Willie Uy: ‘There is great fulfillment in building for the working class’

Willibaldo “Willie” Uy likes to go where the crowds are, in districts that are densely populated, and traffic is heavy for both humans and vehicles. At least, that’s where he likes to build.

As president and CEO of 8990 Holdings, Willie likes to start communities in places that very few others are interested in — places like Tondo.

It’s a fact that Tondo is Manila’s largest and most populated district and was home to a landfill for more than 40 years, a garbage dump whose fumes crossed municipal lines and literally became a Smokey Mountain. For decades, Tondo was preceded by its reputation for criminality, poverty and tough living conditions. But perhaps this is no longer the case. Smokey Mountain was closed in the ‘90s, the slums were cleared and in their place the government and private sector built mass housing.

On a 10-hectare property where Procter and Gamble’s warehouses once stood, there is a community that’s fast becoming its own district and it’s called Urban Deca Homes Tondo Manila. 8990 acquired the land six years ago and is constructing 14 condominium buildings of about 12 stories each, and a mall. Each building will have 1,000 units. You can imagine the population once all of them are completed.

Is this a move to gentrify Tondo? Willie says, “Our investment here will probably be close to P3 billion once we’re finished so we might as well try to gentrify the entire area.”

He says that based on their demographics, people who live in Tondo want to stay in Tondo. “They want to go back to their roots but to live in better places with proper security. Also, people who conduct business in the piers, in Escolta or Binondo will find Urban Deca Homes accessible. And if you drive straight on the highway you hit Navotas, Caloocan and Malabon.”

The units are around 30 sqm. and the model unit he shows us could very well be in Ortigas or Makati. “That’s what 8990 wants. Wherever we build, we want to offer our buyers aspirational spaces. We have about 30 to 40 percent millennials and we’re getting a lot of interest because what else is there after Tondo? It’s Roxas Blvd. where the prices are so high.”

8990 Holdings started its real estate business with horizontal housing in the Visayas and Mindanao, where it built its reputation in the affordable sector. “About five years ago, there was a move to go into medium-rise buildings because land was getting expensive. Land in urban areas was scarce and yet it’s the main place where people are working and we thought of putting up walk-ups or five-story buildings.”
In 2016, 8990 completed its first high-rise — a 40-story condominium on EDSA near Shaw Blvd. Called Urban Tower Edsa, it was designed for the working class, the bus and MRT commuters.

It has close to a thousand units the size of a small bedroom at 13 sqm., — just half a meter bigger than a parking space in a Makati condo — with a toilet and shower, AC and a kitchen counter with a microwave but no stovetop.

“Why that small? We call them halfway homes. Most of the people who bought have houses in Cavite, Laguna or Bulacan. Having a unit on EDSA took away between four and six hours of travel time every day. The savings from transportation costs range from P6,000 to P9,000 a month for some people — that money can instead go to their amortization, and they own an asset and have a halfway house for the working week.”
Each unit cost P990,000 when they started selling Urban Tower Edsa; the last unit was sold for P1.7 million and close to P2 million for second sellers. “We originally thought it would take us four years to sell but it took us less than three because the location was about 50 meters from the Shaw MRT station and the building fronts EDSA where all the buses are.”

Here the company built Argo Hotel on four of the higher floors. Willie says hotel guests are people who need to conduct business in Ortigas Center or Makati. Argo is the third in 8990’s hotel portfolio, after Azalea Boracay and Azalea Baguio.

They are also building Urban Towers Ortigas on a 14-hectare property (the size of which is a little smaller than Rockwell Center). “We want to go where it’s really crowded because we know people want to stay in the area. Our Ortigas property used to be owned by Consolidated Tobacco and is located just before Cainta. We will have 17 buildings there, 14 to 18 stories high. Before we even started construction, two buildings, which will be completed in 2020, were sold in a year to BPO workers. Now there’s a third party talking to us about putting up BPO buildings because they want their offices to be near their employees, to be within walking distance especially in times of typhoon. We are having our designers study if we could put a commercial building on top of the mall, which will be run by Yuma, the same group that will run the mall in Urban Deca Tondo.”

In the pipeline are condos near Taft Ave., Cubao, Commonwealth, and Juan Luna in Chinatown. The last will have warehouses — for the Chinese businessmen selling at 168 Mall.

Willie says, “We make decisions fast in 8990 and I have a free hand to do projects that I want and these are projects that hit the heart.” This has always been the case for him — to build for the working class and the poor.
Willie spent 38 years in PHINMA prior to 8990 and remembers one piece of land that he sold that could have been a foreshadowing of where he would eventually end up.

“It’s funny and maybe serendipitous that I met 8990 chairman emeritus Luis Yu on Oct. 31, 1997. In July that year, the Asian crisis hit. PHINMA had a property to sell in Cebu Business Park and that property is now the head office of 8990. Parang destiny di ba?

“In PHINMA, I started their property business. I came from the ultra high-end market — Forbes Park, Mariposa Villas, Manila Polo Club townhouses. Then we went to mass housing and I introduced medium-rise buildings in Metro Manila. I gave the developers in Cavite and Laguna a run for their money because I was selling houses in Metro Manila at prices lower than in the provinces.

“Around 2009 or 2010, we went into socialized housing in Novaliches, QC, starting with then Mayor Sonny Belmonte. We relocated informal settlers into medium-rise buildings and introduced building management. They were paying P50 a month for estate management, they had security guards which they were not used to (in the slums) — it gave them the feeling na umangat sila sa buhay, they had sanitary toilets which they did not have before, we brought peace and order into their lives, we brought in value formation.

“There were no protests from the informal settlers to relocate them. We moved them to the side while the other side was being constructed. They saw with their own eyes their future homes rising. It wasn’t free, it was socialized housing. They would pay P1,607 a month for 30 years. When they were living in the slums, they had to pay their ‘protectors’ P2,000 a month. I came back two years later and there already was a small public market, maganda, malinis. The project was so successful I was invited by the United Nations to speak about it because they wanted to replicate it in other places.”

Obviously, 8990 is a company with a huge capital to invest in real estate, why did he choose a place like Tondo? “The rich can take care of themselves; so many companies are building for them. The poor, they have limited choices if at all. There is great fulfillment in building for the poor, for the working class, in making life easier them.

“Money never attracted me. I was very comfortable with the way I was being compensated. The environment at PHINMA was great, the chairman was like a father to me. When I was invited to join 8990 in 2012, I realized we had the same vision, shared the same passion. I joined full time in 2016 when I finally retired from PHINMA.”

A true-blue Manila boy, Willie was raised in a house on Leon Guinto St., formerly Pennsylvania Ave., and schooled on Taft Avenue at De La Salle University.

His father Harry Uy “came to Manila from Hong Kong at 13 years old and sold fountain pens on Rizal Ave. He also became a bodigero for rich relatives.” Later, Harry became known as the “Cosmetic King” of the 1950s, introducing the brand Max Factor to the Philippines. “He used to have a small counter at Aguinaldo’s department store in Cubao, which was the Rustan’s of its day. He was the exclusive distributor for 27 years until Procter & Gamble bought it in the US. Then Revlon asked him if he was interested in taking over their distributorship and he did.”
There was a bit of a rebel in Harry Uy just as there was in Willie when he was younger. Harry went against his parents’ wishes to marry a Chinese girl. Instead, he married Julieta Joven from Bacolor, Pampanga. “The Chinese were were very clannish at the time. He was ostracized for marrying a Filipina,” Willie says.

And guess who introduced and matched his parents? None other than Henry Sy Sr., who was their neighbor. “When we were five or six years old, my brother and I were tutored in Chinese by uncle Henry Sy’s wife (Felicidad Sy). At uncle Henry’s funeral in January, we were reminiscing about the old days in Manila. My father was the one taking pictures of the Sys on their honeymoon. Uncle Henry and my dad shared an office in Escolta in the Madrigal Building.”

So, why didn’t he follow in his father’s footsteps and built a cosmetics empire? “We’re four children, I’m the second. I always thought that my eldest brother was the favorite because the Chinese think of the firstborn that way; my sister was also a favorite because she was the only girl; my other brother because he was the youngest. Ako lang yung walang position,” he says with a laugh. “So I was a bit more rebelde and I told my dad that since my eldest brother was running the show, I didn’t want to work for him. I told him, ‘I want to be my own boss.’”
And what a life Willie Uy has built in real estate — his own and those whose lives he has changed for the better.

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Visit the author’s travel blog at www.findingmyway.net. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @iamtanyalara.