It's difficult to imagine now, but the Philippines was for a time the toast of Asia. Just visit YouTube and type the words "Manila, Queen of the Pacific" and "Old Manila", so you can view videos that can give an idea on what I'm talking about.
The reality now, however, is that the situation is entirely different--the Philippines has become a laggard of Asia. It's still somewhat difficult to accept the truth even if it's staring at you in the face, or in my case, when it is uttered to you in the face.
I had this experience last week when BT (or telecom firm British Telecom) invited media representatives from Asia, including myself, to their regional headquarters in Hong Kong for a press briefing. In that event, BT showcased their transformation from an old telco company to a global provider of IT services.
During an interview with Allen Ma, head of BT Asia-Pacific, I asked him what he or his company intends to do with their local operations here. Some backgrounder here... BT maintained a small, low-key office in the Philippines before it purchased Singapore-based Frontline Technologies, which in turn has a controlling interest in Sun Microsystems Philippines (SunPhil). Thus, BT is now the majority owner of the local Sun subsidiary.
According to Ma, the company intends to preserve the current set-up in the country. This means that BT, even if it's the majority stockholder of SunPhil, will continue to operate separately and will not integrate its business with the Sun subsidiary.
Ma said the same thing about SunPhil's leadership structure so long-time managing director Cynthia R. Mamon will still carry on her duties, while BT Philippines managing head Nilo Cruz will mind his own business growing BT's relationship with local firms. Cruz, by the way, is the former head of Sun's competitor, HP Philippines.
But, as to how exactly will BT implement its strategy in the country, Ma had no definite answer. "I honestly don't know yet," he told us, noting that not much investment had flowed to the Philippines compared to other countries in the last decade or so. "I still remember 30 or 40 years ago when the Philippines was the center of Asia, where regional headquarters were located such as the World Health Organization. Now, things are different."
Ma, however, cited country's burgeoning BPO (business process outsourcing) industry. "Perhaps, BT can tap this market and help local companies grow their business so they can become multinationals as well."
Without this clear picture of the market, Ma said BT isn't pouring new investments in the market other than what it had already put into SunPhil through Frontline. But a subordinate, Paul Migliorini, director for strategy and business development at BT Asia-Pacific, said the company treats the Philippines as an important market and is always on the lookout for investment opportunities.
My reading on this is that BT's acquisition of Frontline suddenly shoved the British firm on local soil sooner than it had originally intended. And unless the Philippines helps bring itself back to its former glory, companies like BT will always have reservations in going all-out with their investments in the country.