Of start-ups and scale-ups


People know him as the Chairman of the Board of The Medical City. Not too many people, however, know that Jose Xavier “Eckie” B. Gonzales also owns or has interests in businesses that are into remittance, power generation and even farming.

If you receive remittances regularly from a loved one who works abroad, you would probably have gone to the nearest USSC (Universal Storefront Services Corporation) outlet to get your remittance via Western Union. Gonzales acquired and became the majority owner of USSC, which was formerly known as RCPI, in 2005. It is the largest Western Union remittance partner in the Philippines with more than 800 stores and 3,000 subagents nationwide.

“We pay out something like nine percent of all the remittances. We have our own mobile app and digital wallet and we move something like P200 billion annually within our network,” Gonzales related in an interview with BusinessMirror.

In 2015, he also developed a 60-megawatt run-of-river project in the Amburayan River in Benguet. Run-of-river hydroelectric systems are hydroelectric systems that harvest the energy from the flowing water to generate electricity in the absence of a large dam and reservoir.

“It is a P12 billion financing project where you let the water move into an eight-kilometer tunnel. It moves fast and drops 250 meters down to a turbine which generates power and sends the power via wires to a substation in Bacnotan, La Union which is over 24 kilometers away,” he related.

Healthcare businesses

Gonzales also has interests in other healthcare businesses, artificial intelligence and real estate development. He is also a strong partner to his wife Maria Olivia “Moppet” C. Gonzales, who has an agricultural farm that supplies Go Salads, a business run by one of his sons.

“So I don’t know if I am an accidental entrepreneur. I started out with intrapreneurial skills within the Lopez Group in developing their businesses,” he said.

Gonzales related that when he graduated in 1976, he worked for SGV and Bancom. He even had the opportunity to work under Manuel V. Pangilinan. After working for a while in Hong Kong, he moved to the United States and stayed there from 1978 to 1992, where he started his family.

While in the US, Gonzales studied at Harvard Business School and then joined Chemical Bank where he worked for 12 years. While at Chemical Bank, Gonzales worked in different business units – as a lending officer, from leasing to investments, transaction and cash management banking and then retail operations.

“I did all the management rounds from the ground up,” he said.


In 1992, Gonzales decided to bring his family home to the Philippines. Since he was already 38 years old at that time, he felt that he needed to return to the Philippines so that he could decide whether he should continue his career or to go into business.

Upon his return, he was hired by Geny Lopez first as Chief Finance Officer (CFO) and then later as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Benpres which is now known as Lopez Holdings Corporation.

“At Benpres, they used to have a term called intrapreneurship, meaning trying to create an entrepreneurial environment within a company. And because this was the holding company, there were a lot of opportunities to start-up or scale-up businesses,” he said.

When he initially joined the Lopez Group in March 1993, Gonzales was tasked to look at trying to create the alternative carrier to PLDT. At that time, the Lopezes had just purchased RCPI and were looking to partner with Globe Mackay (now known as Globe Telecom), Eastern Telecoms and Telstra of Australia to set up Bayantel.

Service areas

However, the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos decided then that it would assign the new telecom players with separate landline service areas. Gonzales and his team decided to choose an area in Quezon City and in Tacloban, which to him “had missionary aspects as well as commercial aspects.”

“As you know, Bayantel did not end quite well. Its biggest issue had to do with interconnection because the regulatory environment was very weak and so the brand was damaged because the way to interconnect was only through PLDT,” he said. “And effectively, the only guy that was able to survive other than PLDT was Globe because it had a base in Makati and it also made some good moves in terms of cellular telecommunications.”

Gonzales related that it was also around in 1993 that the Lopez Group decided to consolidate all their assets so it had Meralco, First Holdings, ABS CBN, Sky Cable, “a bit of Bayantel and we raised IPO money to expand and that was in the heyday of the emerging markets starting from 1993 up to 1997.”

“During that time, from 1992 to 1993, when Benpres went public up to 1997, it was a high growth area for emerging markets and in that period of time, Benpres expanded its footprint,” he related. “And as CFO and then COO, I was pushing concessions and new businesses.”


One of the concessions that Gonzales successfully negotiated back in 1993 was for the North Luzon Expressway where the Lopez Group built initially a connection from Tipo and Subic and then rehabilitated the expressway in the process. The Group partnered with French firm Egis for the project.

The Lopez Group also made a bid on the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and they won the western concession, which they named Maynilad Water. This was subsequently acquired by the Metro Pacific Group.

“We also funded First Holdings’ expansion in power generation, and the funding enabled them to work on their gas projects, First Gas, First Generation and these were the companies that they set up. We also funded the expansion of Bayantel which did not work out well and then we also did Rockwell. So in the case of Rockwell, there is a bit connection to The Medical City,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales pointed out that he and his boss shared “a common mission that in any development, there should be a social anchor.” The Lopezes focused on the Rockwell plant in Bel-air Village and the Meralco compound in Ortigas – one area was 15.5 hectares and the other was 27 hectares. Both agreed that the latter would be an ideal site for a hospital like The Medical City.

“As you know, Dr. Alfredo Bengzon is my uncle and at that time he was the Executive Vice President of The Medical City and the Dean of the Ateneo Professional Schools and we decided to cultivate a partnership so there was a donated land from Meralco, for The Medical City and the Ateneo Medical School,” he said.

Mini city

The Lopezes also developed Rockwell Power Plant in Makati and transformed it into a mini city “where you could live, work and play.”

“Then we created the first rack of residences and then we sold the piece of land to Nestle and PHINMA and they put up their headquarters there and that was what started Rockwell with the Ateneo Professional Schools as social anchor,” Gonzales added.

To fund all these projects, Gonzales related that Benpres had to rationalize their holdings first. With the Lopezes owning 26 percent of First Philippine Holdings and both Benpres and First Holdings owning 20% of Meralco, he said the Group consolidated their holdings of Meralco with First Holdings and ended up owning 45 percent of First Philippine Holdings and 100 percent of ABS CBN which was subsequently sold down through IPO where now the Lopezes own 52 percent.

The Group, however, had to undergo another round of rationalization because of the financial crisis in 1997. The Lopezes decided to disposition of its stake in PCI Bank in 1999 which precipitated consolidation of the banking industry.  This helped the company replenish its capital.

“I left the Lopez Group in 2002. I retired. So my view is that I have always been a business builder and of course with my financing background I have a good understanding of what it takes to make businesses work better,” Gonzales said. “I was at the holding company level at that time so I could only do so much in terms of creating strategic partnerships, doing fundraising as well as rationalizing the portfolio of the businesses that the Lopezes had.”


In 2003, Gonzales bought a business that he had started up under Benpres in 2001 together with an Indian partner called CCube, a call center that scaled up to 1,800 employees and was located in an old textile plant in Eastwood.

“It’s interesting that a lot of my start-ups or scale-ups had to do with spin offs that were not core businesses of the Lopez Group. I ended up acquiring and sort of funding them. I took over the call center, and then sold my stake in it in 2005 and I ended up buying RCPI which subsequently became USSC,” he said.

“And then starting around the late 2008, I ended up investing in The Medical City shares where the Lopezes also invested so I ended up becoming a 10 percent stakeholder before I brought in another partner to scale-up and we put up some investments in 2013,” he added.


When asked how is able to manage all of his businesses at the same time, Gonzales said that “this will be an impossible task if you don’t empower, decentralize, engage, allow teams and people to express themselves.”

“Unless you have teams that you can empower and trust, you won’t be able to move forward,” he said. “You also need different viewpoints. I know I have strong opinions and thoughts but you have to be able to listen and encourage dissent or an alternate point of view.”

While he admits though that he is forever in a problem solving mode, he needs to discuss these problems with people who can come up with constructive solutions.

“And because I am oriented towards action and constructive solutions, you need a North Star vision of each business that you can follow so you can cut through all the chase and focus because strategy is really a matter of choice,” he said. “Once patient partnership, financial empowerment, or a sustainable environment become a well-articulated vision, passion and direction flow naturally.”

Image courtesy of Mario Babiera

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