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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Profiles : 10 Pacific Rim Giants Tread Own Paths to Influence : Jaime Zobel de Ayala: Roots in Aristocracy

May 21, 1991|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — One is the illegitimate son of a wealthy industrialist. The foundation of another's fortune was a long-ago U.S.-backed loan.

A third is a notorious high-stakes gambler liable to risk millions of dollars in a day at the racetrack, while yet another furnishes his house in plastic.

A capitalist who backed a revolution is on the list, as is a refugee from communism who is now devoting much of his energy to courting his giant Communist neighbors.

They're all among the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Asia--10 titans of the Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly, several of them have extremely close ties to the political leaders of the region. Five are ethnic Chinese. Six were born to wealth, but four others started from little or nothing.

Meet a diverse group of business leaders likely to continue having a strong influence on the shape of the region:

He is universally known as "Don Jaime," a polite reference to his family's 18th-Century Spanish aristocratic forebears. By whatever name, Jaime Zobel de Ayala nominally heads what is probably the richest and most powerful family in this largely feudal country run by rich and powerful families.

It was Don Jaime, now 57, who helped turn his ancestors' vast swamps and scrubland outside Manila into what is now the Philippine capital's main business and commercial district, Makati. He built bustling Ayala Avenue, Manila's combined Wall Street and Fifth Avenue, flanked it with Ayala-built office towers and shopping malls and surrounded them with Ayala-developed residential complexes. All on Ayala-owned land. All with Ayala-imposed zoning regulations. And despite a battered economy, the largest private landowners in Manila have only prospered under President Corazon Aquino.

That is no coincidence. Unlike many of the caciques-- the landed Spanish gentry who have dominated Philippine business since colonial times--the Zobel de Ayalas mostly managed to fend off the depredations of Aquino's corrupt predecessor, Ferdinand E. Marcos, through what Don Jaime has called "a policy of no compromise." And he subsequently kept the bulk of his business assets in the Philippines instead of shifting them abroad when Marcos and many of his cronies fled the country in February, 1986.

A pronounced nationalist, Don Jaime with his wife, Bea, marched in anti-Marcos rallies in the so-called people power revolution that brought Aquino to power. Bea was later named the first curator of the Malacanang Palace museum, which features such Marcos memorabilia as Imelda Marcos' famed shoe collection. Don Jaime helped organize Makati businessmen to publicly endorse Aquino after a 1989 coup nearly toppled her. He remains a close friend and behind-the-scenes adviser to the president.

Today, under Don Jaime's cautious management style, the 157-year-old publicly listed Ayala Corp. is a diversified business empire, grounded in real estate but with huge holdings in food manufacturing, banking, export-oriented electronics, financial services, insurance and more. Analysts say a business group built on land is less vulnerable to political and economic downturns. And with low debt, and major expansion under way, it is one of the bluest of the Philippines' blue chip companies.

Critics say the patrician, soft-spoken amateur photographer is something of a dilettante, charming but no intellectual heavyweight. They see him more as a public front for other family members, fine for supporting ballet and kissing women's hands, but hardly a corporate titan. Still, Don Jaime has survived bitter family intrigues and political turmoil that sent other Philippine families running for cover.

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