For President Benigno Aquino III, the best meeting during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week was the CEO meeting hosted by the Zobel de Ayala brothers, Jaime Augusto and Fernando.
About 35 CEOs of global businesses, some of them already operating in the Philippines, like Coke FEMSA, Nestlé, Novartis and Ernst & Young, attended the roundtable moderated by the Zobel de Ayalas.
Some of the CEOs were new and not so familiar with the Philippines. They just listened, according to Guillermo Luz, the private sector cochair of the National Competitiveness Council who helped organize the roundtable.
That was much better for Mr. Aquino, as it gave him the opportunity to meet new decision-makers and speak to them about the Philippines and its increasingly robust economy.
“I think one of the key points is education. It’s important to build long-term competitiveness,” Luz said in an interview with the INQUIRER in Zurich just before the presidential entourage boarded the flight back to Manila on Jan. 26.
“The President also stressed that infrastructure is a great opportunity for the Philippines,” Luz said.
Importance of WEF
“I think we’ll just have to understand the importance of the WEF,” Luz said.
“Our experience here in Davos is, you have such a huge critical mass of CEOs already there so to pull a meeting together is so efficient. Where else in the world can you have 30 or 40 CEOs in one sitting?” he said.
“You have companies from the US, Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, Spain, Mexico, China, Japan and Indonesia. We have many countries represented and that’s a great value for us as a country, for business executives and for the government,” said Luz, a former executive director of the Makati Business Club.
President Aquino’s communications secretary, Ricky Carandang, added: “It’s a question of quality of audience. The more intimate sessions happen in smaller settings. The bigger session allows you to reach a broader audience, but the smaller sessions allow greater interaction and create a more solid impression.”
It was Mr. Aquino’s debut appearance in the WEF annual meeting—known simply as Davos, after the popular Swiss ski resort that served as venue of the gathering—and he decided to go ahead with it in the last two minutes, so to speak, despite the bitter European winter because he felt he had a good story to tell global investors about the Philippines.
As Malacañang’s decision to participate came quite late, most hotels in Davos were already fully booked and so three chalets were rented and became the official residence of the Palace delegation.
Two Filipino chefs were flown in to serve the delegation in these three unstaffed chalets.
He was one of nearly 50 heads of state who took part in the forum, spoke in a number of breakout sessions, mostly closed-door, off-the-record meetings. The WEF made it that way to encourage the leaders to speak more candidly, particularly about sensitive matters like battling official corruption.
Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel or International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, Mr. Aquino did not speak before a full session of the forum where he could have driven for greater exposure for the Philippines to the 2,500 participants.
A source said organizers of the annual conference “scrambled” to put together a session at the last minute—after Mr. Aquino had already arrived in Davos—that brought together various leaders and officials from Southeast Asian countries.
“We confirmed our attendance only in December, when ideally confirmation is made around October,” said a Palace official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source said Philippine protocol officers were also unsure whether they would commit the President to a speaking engagement until they got a better idea of who else would be on the panel.
The source said it was his understanding that protocol officials of other participants in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-centric session “Resilience in Diversity” were watching each other’s moves to see whether they would commit their own officials to be part of a panel.
As such, the session that Mr. Aquino joined—along with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and other leaders from the Asean—was not included in the original WEF online and printed programs.
The WEF website was later amended, however, to show a synopsis of the panel discussion along with information about the speakers.
But for the government and private sector delegates who accompanied the President, it was nevertheless a worthwhile trip, as Davos offered a vast platform for the Philippines to promote its economy to the global community.
Attended by business leaders, economists, academics, philanthropists, heads of state and journalists, the WEF was born in January 1971. A group of European business leaders met in Davos under the patronage of the European Commission and European industrial associations, with German-born economist Klaus Schwab, then professor of business policy at the University of Geneva, chairing the gathering.
Schwab has since been recognized as the founder of the forum, which has evolved into the de facto private sector representative of the world.
Over the last 42 years, the forum, which also has its fair share of critics, has aimed to improve the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industrial agendas.
The Philippines had 63 delegates, 42 of them from Malacañang. The Palace contingent included seven Cabinet members and the chief of presidential protocol, Celia Feria.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras and Carandang made up the presidential group.
The rest of the Philippine delegation consisted of young entrepreneurs and private sector representatives.
Private sector reps
The private sector representatives were the Ayala group’s top honchos, Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and Fernando Zobel de Ayala, and a small group of journalists, including one from the Inquirer.
The WEF charges about 23,000 Swiss francs (about $25,000, roughly P1.1 million) for participation in the annual meeting, but Carandang said the fee was waived for the Malacañang delegation.
Some Cabinet members flew to Switzerland ahead of the President. Mr. Aquino himself stayed only three days there. With a report from Daxim Lucas