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Building a platform for sustainable growth


IN the real estate industry, it is not just the contractors who do the heavy lifting. The Chief Finance Officer (CFO) and his team of number crunchers are also tasked to continually build the company’s financial muscle to ensure its sustainable growth.

In the case of Ayala Land, Inc. (ALI), the Philippines’ largest property developer, the CFO is a builder who wears many “hard hats.” Aside from being the CFO, chief compliance officer, and treasurer, Augusto Bengzon is also a builder of teams: leading 17 CFOs across the Ayala Land group of companies, who in turn manage a force of over 600 finance professionals.

Journey to CFO
Before he was thrust into the role, Bengzon admitted he was clueless on the career he would pursue after obtaining a business management degree from the Ateneo de Manila University. His father suggested that he apply for a job in a bank, thinking this to be the best way to understand the rigors of business.

He landed a job as a staff assistant in a local bank then joined a foreign bank as a management associate after earning an MBA degree. He ended up being a banker for 18 years during which he was placed in various roles and functions.

Lured by the prospect of working for the property giant that engineered the growth of the country’s leading economic centers such as the Makati CBD and Bonifacio Global City, he joined Ayala Land in 2004. “The idea that I would be applying all that I had learned in banking as the Treasurer of the leading property developer in the country was like a dream come true,” Bengzon said.

Twelve years later, he found himself taking on a bigger responsibility when he was offered the CFO role. “I was already perfectly content with my role in the company. I was also a bit wary of the immense responsibilities that come with being the CFO of the Ayala Land group of companies. But I took it on as a challenge to get out of my comfort zone, and to see how I could contribute further to the company’s growth aspirations,” he said.

The building blocks
Despite his reluctance, the CFO donned his hard hat with vigorous energy and determination to succeed. Like working in a construction zone, he focused on carefully managing risk and building a strong foundation to ensure ALI’s sustainable growth.

While not an accounting major or a certified public accountant, Bengzon has been credited for installing robust accounting controls, financial reporting, and risk management in the company. While the CFO’s role has evolved over the years, ALI President and CEO Bernard Dy said its core remains ensuring accurate financial information, strong control systems, and strict compliance with the rules and regulations, including paying the right taxes — roles that Bengzon played “nothing short of exceptional.”

Beyond these traditional roles, Bengzon is also a collaborative leader who is averse to credit-grabbing, establishing strong “second in command” in key finance and treasury functions to guarantee business continuity and beefing up institutional capability in the high-demand market. “One of the most important things that he brings to the table is that he’s acted as my thought partner. We have complete alignment. We manage the company for long-term shareholder growth,” Dy added.

As treasurer, Bengzon has been primarily responsible for capital efficiency initiatives aimed at establishing the optimal capital structure that would be capable of supporting the company’s aggressive growth targets, while providing for a strong balance sheet that would withstand any unforeseen severe downturns in the property market. This was achieved through a combination of obtaining low cost, long-term debt within prescribed leverage limits, while raising equity through an accelerated book-building process in the years 2012 to 2015. The company continues to be a pioneer in various fundraising vehicles such as the innovative Homestarter Bonds, the first-ever listed Qualified Investor Notes, and its in-house securitization program. This year, ALI has announced its intention to list the first-ever Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) in the country, where it is looking to raise capital from a new and untapped investor base, as part of playing the long game of innovation.

With him as chief compliance officer, changes to ALI’s Corporate Governance Manual and Board Committee charters, aimed to improve the board’s function, strengthen shareholder protection and promote full disclosure in financial and non-financial reporting, were implemented in 2017. The company was recently awarded the 4-Arrow Recognition as one of the Top 50 publicly listed companies in ASEAN, the highest corporate governance recognition so far achieved by only six Philippine corporations, in accordance with the ASEAN Corporate Governance Scorecard (ACGS) developed by the ASEAN Capital Markets Forum.

The CFO is in the frontlines of ALI’s sustainability initiatives, which focuses on aspects such as site resilience, pedestrian and transit connectivity, eco-efficiency and local economic development. These are aligned with the property conglomerate’s ambitious target to achieve carbon neutrality for all its commercial properties by 2022.

Beyond the numbers, the CFO is also playing a key role in ALI’s digital transformation journey. As the Chairman of the company’s IT management committee, Bengzon has overseen the upgrade and migration of the IT infrastructure to a cloud-based system to provide ALI with a scalable cost-effective solution while allowing access to operational and financial data in a timely manner. ALI is also in the midst of implementing 72 digital initiatives across its various strategic business units and subsidiaries, while strengthening its defenses against potential cybersecurity breaches through the establishment of a security information event management system.

“The main thing is to always be ready for both the upward and downward movements – both opportunities and risks – that will come your way,” Bengzon shares.

From 2009 to 2018, ALI’s net income and share price have soared at a 20% compounded annual growth rate, outperforming the Philippine Stock Exchange Index’s 15% and more than triple the country’s GDP growth rate.

Values of Ayala Land
In spite of these immense responsibilities, this CFO is one who “knows how to work hard and play really hard,” said Maphilindo S. Tandoc, ALI’s Chief Risk Officer who works under Mr. Bengzon.

Throughout his professional career, Mr. Bengzon has been instrumental in the 52 awards that ALI garnered from 2017 to 2019, including being “CFO of the Year” from Institutional Investor Magazine and the Corporate Treasurer, among others. These trophies and plaques lie alongside numerous golf trophies he has amassed over the years while playing the sport.

On the golf course, he continues to apply the many lessons he learned on planning, managing risk, and integrity. “Integrity is core to the game of golf, and key in all that we do. Players call penalties on themselves and report their own score. So adherence to the rules, especially when no one is looking, is essential — especially if you want your golf mates to play with you again,” he said.

The values of Ayala Land — Leadership, Integrity, Vision, Excellence, and Malasakit (concern), captured in the acronym ‘LIVEM’ — have also become his life creed. “These are the same values that I aspire to live by and hope to inculcate in both my children and the next generation of financial professionals in our organization.”

“Early on in my career, I used to think that one could separate their personal circumstances from their professional career. While possible, doing so is extremely difficult to sustain,” he explained. “What you are at home is who you are in the office and vice-versa. Having these shared values at home and in the workplace creates trust, reduces stress, and ultimately leads to successful outcomes.”

“In my case, I just try to work hard, do my best, and make every day count,” said the newly named 2019 ING FINEX CFO of the Year.

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Today’s Front Page January 23, 2020

Today’s Front Page January 23, 2020