered him better pay and perks. So for the nth time, Mabilog found himself working in the car industry from late 1992.

It turned out CAC badly needed Mabilog because a union was being formed in the company. A work slowdown greeted Mabilog in his first days of work at CAC.

Mabilog was able to deal with labor through dialogue and by assigning the rowdy officers to facilities of CAC elsewhere in Metro Manila.

Today, CAC has under its wings the Kia, Mazda, BMW and Peugeot brands. It added two years ago the Indian brand Mahindra, known for its tough off-road and utility vehicles.

Mabilog now devotes much of his time for Mahindra, although he is vice-chairman of Eurobrands Distributor Inc. which markets the Peugeot brand in the Philippines.

While it is not yet into putting together complete vehicles, CAC has a 10-hectae manufacturing facility in Laguna that can produce 20,000 cars a year. Mabilog said the facility is currently utilized to fabricate the requirements of Mahindra models that were customized for Philippine use, particularly the patrol vehicles for the Philippine National Police.

Asked if the CAC manufacturing facility was put up with foreign expertise, particularly from Japan, Mabilog said “Tinuturuan ko lang mga Hapon [It is I who teach the Japanese],” he added.

And working past 15 years the mandatory retirement age for managers in the Philippines, it is hard to question the knowledge, experience and savvy of Mabilog.


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