The best-of-seven semifinal series between the Petron Blaze Boosters and the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters has been intense, and it has come as no surprise to longtime PBA fans. A lot of it has to do with the on-court rivalry between the two teams; Talk ‘N Text defeated the franchise then know as San Miguel in last season’s Philippine Cup, while the Boosters avenged the loss to the Texters in the Governors’ Cup finals — a win that InterAKTV readers voted as 2011′s Win of the Year.
But the rivalry between the two teams goes beyond the basketball court. Petron and Talk ‘N Text are the flagship basketball franchises of two of the largest conglomerates in the country, and their basketball rivalry has become a proxy war in the rivalry of two of the most influential businessmen in the Philippines: San Miguel Corporation president Ramon S. Ang and PLDT chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan.
(Full disclosure: InterAKTV is part of InterAksyon.com, the online news portal of TV5, which is chaired by Pangilinan.)
The Philippine Daily Inquirer has branded the two men “corporate frenemies,” owing to their complex relationship as allies and rivals. The supposed rivalry between the two tycoons heated up in 2009, when San Miguel and PLDT were involved in a tug-of-war for control of Meralco. Ang had looked well on his way toward completing a takeover bid of the power utility, before Pangilinan threw a lifeline to the Lopez family, which controlled Meralco. The move prevented Ang from taking control of the company and allowed Pangilinan to take over. Ang was elected vice chairman of Meralco, but Pangilinan runs the company as president and chief executive officer.
But while the Meralco saga was the most highly-publicized tiff between the two executives, it wasn’t the first, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The paths of the Ramon Ang and Manny Pangilinan could have crossed as early as 1996, when Pangilinan was bidding to buy the San Miguel Corporation, while Ang was managing the businesses of his principal, Danding Cojuangco, whose shares in San Miguel were in dispute with the Philippine government. There was talk that Pangilinan had been trying to get approval from Cojuangco to purchase the giant food conglomerate, but was rebuffed. Pangilinan made another bid in 1998, but later that year, Cojuangco returned to the boardroom, and took Ang with him. Cojuangco elected himself chairman of SMC, while Ang became vice-chairman and later, president and chief operating officer.
There are some remarkable similarities between how Ang and Pangilinan made their fortunes. Both are professional managers who have made their mark, almost improbably, in the Philippine business scene dominated by old rich families and taipans of Chinese lineage. Their principals also share a few things in common; Pangilinan manages the Hong Kong-based First Pacific for the Indonesian Salim family, which fostered close ties with the late strongman Suharto, while Cojuangco, Ang’s principal, was a crony of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
There are stark differences as well between Ang and Pangilinan. While Pangilinan took the traditional road to becoming a top executive — economics degree from Ateneo de Manila University, MBA from Wharton — observers say that Ramon Ang rode on street smarts to get to the top. There persists an urban legend that Ang, who is listed as a mechanical engineering graduate from Far Eastern University, first caught the eye of Cojuangco after fixing an expensive car that no one else could fix. Ang’s loyalty to Cojuangco paid dividends as he soon became the San Miguel chairman’s right hand man. In recent years, Ramon Ang has slowly taken control of San Miguel as Cojuangco has moved away from the spotlight.
Ang and Pangilinan would first cross sabers in 2005 over the acquisition of the food company Del Monte. Joselito “Butch” Campos, an heir of the family that owns Unilab, was competing against First Pacific to acquire the food company. Unable to secure money from his family to complete the purchase, Campos sought Ang’s help to beat the Pangilinan bid. Campos would form a joint venture with San Miguel to buy Del Monte. Later, Campos would get clearance from his family to buy out the SMC stake in the joint venture, an agreement that Ang would describe as “consistent with the original agreement that provided for a friendly process of disengagement by either party.”
With Ang at the helm, San Miguel soon started an ambitious effort to diversify into utilities and heavy industries, an area wherein Pangilinan’s Metro Pacific is also heavily involved. It was then inevitable that the two executives would cross paths once more.
The two conglomerates were involved in the bidding during the privatization of the National Transmission Corporation (TransCo), and the intramurals leading up became heated. Curiously, the two groups would lose the bidding to another consortium headed by ICTSI’s Ricky Razon, a businessman known to have close ties with then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and another heavy backer of Philippine sports, bankrolling the De La Salle Green Archers in the UAAP.
Things figure to heat up once more as the two groups continue to vie for the same businesses. Just this week, news came out that SMC was interested in buying the MRT from the government; of course, MVP’s Metro Pacific group is also interested in acquiring it.
Some observers say that talk of a rivalry is overplayed, since it’s inevitable that the two corporate giants would want to seek some of the same opportunities in an economy as small as this country’s is. Reporters covering the PBA say that the two men have a cordial relationship; in fact, according to Inquirer columnist Beth Celis, Pangilinan would jokingly call Ang “Don Ramon” during league meetings.
A veteran business reporter said that Ang himself would say that there is no rivalry in interviews. “Ano’ng magagawa ko, kung saan ako pumapasok, sunod siya nang sunod?” Ang reportedly quipped.
But Ang himself has been known to play up the rivalry — when it suits him. In 2009, when the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism released a report about San Miguel placing a secretive offer for Laiban Dam to the MWSS, the conglomerate quickly dismissed the reports as stemming from the Ang-Pangilinan rivalry. Metro Pacific owns Maynilad, a water concessionaire in Metro Manila. San Miguel, however, would later withdraw its offer for the dam.
But while the two tycoons may be involved in one-upmanship in the boardroom, the best manifestation of their rivalry still happens on the basketball court. When Petron and Talk ‘N Text step on the court on Wednesday’s Game Seven in yet another intense battle, we have RSA and MVP to thank.