Tong Padilla on Rockwell’s success: ‘We do things beyond the ordinary’
July 14, 2017 By

Rockwell Land Corp. president Nestor “Tong” Padilla says, “We have created a brand and we need to keep building on this reputation. We have to have more ‘Rockwell junkies’ (people who are very loyal to Rockwell and love that they live in its developments).”  Photo by WALTER BOLLOZOS

Yesterday was a great day for Rockwell Land Corp. president Nestor “Tong” Padilla. On Friday, Rockwell signed a joint venture with Mitsui Fudosan Group, one of Japan’s leading real estate companies. Mitsui develops office, residential and retail projects, as well as hotels and resorts.

The man who has shepherded Rockwell since 1995 says modestly, “Mitsui’s very deliberate when they enter a new market. They met us a year ago and we said, ‘Our projects might be too small for you,’ but they kept coming back. Finally we said, let’s talk.”

He adds that there is no shortage of interest among foreign investors to come into the Philippine market. There is no shortage of local competition either — and this company partnered with Rockwell.

Tong explains, “We have created a brand and we need to keep building on this reputation. We have to have more ‘Rockwell junkies’ (people who are very loyal to Rockwell and love that they live in its developments).”

Tong is an expert in building townships, having done it in Indonesia where he worked for 12 years and prior to that in Malaysia.

Looking out of his office window and pointing to the buildings, he seems to say, “Look how far Rockwell has come!”

How far, indeed! I happen to witness Rockwell’s early stages, having interviewed Tong when Rockwell built — from its own piggy bank — the EDSA flyover ramp that takes vehicles from the south into Rockwell in 2002. It was a project they could have abandoned because the year before, Rockwell experienced its most difficult year, but Tong said back then that they had a bigger commitment to the community, to make Rockwell more accessible and provide an alternative route.

That may have been the last time I saw him, 15 years ago, and we both seem to remember that interview very well. Maybe because we had the pictorial up on the ramp when it was just about to open to the public.

“Back then, we were only 50 to 100 in the company. Now, we are almost a thousand.  We’re more than 10 times the size, which means we can do so much more.”

It’s not an understatement. In the past 22 years, Rockwell Center has been built to near completion, with just the Proscenium under construction; it opened in 2000 the Power Plant Mall, and completed the two blocks of residential buildings, office buildings; and expanded outside Makati to go into Quezon City and Pasig. It’s newest project in Metro Manila is The Arton on Katipunan corner Aurora Blvd.

And now, also Cebu. “When we started our first project in Cebu (a 3.2-hectare development in Lahug), the market didn’t know us. My friends were teasing me, ‘Tong, grabe ka naman, presyong ginto ang condo mo.’ But now, they’re the ones telling us, ‘Can you build bigger units?’ Because they want to move there as their primary home. Somebody wants us to build a four-bedroom unit!

“Three weeks ago, I was there and I asked my sales people, why do they like it? ‘Because it feels like a resort.’ I said, that’s why it’s presyong ginto, this is right in the city! I thought, wait till we actually do the resort! That will blow their minds.”


THE PHILIPPINE STAR: What is the big picture for Rockwell Land?

NESTOR “TONG” PADILLA: The big picture hasn’t changed. We still want to build projects that set the standard. We want to do a better condo, provide a better retail experience. When we first met, we were very small. Now, the scale of things we’re going to be doing is huge — it’s different projects that cater to new experiences. Our Mactan resort project is very exciting, it’s about five hectares. We’ve been planning this for six to eight months. We hope to start before the end of this year and launch it to the public first quarter of next year.

Is Rockwell Center now complete except for the Proscenium?

We’ll start delivery next year of the first two buildings. Then the other two towers soon, and in 2020 we will finish the tallest of the five buildings.

There’s residential and some retail component, which is most likely F&B because that’s attached to the Performing Arts Theater, which will have 750 seats and it’s all natural acoustics, unlike some theaters now where it’s all electronically enhanced. Ours is natural acoustics, which is good and bad. It’s good if you’re a good singer, you want it to be pure; but if you’re a lousy singer, mahuhuli ka. The distance from the stage to the last seat — if you’ve been to our chapel, it’s just that distance.

I’ve noticed that Rockwell residents are some of the most loyal I’ve met.

We call them “Rockwell junkies.” We live here. My house is just there in Bel-Air, but we moved here when the first buildings were completed. My kids were probably 6, 9 and 12.

I told them later, we’re going to go back to the house. They said, “Dad, you can go back, we’re staying here in Rockwell.”

Are all your projects high-end, all communities and not single buildings?

We tried to promote Rockwell Primaries, but it’s still fairly high up there but more affordable luxury. When people buy in Primaries, they just say, oh I’m buying Rockwell. They expect the same services and quality and we deliver those, but maybe the location is not the same as Rockwell Center because it’s a different price point.

When the location makes it impossible to build a mixed-use community, we build a residential project like in Santolan. Where we think the access is okay, we build a residential tower with a retail component with a supermarket and restaurants. We respect the neighborhood, we don’t want to put in something that’s so dense that it will create traffic.

Hence the ramp to Rockwell Center back in 2000. We almost went broke building that thing (laughs)! Then the market collapsed.

How did Rockwell avert a collapse?

We truly believed we were creating a brand. So, yes, while the market turned against us, I think with the support of our principals and employees…. We had to tighten our belt. At our Christmas party, our giveaways were fire extinguishers. That is the true spirit of a loyal Rockwell employee. But we truly felt the market was there.

Manansala was the perfect solution, it was smaller units. It’s like having a store and my remaining inventory when the market collapsed was Giorgio Armani size large. Nobody could afford it. So we needed Armani Exchange — not as pricey but still quality and with small, medium and large sizes.

You must be a very patient man to oversee this community grow.

If you’re married to my wife, you have to be patient (laughs).

What have you learned in 22 years? Both from your experience in Indonesia and in the Philippines.

The basics are the same. You can’t just built buildings, you really have to build communities — it’s all about people. If you’re a developer and you’re going to concentrate just on the bricks and mortar — well, you can be successful and probably that’s why others are bigger than us. We have a different view of what we’re doing, it’s not just bricks and mortar, it’s how we build a nice community to make them loyalists.

Rockwell has one of the most picturesque skylines in Metro Manila. Every Christmas I see those lights outlining the buildings. When did you start doing that?

When the first four buildings were completed, maybe 15 years ago. Pinanindigan na namin ‘yan (laughs). You know why? Here’s the story. Kids don’t lie, right? When the say pangit, it’s really ugly. When they say it’s great, it’s really great. The best compliments come from children, not from adults kasi pwede kang bolahin, di ba? First kid compliment I got,  we were building Rockwell Drive and the first four buildings were already there. My kids were going to school in at and they have this yearly gathering where children from different IS schools in Asia get together. So we were asked to host a few kids. From Makati Avenue where the school was then, we would turn into Rockwell Drive, and the kids from Singapore or wherever, would just say, “Whoa, this is different!” That to me was a compliment.

So, the lights. When they were older, my kids studied abroad. One of my son Nick’s classmates said, “Nick, do you know when I feel I’m home? It’s when the plane starts descending and  I see the lights of Rockwell.”

These small things make you want to do even more. Kaya pinanindigan na namin yang lights on all the buildings. Now The Grove has those same lights.

How is your land bank for Rockwell? You’re obviously expanding since you’re going outside Metro Manila.

Rockwell has always been light, but I think over the next five years, we will have to be more deliberate in building it up. We have land to develop in the next five to eight years. But we need to build it up to 20 percent of our total assets and we should be able to do that.

Are there other cities you’re building in apart from Cebu?

Iloilo, because that’s where my bosses are from. We’ve looked at it, but haven’t yet found the right entry. I think beach resorts are what excite us. Maybe because I’m getting old,  I want to be in shorts rather than a suit.

Development is a very invigorating job. Can you imagine building a golf course? Is that a job? Last Friday, we went to Palawan, it was a one-day trip and all we did was look at beach properties.

Are tourism destinations part of Rockwell’s long-term strategy?

I think it’s one of the pillars. We have our high-end residential developments, which can be high-rise and mid-rise, then you have retail, office, and then resorts. It won’t be easy because everybody’s going there. You have to find again how do we differentiate ourselves? As we always say, “We go beyond the ordinary.”

We start with the very strong belief that everything we do has to be beyond the ordinary. Even with my wife, I try to be that. I try to talk to her in a way that would inspire her. It’s the subconscious that you have to work on. And that’s contagious. Everything you think about and do can be beyond the ordinary. You work on people’s subconscious and hearts and you will make it.

How is your new project, The Arton, beyond the ordinary?

First of all, everyone knows the site. So many people have nice memories of that property — the Ramos property. Everybody knows Katipunan. We want parents from Davao, Cagayan, to be able to feel comfortable that when their kids from the probinsiya are studying here, they’re safe and in a good environment. I grew up in Negros and my dad asked me, where do you want to study? I felt secure when I lived in a dorm inside Ateneo. But how many slots are available? So that’s one market.

The other one is people who want to have a Grove-like experience. It’s for young starters, too, since we have one-  and two-bedroom units.

You have a very young sales and marketing staff here.

The average age is 28. It would have been 24 were it not for me! The newbies of Rockwell, they’re the future of this company.

How does it feel…

To be old? (laughs)

No, but to look back now because you were the one that oversaw everything, you rode out through one economic crisis after another.

I think that’s the best testimony to all of us. When Tracey (marketing head) will have children, she will be able to say, “Your mom worked in Rockwell and helped build this.”

To me, one of the best things about this occupation is that you give a sense of pride to your children. Whether it’s the cinemas, the VIP treatment in the mall, the flat-rate parking, the customer service, the small things. That’s why we have such loyal residents and clients.

Is there a Rockwell look in terms of architecture, a Rockwell aesthetic? The buildings look different, but you also can guess this is a Rockwell building.

Taste is very difficult because we all have a different tastes. We always have to look for inspiration. It’s all about dreams. We’ve worked with very few architects. The first few buildings were SOM (Skidmore Owings & Merrill), then we went with Aquitectonica. The Grove was done not by a star architect, but I saw a nice development in  Jakarta in  place that wasn’t even ready for it at the time. You get inspiration from actual buildings, nothing beats actually touching and feeling it.

What inspires you these days?

My apo Sancho, who’s a month and two weeks old. I have three children, the eldest was born in Malaysia and the two in Indonesia.

What keeps you busy when you’re not in the office?

My wife. I’m known to be the husband of Nancy Padilla.

No, seriously.

I like cars. I don’t collect them. I clean cars. I enjoy watching my car being cleaned. In fact, I want to rent a garage that would be air-conditioned so that I could clean them.

What cities inspire you? Do you still get to travel with your schedule?

Yeah, I like traveling and shopping. I’m one of the rare men who really enjoys shopping.

What do you buy? Clothing, shoes?

Not as much as my wife.  (laughs) I get inspired by small places like El Nido and Coron, and big cities like San Francisco, and maybe even Finland where I’m going to inspect elevators. Isn’t that exciting?

As published in on July 14, 2017:


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