Imelda played a crucial role in trade and love



I had dinner recently with Mr. Jose Luis Yulo Jr., president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Philippine Islands, who I like talking to because he does not only have a good grasp of history but he could provide perspectives that other businessmen cannot.

Among the topics we discussed, he only gave permission to make this one public.

As member of the Chamber during the Marcos years, Yulo witnessed how the business community had to behave under the martial law rules. My understanding is that the Chamber is the oldest business chamber and the precursor of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Yulo revived the Chamber into a well-functioning advocacy business group.

How was the Chamber, which represented the business sector at that time, or his relationship with the late dictator and First Lady Imelda Marcos was like then?

“I was in my late 20s, early 30s,” Yulo recalled as he started to warm up. He was treasurer of the Chamber and the youngest board member. Fred J. Elizalde was the president.

At that time, he said, they were noticing the Canton Trade fair, the major marketing event of Communist China to export to the world. It was held twice a year – the autumn and the summer versions.

In those days, foreigners cannot travel inside China, you can only go to the Canton Trade Fair. So, if you want to buy anything from China, you go to the Canton Fair. You fly in, fly out. You are not allowed to travel anywhere in China, except at the Canton Fair.

At that time in 1976, the Philippines was also hosting the International Monetary Fund Meeting, which was scheduled in about six months. Imelda was building the Film Center and Philippine International Convention Center under the country’s famous Architect Leandro “Lindy” V. Locsin for the IMF meetings.

The Chamber was thinking of how the Philippines, being a tourism country, can benefit from these events. They were thinking of attracting the foreigners to visit Manila on their way to the Canton Fair, or drop by after their China trip. So, they came up with a concept on the first Philippine International Trade Fair. It was envisioned as a spillover from the IMF meetings and the Canton Trade Fair. It will also spruce up the lone entertainment provided by the Film Center.
The Chamber presented the concept to the First Lady, who was immediately smitten by the idea, exclaiming “Beautiful idea, beautiful idea.” But a Frenchman, who was also in the meeting, said “Wonderful idea madam, but there’s a problem. The Philippines has no exhibition hall; a hotel ballroom is small. You need a hall.”

Right there, Imelda instructed her secretary to call the PICC architect. In Yulo’s words, Imelda said: “Lindy, I have here the Chamber of Commerce people and they want to put up a trade fair but they don’t have a building. Build one in six months.”

Then Imelda turned to the Chamber people saying “There you have your exhibition hall. I have one request though. I do not want this to be a white elephant because I could be accused of creating edifices that are white elephants so you are businessmen, handle it.”

The Chamber people got more than what they bargained for. Being the youngest in the group, Yulo was told: “Noy you take charge of that.” Then they were hooked up with the SGV people to do the feasibility study.

Cathy Velayo, the daughter of one of the Sycip-Gorres-Velayo founders, called Yulo to inform him that she was assigned as a consultant to the Chamber. Yulo suggested to meet over lunch to discuss the project, but he was quickly rebuffed by Cathy who said: “We don’t date clients.”

The young Yulo was intrigued. If you know Yulo, he would give you some perspectives on topics being discussed.
According to him, the best salesperson is a woman. The professor in him lectured about cold calls, which he said are calls from the unfamiliar person where from nothing you approach a potential a client. When a woman gives you a cold call or passed on a calling card, the man gets intrigued. It happens only with females. That’s what happened to him. The SGV consultant, whom he had not met before, became a hot pursuit.

So, he told Cathy “What time you’re off?” The other line replied “5-5:30.” “Let's meet at 7 p.m. for dinner when you're not working anymore so there is no conflict.”

To pursue the project, Yulo and Elizalde co-founded the venture and signed a lease agreement with the Philippine Cultural Center, which owns the land on which the Philippines’ first trade hall – the future Philippine Center for International Trade and Exhibitions (Philcite) was to be constructed on.

Yulo and Elizalde were co-founders of Philcite where the former served as the general manager.

To ensure government support, the First Lady was made chairwoman of the event. Indeed, in such a short period of time they were able to get 20 countries out of 70 embassies in Manila to join the trade fair. The four giants - US, Japan, China, and Russia - had their pavilions at the third floor of Philcite. Philcite was the precursor of the upcoming trade fairs and exhibition halls in the country.

As they say, the rest is history. Yulo and Cathy got married a couple of years after the first Philippine International Trade Fair was staged. Thanks to First Lady Imelda Marcos.

(The author is the assistant Business Editor of Manila Bulletin.)