Jaime Gonzalez: A Renaissance man in real estate

The morning of our interview, Arthaland vice chairman and president Jaime Gonzalez was practicing his cello in his condominium unit at Arya Residences, a stone’s throw away from the company headquarters in the new Arthaland Century Pacific Tower in BGC. He was playing Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. You know this composition — you’ve seen in it countless movies, at weddings, as background to a million scenes that call for classical music.

Arthaland vice chairman and president Jaime Gonzalez: “Our approach to each project is an entirely new approach. We don’t do cookie-cutter deals, so the planning process is always exciting for me.”

By his estimate he was doing pretty well, considering he had never held a cello against his chest or a bow in his hand, or didn’t know how to read music notes, until three years ago when he decided he would learn to play the instrument.

 “I want to learn something new every day,” he says with a smile.

His desire to play the cello (he briefly considered the violin) has resulted in the past three years to weekly lessons of three solid hours without pause.

Gonzalez is not a young man trying to find out what he wants, but his thirst for knowledge makes him look young in years, taught him patience and to recognize the potential in other people. It has also made him enjoy teaching his employees (majority of which are below 30) things that have nothing to do with work or real estate.

Perhaps he first learned these things when he was at De La Salle University where he graduated cum laude with a BS Commerce degree, or when he was at Harvard Business School for his MBA, or during his years at SyCip Gorres Velayo & Co. (SGV & Co.) or his years brokering financial deals and partnerships. Or maybe he was taught by his 105-year-old father, a real character who took up his master of laws at 90 years old.

“We have a hands-on approach in training our people and the discipline we instill in them. We teach them that there’s got to be a better way of doing this — you work better, you improve yourself.”

For people who know Gonzalez, his learning to play the cello was not at all surprising. In fact, it was the sort of thing they’ve come to expect from him. Eight years ago, he went on a sabbatical and lived in Salamanca, Spain for three months to learn Spanish. For 10 weeks, he had private lessons for six hours every day and another four hours of homework.

“It was the best of times,” he says. “In the morning, from 6:30 to 8:30, I would be on the phone with Manila to continue managing the company, then I’d have my lesson from 9 to 3 and after that, lunch with my wife, have a nap and start my homework at 10 p.m. until 1:30 a.m.”

That was his life for 10 weeks. After that, he read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in its original language (he had read years before the English translation).

“Language itself is good for the brain, it exercises both the right and the left parts of the brain because language has a logical structure and then there’s the intuitive part.”

His other interests include collecting old maps — his oldest is a 1534 of Southeast Asia. He is also president of the Philippine Map Collectors Society whose average age, he jokes, “is probably 92 years old.” He swims regularly and loves history.

History led him to the chronicles of Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian scholar who joined Magellan’s spice expedition, which led them to the Philippines and Pigafetta was one of the few men who returned to Spain three years later — without Magellan — having successfully circumnavigated the globe.

“In a talk I gave recently with some Muslim professors from Univesity of the Philippines’ Institute of Islamic Studies, I said, ‘What is the connection between Sulu, Pigafetta and Gabrielle Garcia Marquez?’ Garcia Marquez did a review of Pigafetta’s book which included Sulu and the Sultan of Brunei in his chronicles. As you know, Garcia Marquez is the foremost proponent of magic realism. Of course Pigafetta exaggerated and we wouldn’t call it magic realism, but rather ‘marvelous realism’ because the underlying facts are still accurate. Garcia Marquez was happy with Pigafetta’s book.”

Gonzalez is well known for mentoring his employees at Arthaland. He’s always on the lookout for the future — what he will leave behind at work and in his personal life.

In a way, he’s shaped Arthaland in that mold, too. “Arthaland is unique in that all of our projects are green and sustainable. We’re the only one with projects that have dual certification, both with the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the Philippine Green Building Council’s Building for Ecologically Responsive Design Excellence (BERDE) programs. It’s a commitment that we made from the very beginning because the biggest challenge the world is facing right now is climate change and the environment,” he says. “We want to make sure that we contribute to protecting the environment and that’s why all of our projects are sustainable.”

That includes Arya Residences and Arthaland Century Pacific Tower in BGC; Savya Financial Center in Arca South, Taguig; Cebu Exchange in Cebu City; and Sevina Park in Laguna.

Savya Financial Center in Arca South, Taguig

According to Gonzalez, Cebu Exchange, a 38-storey tower designed by Architecture International, Ltd. on an 8,400-sqm. property, has a gross floor area of almost 11 hectares. “That’s equivalent to three regular buildings. We have three mega floors with each half a hectare in size, so you need a telescope to see your colleagues,” he jokes. “It lends itself to BPO operations which likes to have everyone that’s working to be visible by the supervisors. That’s why we’ve been able to sell those floors now.”

One project that serves a wonderful purpose for the future is Sevina Park’s cluster of dorms in Biñan, Laguna, adjacent to the De La Salle University campus. “We’ve delivered 348 beds in this cluster. We’ve built a really nice facility for the students and faculty. In fact, when our friends from La Salle saw the dorms, they said, ‘These are a hundred times better than what students have now.’ The clusters are built around a courtyard where they can just sit and enjoy the grass, it has state-of-the-art security and an environment that’s conducive to learning.”

Sevina Park in Laguna is an 8.1 hectare development master-planned by Sasaki Associates with limited-edition designer villas by Leandro V.  Locsin Partners.

The student dorms will be rented out and Arthaland retains ownership. This project is part of a bigger development of about 8.1 hectares. “We’ve provided 60 percent of the whole land area to open space; it will have walkways, bicycle paths and nature. We’ve just launched Sevina Park Villas, which is composed of 108 townhouse villas. They will obviously be more expensive than the residences for students and each cluster of villas will have their own private courtyards.”

What does Gonzalez want Arthaland’s buildings to say of the company, of its philosophy? “Our philosophy is, it’s not only about money. You’ve got to leave something behind. In this company, I won’t harvest the benefits from all my work, it really is for our children and grandchildren. We want to leave something for them and what is that? The environment. It goes beyond just pure business.

 “Our buildings are the best in class. We give the highest quality and yet they’re sustainable, which makes them more expensive to build, and we don’t necessarily add a premium to our price because it’s market driven. So those who benefit from the sustainability are the ones who buy and occupy the spaces.”

An example, he says, is the roof of Arya, “which used new materials and techniques. There are two materials where air is injected in between so it doesn’t reduce the amount of sunlight but reduces the intensity of the heat, etc. Residents save about 25 percent of their power costs. That doesn’t go to us, it goes to them.”

Each of Arthaland’s buildings, he says, costs less to live in because of this. “Arya was the first and only LEED certified (in residential condos in the entire country). The thinking of other developers is that if they can sell their units anyway, why should they spend additional money for the building to be sustainable?”

The Po family of Century Pacific Group, who are majority shareholders, “are very supportive and share the same vision. In fact, before they invested, I met with Richard Po four or five times and we just talked about our business philosophy, not about the transaction. We found out we both wanted to do the same thing with this company.”

What about future joint ventures with other companies? “The lessons I’ve learned in this business is that there are different approaches and one has to be flexible. We always structure an agreement with our partners that makes sense to both sides. We don’t have a formula, we try to understand what they want out of this thing. We always leave something on the table for the other side,” Gonzalez says.

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