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Filipino architect designs buildings in 40 countries

Abelardo Tolentino Jr.
After working in Hong Kong for nine years, architect Abelardo Tolentino Jr. returned to the Philippines in 1998 to lead the local unit of a British architectural company at the height of the Asian financial crisis.  That company, which he bought five years later, is now one of the world’s largest architectural firms with projects in 40 countries. “We have had over 500 projects in 40 countries since 2003.  I would say in terms of number, 60 percent are in the Philippines and the rest in other countries,” Tolentino says in an interview in Makati City.  Aidea Philippines designs projects in Europe, Asia including the Middle East, Australia and the United States. Tolentino, the founder, president and chief executive of the Makati-based Aidea Philippines Inc., was only 33 when he came back from Hong Kong where he worked for prestigious companies such as HOK Asia Pacific and John Lei Architects Ltd. He served as managing director of the Philippine subsidiary of Robert Matthew Johnson Marshall, a UK-based architectural company in 1998.  Tolentino, however, took over the struggling local unit in 2003 and renamed it as Aidea, which he says is a Latin word that connotes “from ideas to reality.” “We were a branch of a UK company called RMJM.  We started as its subsidiary.  But in 2003, we localized the ownership of the company.  Basically, I acquired the firm and we renamed it as Aidea,” Tolentino says. From a 25-man team 10 years ago, Aidea Philippines has grown to become one of the largest architectural companies in the world with 170 professionals, including architects, interior designers, graphic designers, programmers and urban planners.  In 2013, Aidea was ranked 80th in the Building Design’s World Architecture Top 100, an annual list of the world’s largest architectural firms. The company occupies two floors at the FGU Building on Ayala Ave. in Makati City.  Its international arm, Aidea Integrated Technologies, is also based in the same office, but provides designs and professional services to international clients in 40 countries. “This is our 10th year on our own.  We were able to expand the practice when we became all Filipino.  It turned out that way.  When we went on our own, we did not have limitation in the market, unlike when we were still working with our past UK company,” he says. Aidea designed the West European headquarters of Procter & Gamble in Geneva, Switzerland.  Tolentino says the company “got involved from the start till the end of the project.” The firm also designed the P&G headquarters in other parts of Europe such as Madrid, Paris, Rome, Kiev and Moscow as well as the Canlubang, Laguna plant of the multinational company.  “When we had the P&G account, we had so many projects in Europe that we had to assign one of our architects to Brussels to manage the account,” he says. Tolentino says Aidea now works with Japanese and Australian companies to design projects in various parts of the globe.  About 40 percent of Aidea’s projects are based outside the Philippines, although the design work is being outsourced from the company’s Makati office.  Its projects abroad include buildings, plants, research facilities and offices. “What we aim for is to have a good mix of local and international projects.  We don’t want to limit our market to exclusively [local projects] here.  We want to operate outside the country,” he says.
Aidea design for UP Technohub
In the Philippines, Aidea has designed many of the modern landmarks in the commercial business districts of Makati and Fort Bonifacio as well as other parts of Metro Manila such as the Columns, Serendra, UP-Ayala Technohub, Greenbelt, Convergys, Nuvali, Globe Telecom, High Street South, One Global Place, Park Terraces, Garden Towers, Senta, People Support, Arya Residences, Polakay Resort and Solaris Towers.  Aidea also has projects in Cebu for Cebu Holdings, which is another Ayala-controlled company. “I think in the local scene, what gave us the break is the Columns.  We were a very small firm with only 25 people during that time.  Now, we have close to 170,” says Tolentino. Aidea Philippines’ biggest local client is Ayala Land Inc. along with its subsidiaries Premier, Alveo and Avida.  Aidea is also now involved in the development of Ayala Land’s major projects such as Circuit Makati, Vertis North in Quezon City and Bonifacio High Street South in Taguig City.  The company has also worked with Nestle for its offices. Tolentino says the development of High Street South in Fort Bonifacio will keep Aidea Philippines busy for the next decade.  “That will be another long-term project.  It will take eight to 10 years.  When it’s done, I’m close to retirement,” he says. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts has recently recognized Tolentino as the 2013 recipient of Ani ng Dangal for Architecture and Allied Arts.  The NCCA gives the award in seven art disciplines to Filipinos who excel in the international scene. In 2007, Tolentino was named Innovation Entrepreneur during the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards for applying innovative approaches, business solutions, and technologies that resulted in improved business processes and company growth. Aidea Philippines develops its own software and solutions to improve efficiency in design work.  Tolentino says recently, the company embraced the cloud technology, so that everybody in the team can work anywhere or anytime. Apart from winning contracts, the Aidea team also bagged grand prizes in international virtual competitions such as Build Qatar Live and Build London Live, which are prestigious design competitions among architectural companies. The Aidea team beat dozens of participants from different countries for the best museum designs in both the Qatar and London modeling competitions.  While the designs for the museums are virtual competitions, “nonetheless, it is prestigious because we are the only participant out of the Philippines and one of two from Asia,” Tolentino says, referring to the case of the London prize. Ironically, Tolentino, who grew up in Rizal province, says architecture was not his first dream profession back in high school. “I wanted to be a computer engineer,” he says. His father, who owned a small construction firm, advised him to pursue architecture instead.  He graduated from the University of Sto. Tomas with a degree in architecture in 1987.  Two decades later, UST honored him as The Outstanding Thomasian Alumni in Architecture for 2008.
Aidea design for UP Technohub
Tolentino remembers his first project as an architect.  For two years, he helped in the interior design for the renovation of Intercontinental Hotel in Makati. Tolentino says while he admires famous architects, there was no individual architect who had the most influence on his designs.  “What I do is I research on famous architects and try to understand their thinking on architecture and design and see how I can apply some of that when I do my work.  I always try to mix the best of different things to come up with something that is hopefully better,” he says. “There is always something good in the works of architects.  But instead of looking at the personality, I look at their work and I look at their thinking.  What I realize is that they have different and distinct ways of approaching design,” says Tolentino, who admires the classical buildings in Rome, Italy and Penang, Malaysia. Tolentino says Aidea Philippines is different from other architectural firms because of its processes. “We don’t have a house style, but it is really our process of how we come up with projects that makes us different.  We believe that every project is unique.  When we do a project, we try to understand first of all what the vision of the client about the project and his needs,” he says. “It is the process of how we come up with the design that makes us different so that we respond better to the needs of the users and the client.” “We are also heavily investing in technology and putting the latest infrastructure in the office so we can be more competitive.      We anticipate that [infrastructure] will differentiate our company from our competitors,” he adds. Now at 47, Tolentino sees to it that he lives a balanced lifestyle.  “I try not to work on weekends. I stay at home or play golf,” says Tolentino, who lives in Makati. His work schedule on weekdays normally consists of three to four meetings a day.  He still gets involved in the design work while overseeing the entire operations of the company, although much of the supervisory work is now delegated to senior managers. Tolentino says Aidea proves that Filipino talents can excel in the global stage.  “In the Philippines, there are foreign architects that come here.  We call them design consultants and they partner with local firms like us to do projects.  But we do it the other way.  When we go overseas, we are the foreign consultants and we partner with local architects,” he says. The international operations require Tolentino to travel “but not as much as I used to” as he now delegates the work to his employees. “Now, I travel when I am needed.  My role now is developing the business and creating alliances with new partners.  For the day-to-day management of projects, we have senior people who deal with that.  Otherwise, the company will not grow, if it is centralized,” he says. “We structured the company in such a way it is more decentralized when senior managers take more responsibilities and that frees up my time to do other things.” Tolentino says Filipino architects are among the best in the world.  “When you go to Singapore or Hong Kong, many architectural firms there have Filipinos as senior people,” he says, adding that many of his classmates from UST are also working in other countries. The problem, he says, is that the Philippines gets deprived of these talents. “There is a shortage of experienced talent.  The good ones will be always employed but some of them left for overseas work.  The threat is the overseas work, especially the regional employment,” he says. However, he admits that some of his former employees who decided to work abroad recommended Aidea to companies looking for local partners.  “Interesting enough, those who are working abroad, they pass projects to us,” he says. Tolentino says this is because Aidea Philippines’ employees, including those that left for overseas jobs, have high regard for the company.  “When they come home for vacation, they make it a point to visit the office.  One of the things that we would like to keep in the office is the atmosphere that it is like a family,” he says. Aidea Philippines, already recognized as one of the largest, still aims to grow bigger as a company to introduce Filipino talents and designs to the world, says Tolentino. “We plan to expand locally.  One of the things that we try to do is promote local talent.  We have no plans of establishing international offices.  We would rather partner with international companies but our base will always be in the Philippines.  We always want to be identified as a Filipino company.  We think there is enough talent here that we can tap to work in the international level,” he says.
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