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NORBERTO BUYOC

Civil Engineer, Libya, 1980-1985

Fishpond Operator and Entrepreneur, New Washington, Aklan

THE LAID-BACK MODIR

J. Dela Torre

buyocThe boat ride was short, and a minute or two after we pushed off from the pumpboat parking shore in Tambak, New Washington, Aklan, we could see a stately white-painted house in the middle of an island. I was with Norberto and Marlyn Buyoc, 2014 MOFYA regional winners for Region 6, Ron Bartolome, Regional OWWA Director, and OWWA staffer Shelley Solis. We had taken the normal route from Iloilo earlier in the day—a route I had taken hundreds of times in my youth—and driven into the Buyoc’s expansive house-cum-business-base complex just before lunch, which consisted of the usual fare from a host who happened to own probably the largest string of fishponds on Panay Island: prawns, shrimps, bangus, shellfish, etc. The table groaned from the weight of so much delectable seafood our appetite was dampened by the sheer volume. I had just done the video interview of Norberto, and we were on a quick ocular visit of some of his other businesses.

Norberto Buyoc pointed at the house, “That used to be the vacation house of the family of former COMELEC Commissioner Flores Bayot. As a small child, I used to look at it from afar and I wondered whether I would ever set foot on it. Now, I own it.”

He mentioned his ownership of the house rather matter-of-factly, without a hint of boasting. It was not so long ago that his own family was struggling to make both ends meet. Norberto is as simple as rural folks from Aklan come, but he’s the kind who never allowed his wealth affect his way of thinking, nor how he regards other people less fortunate.

Norberto or Bert was only 7 years old when the pressure to earn enough money to support his 8 brothers and sisters in college left him with no choice but to help his mother with her rice trading business. His parents and Bert worked hard, and lived a frugal life, just so they could send money and good food to his siblings studying in Manila. The primary school was located just behind the marketplace so it was not difficult for Bert to divide his time between his classes and their rice trading business. Bert’s sacrifice was not a cause for him to begrudge his brothers and sisters, for when it was his turn to pursue a college degree, he was supported by his siblings, who all turned out to become professionals—a doctor, a nurse, medical technologist, lawyer, architect and seaman. Between the earnings of his father who was a farmer and a miller, the family’s rice-trading business and the support of his brothers and sisters, Bert did not have to experience the hardships of most poor probinsiyano who studied in Manila.

After obtaining a civil engineering degree from Mapua, where he met his wife-to-be Marlyn, Bert worked for one year in a construction firm in Manila as a cadet engineer, and in 1980 decided to go to Libya. He worked for a contractor of Occidental Libya Oil and Gas in Tripoli and Zuwetina, as a supervisor for pipeline maintenance. Work was good and he was paid well, but there were other reasons which cut short his stay in Libya.

After the souring of relations between Libya and the US, due to the support of terrorism worldwide by the Libyan regime under Col. Muamar Khadafi, economic sanctions were imposed, particularly on imports of Libyan oil, leading to shortage of most basic supplies. After the sanctions began to take its toll, most of the Western expats working at Occidental beat a hasty retreat, unable to endure the harshness of everyday life in Libya where sometimes they had to queue for the most basic of necessities, like bread, rice and gasoline. They left Bert to become the modir,  or the boss/manager.

Not entirely fluent in Arabic and still not fully familiar with Libyan culture and attitudes, Bert had a hard time managing his team, which consisted of 35 Filipinos and 20 Indians. Middle Eastern employers and their managers know the centrality of rice in the life of both Filipinos and Indians, perhaps to a lesser extent in the latter’s case, and if you were looking for trouble from these two nationalities, all you had to do was to curtail their supply of rice, and you will have a mini-rebellion in your hands. Filipinos love their rice: they can endure some cheap dried fish as main course, as long as they have their favorite steamed rice, and some flavoring, and they’ll be fine.

The matter of feeding his work mates became a difficult task for Bert because sometimes they had to travel to Benghazi just to source their rice, a 650-km journey one way. Travelling through Libya those days was a challenge because of the constant lack of gasoline supplies, and the presence of armed bandits along the way. One never knew how long journeys would end up. Bert endured these conditions for another four years, before finally deciding he’s had enough. In 1985, he packed his bags. He realized that it was much better working and living in the Philippines: you just had to work doubly hard to make life more comfortable.

Back in the Philippines, Bert assessed his chances. He had some P250,000 saved in the bank. What type of business could be possible go into that could earn him as much if not more than what he did in Libya? He didn’t wander too far. His wife’s family business was seafood trading and it seemed to be doing well. They bought shrimps and prawns from fishpond operators in Aklan and shipped the produce to Manila via Navotas and Divisoria fish ports. Bert decided to sink his savings into his wife’s business and not long after, they had their own buying stations in Kalibo, New Washington and Batan, all in Aklan.

It was a good investment and the business grew. Within fifteen years, the couple had accumulated enough savings to go on their own. They had within the period already gradually bought up considerable hectarage in Aklan suitable for fishpond operations. Bert and Marlyn realized it was the right thing to do because as traders, they were at the mercy of producers who could choose from the hundreds of begging traders to whom they could sell their produce. They had decided to be an owner-producer, instead of just a buyer-trader.

In 2000, the couple went home to Aklan to establish what would become one of the largest fishpond operations in Panay. They started with just 20 hectares. By hard work and by buying up more hectarage on installment terms, the couple now has more than 600 hectares, including some 400 which they are sub-leasing from leasehold rights owners, who having leased it from the government have given up on operating it. Typhoon Yolanda devastated 167 hectares, but the couple rebounded and have since rebuilt most of the areas ruined by the typhoon.

What are the risks involved in the fishpond business?

“It’s really the weather which poses the greatest risk because a strong typhoon could easily ruin hundreds of hectares of structures and produce,” Bert looked up, as if imprecating the return of typhoons, at least not in his neck of the woods. “Then, there is snail infestation. Since chemical is no longer being used to kill off snails due to environmental concerns, I do it the natural way.” He lets loose young crabs in areas infested with snail, and soon enough the crabs have eaten off all the snails. It’s a win-win solution. The environment is unaffected. The farmers who bring the crabs to Bert earn money, and Bert saves from not having to use expensive chemicals.

He has taught his children to be entrepreneurs too. He helped his eldest child put up a small building in Kalibo to house the latter’s computer, gym, canteen and tailoring businesses. Their second child has her own ice plant, computer, bakery and water refilling businesses. The ice produced is mostly to supply the freezing needs of Bert’s fishpond business.

Bert also operates his own hatchery so he doesn’t have to look for prawn and fish hatchlings elsewhere. In the pipeline is a feedmill that will also take care of his own feed needs. Although his fishpond operations is still polyculture-traditional, he is well on his way to having an integrated fish operations—from fry production, cultivation, feedmill, preservation, transportation, shipment and trading. The unsold bakery products and rejected fish produce are used as feeds. Earnings from his business are invested back to the business.

The traditional type of fish culture is actually more environmentally safe.  Dry chicken manure is sprayed on top of the dried fishpond bed before water is released into the pond, allowing green algae to thrive. When the green algae has grown enough, shrimps and fish fry are released. It is only when the growth of green algae is weak that chemical fertilizers are used, but it is rare for this to happen, Bert hastens to add.

He is not the harvest-all-at-once type of fishpond operator. Every other day is harvest day. One day he would have 20 kilos of bangus, 30 kilos of prawns and 15 kilos of crabs; the next day he would have more, or the day after, less. Supplying the market with just the right amounts keeps the price stable, and keeps Bert busy.

How does he manage his caretakers, who number 45?

“Just treat them the way you would like them to treat you,” Bert said. Easier said than done, you would say, but Bert has allowed them to earn extra cash from taking care of a 200-head egg-laying poultry operation. Bert spent for the shed and gives away daily feeds from scraps off their bakery and rejected seafood produce. The caretakers are paid a fixed salary and get a percentage of the sale of the fish, prawn and crabs harvested. On top of it all, they’re given free one sack of rice a month. Bert also tolerates his caretakers occasionally spearing fish and collecting oysters from the ponds under their care for their consumption.

Bert and Marlyn have also done their share in mitigating environmental degradation by partnering with DENR to plant mangrove trees in and around their vast property. This is another win-win approach so characteristic of the couple’s business philosophy. Government support funds are released to the couple for the collection, planting and maintenance of mangrove propagules. The couple in turn allows the 45-strong workforce of the fishpond business to do the collection, the planting and the maintenance work of the mangrove replanting scheme, and pays them out of the government subsidy.

Bert joins other Rotary Club members in a feeding program for the poor, but says his number one giving-back advocacy is his own workers. He makes sure the children of his workers are able to go to school, and gives away money or loans at pay-when-able terms to his workers for the tuition fees of their children.

Bert counsels OFWs to value their own sacrifices abroad by taking care of their money and investing it in businesses which they have studied well. Before going into a business, he advises OFWs to do diligent research on a business which the community needs, and not rush willy-nilly into something just because it looks profitable on paper.

From a starting capital of P250,000 Bert is probably worth twenty times over now but demurs admitting he’s one of Aklan’s richest.

Pressing the issue, I took a different angle.

“Is there a bigger fishpond operator than you in Aklan?” I asked. He smiled meaningfully, and hesitantly volunteers the information that soon, his own brother-in-law will overtake his fishpond business in size.

In the meantime, we lay back on bamboo benches in the wooden and nipa gazebo behind the mansion-like resthouse, Ron savoring his San Mig Lite while I toyed with a fork the supersized grilled bangus laid out on the table. We continued the interview there until we ran out of things to ask. We prepared to leave for Iloilo, still more than 3 hours away. Bert and Marlyn could now enjoy the comforts of financial security, but their story gives the reader no other impression than that behind their present comfortable life lie 30 years of hard work and honest business management. They’re not in a hurry to complicate their lives by expanding into other businesses, he said.

“Business opportunities will come soon enough,” says Bert, “and if it’s right for me, then we will invest in it. In the meantime, let me and my family enjoy what we have worked hard for.” He then let his bespectacled eyes wander into the horizon upon his vast property, and I looked at his face, and I knew that even if some employer offered him ten times his salary in Libya before, he would politely refuse it.