Asian Eye Institute president Benjamin K. Liboro believes the institute’s expansion into the middle market is the best way to preserve the legacy of Lopez Group chairman emeritus Oscar M. Lopez (OML).
It was OML who had envisioned bringing world-class eye care to the Philippines and making that quality of eye care accessible to as many Filipinos as possible. With the help of his personal eye doctor, Massachusetts-based Felipe Tolentino who recruited eight Harvard-trained Filipino doctors in 2001 to serve as the core ophthalmologists of Asian Eye, OML succeeded in creating a reputable center of excellence in eye care.
However, by and large, Asian Eye remained a premium center serving premium patients. It was only in 2014 when the business case for the midmarket took shape, and its early successes in signing up credible partner institutions bodes well for its future clientele.
“There are just 1,612 members of the Philippine Academy of Ophthalmology and not all of them are practicing. Of those in practice, 70% are in megacities. From that alone, you could see the huge unserved and underserved market that Asian Eye would like to reach,” Liboro says.
It is a bold move for Asian Eye, but Liboro has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
‘Willing to move’
“The longevity of my career, I would think, has been because I was willing to move when nobody else would and go anywhere I was assigned to. I was never afraid to take risks. Sure, I made mistakes, but I learned from them and moved on. I have no respect for people who are so afraid to make mistakes that they don’t take any risks at all.”
With degrees from the Ateneo de Manila University, Universidad de Barcelona and the London Graduate School of Business Studies of the University of London (Master of Science in Business Administration), Liboro moved back to the Philippines in 1979. He had spent seven years abroad, four of them working for an American bank in London. He was immediately recruited into the Strategic Business Group of First Philippine Holdings Corporation (FPH), which was then in expansion mode.
“That period prior to the assassination of Senator (Benigno) Aquino in 1983 was quite interesting. We were operating in an opportunistic environment with a lot of potential for growth,” recalls Liboro.
Middle East projects
FPH went into construction projects in the Middle East, only to lose all its international lines of credit midway. Extraneous circumstances led to the financial crisis, including the devaluation of the peso and the debt moratorium, when the Philippines did not pay any principal on external debt for 90 days.
When the Lopez family returned to FPH after the Edsa Revolution in 1986, FPH had 22 employees left to help them rehabilitate the company. Liboro, together with the late Steve Psinakis, were tasked to recover the bonds posted by FPH for its Middle East projects. They were able to recover most of them over a period of two years.
Basis for LAA
His work at FPH moved him from business development to construction (1987-1989) to manufacturing (1992-1993) to tollway project development (1995-1998), back to business development, back to construction (2004-2007) and then Asian Eye (since 2007), concurrent with being program director of the Lopez Achievement Awards or LAA (since 2001). It was his team that did the research for business excellence frameworks from 1999 to 2000 that became the basis for the LAA.
From 2007 to 2010, Liboro and then Asia Eye manager Anna Karina Gerochi put the house in order, recovering some lost equity with fiscal discipline and beginning the physical expansion of Asian Eye facilities to be able to accommodate and capture more patients through satellite clinics and bigger headquarters. As a result, Asian Eye has been declaring “modest dividends” annually from 2010 until it started funding its expansion in 2015.
In 2013, Gerochi returned to FPH parent and Alwin Sta. Rosa took over at Asian Eye. Together, the new team visualized the future for Asian Eye and found the need to expand its market to remain relevant going forward.
“For many years, Asian Eye stockholders viewed the institute as a social investment. But strategic analyses have shown that it has the capacity to become a real business, a much larger one,” says Liboro.
It was on this basis that Asian Eye raised new capital in 2016 and became a subsidiary of FPH which either bought out or diluted the stake of minority shareholders.
If Asian Eye is successful in its foray into the midmarket, then Liboro believes it will be relevant not only to its parent firm in terms of its revenue contribution, but more so to its patients who will receive quality eye care and treatments that they can afford.
“We are now creating something relevant and permanent, which is the best way of preserving the legacy of OML. You don’t need to build a monument to do that,” he says.
He advises Lopez Link readers: “Don’t be afraid to take risks. What’s the worst that can happen? Do everything diligently and conscientiously, so that if you make mistakes, they are not fatal mistakes. Learn from them and don’t repeat. The millennials are like that. They’re not afraid. They don’t put artificial constraints on their dreams.”
Liboro feels that the people he has mentored over the years have done very well “precisely because I was able to trust them and therefore let them make their own mistakes. Some leaders are so afraid of making mistakes that they don’t let their people grow.”