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An entrepreneur’s uncanny road map

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 06, 2023 5:00 am

A lunch meet with the legendary entrepreneur Wellington Soong easily convinced me to accept an offer to help produce his biography. But I expressed one condition: that he would tell his life story himself. Anyone who has listened to Willie would understand. His loquaciousness would best serve as an effective personal voice to narrate all the exploits he has racked up in over six decades of visionary, venturesome enterprise.

Given all the twists and turns he’s gone through, the primary challenge I welcomed as a co-writer, stylist and executive editor was to come up with a suitable structure for what would be a hefty narrative. Here was the guy, after all, who had elevated sound systems to state-of-the-art application, introduced Racks restaurants, and brought in the fabled Jaguar, Ferrari, Maserati and Land Rover Discovery among elite motorcar brands, plus Ferretti yachts that also drew in luxury clientele. 

In the process, he developed lifetime alliances and friendships with the high and mighty, from tycoons to government top brass and a parade of foreign ambassadors, as well as assorted byword figures such as boyhood friend Fernando Poe Jr. and martial law-era satrap Roquito Ablan Jr.

Oh, yes, it would be quite a story, best proffered by way of his own inimitable hopscotch articulation. 

It took us well over two years to complete Willie Soong’s narrative. We had to contend with the pandemic, and pause during his frequent travels abroad. He also had to drop everything to be with his wife Maureen in New Orleans where she underwent medical procedures. Unfortunately, she passed away in March last year.

Willie Soong’s family in Europe, proudly holding up copies of the patriarch’s biography

By May this year, we finally had the coffee-table book in our hands: Knowing When To Exit, the title he had chosen long ago. But he was scheduled to take his family to Europe for a month’s tour, so what he did was to take copies for distribution to his countless friends and former business partners all over Europe.

This evening, he hosts a dinner reception as the Soongs’ “Tribute to Friendship,” while commemorating Maureen’s birth anniversary. Only as a side note will it also be appreciated as the launching of his 278-page book replete with photos covering eight decades. 

Born in 1942 and named after Wellington Koo, a Nationalist Chinese diplomat, the firstborn spent the war years with his parents and grandparents in Baguio City, where his maternal grandfather had founded the first Chinese parochial school. Soon after the war, they moved to V. Mapa St. in Sta. Mesa, before relocating in 1947 to a new home in Mandaluyong, on the corner of Socorro Fernandez St. and Luna Mencias. It has remained as Wellington Cheng Soong’s home for over seven decades. Five generations of Soongs have stayed in this same home.

From De La Salle on Taft through high school, Willie entered UP Diliman as a pre-med student, but had to shift to the College of Business as a working student, since he had to help out in the family business of operating a fleet of Kingsway taxicabs. Despite this, he was active in campus life, joining UPSCA, the UP Dramatic Club, and the UPSCA Dramatic Guild. The energy and vivacity in expanding a network of mentors and friends led to his entrepreneurial drive.

In 1966, he bagged his very first contract. Worth a modest P16,000, it simply called for the installation of piped-in music at the eight-story La Tondeña Building on Echague, Manila. With his youthful zeal, he proudly relished working for the country’s largest distillery. To his surprise, Mila Palanca Furer of the Palanca family offered him a position in the company.

“I decided to go into business and give myself a chance until I reached the age of 35. If by that age I still had no idea what I wanted to do or where I was headed, then I would change direction and seek employment. I would dismiss the idea of trying to go on my own. But as it turned out, my decision and steadfast determination allowed me to fulfill many achievements.

“In hindsight now, what I learned was that you have to do a soul search to determine whether you are an entrepreneur or not.…

“The road map of an entrepreneur is never a walk in the park. And nine times out of 10, the problems and complications are never to be found in a book. You have to make judgment calls. You have to follow your instincts, your gut feel. Entrepreneurship is not always textbook science.”

Willie’s first company, Electro Systems, honed him early—towards a dizzying ride that involved providing the sound system for music concerts, the Miss Universe pageant at Folk Arts Theater, the UE theater, PNB building, Central Bank, Manila Hotel, and Cebu Plaza Hotel, among others.

Along the way, he became a favorite of A-listers. Architect Leandro Locsin offered the ground floor of his building on EDSA for Willie’s first office. Other sponsors turned friends included PNB president Panfilo Domingo, Lucio Tan when he purchased UE, and Enrique Zobel, who in 1982 tapped Electro-Systems Industries to be part of the team constructing the Sultan’s Palace in Brunei.

What started out as a sound system company providing piped-in music gradually evolved into a sound reinforcement systems contractor. Willie also brought in Bose products to expand his reach—the way he eventually diversified to operate Racks, and following its success, opened showrooms for the luxury cars that further built up his name.

In 2004, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, was a special guest at the grand launch of the Jaguar Land Rover showroom. This gave Willie the opportunity to gift royalty with a Ramon Orlina sculpture depicting a golfer. 

It hasn’t all been roses, as when W.C. Soong had to cope with the 1997 financial crisis and a betrayal or two. But through it all, those who lent genuine support joined his roster of lifetime friends, as with Ramon S. Ang. Throw in Henry Sy among the name-droppables, Henry Sy Jr., La Salle classmate Henry Cojuangco, Danding Cojuangco, Iñigo Zobel, Jack Enrile, bankers Gabriel Singson and Deogracias Vistan. Some became close family friends, as with Tonyboy Cojuangco and Gretchen Barretto.

To hear Willie recount his anecdotes is to listen to constant reaffirmation that indeed, the most important values and principles in life involve relationships and integrity. In 2021, he relocated Wellington Centre back to ENZO Building—returning to his original corporate space and comfort zone, while aiming to redevelop fresh business ideas, and moving forward after exiting from the motoring industry.

His passion for cars has become a tangible memoir of over 57 years (1965-2022), with a collection of them in a private museum on the parking level of the ENZO Building, along with corporate memorabilia—“that have stories of their own,” as Willie says.

With characteristic ebullience, his last words for now sound like a cheery threat: “As I am exiting and finalizing my plans, and as I proceed to tick off my bucket list, this would prepare me for the next exciting chapter of my life, which will be… my journey to XANADU.