Origin and Identity: Remembering Gigi Zulueta

By: Alexander M. Genil

What makes companies great? What makes the prominent companies of our time rise above the others? Often, the answer is in the origin. A bright idea conceived in the mind of the founder. Armed with courage to take risks and tenacity amid failure, founders set out to build organizations that become so renowned and far greater than the sum of its parts.

Company identities are often so closely intertwined with their founders and what they stand for. The mere mention of “The GE Way” will never be detached from GE CEO Jack Welch, who created a well-rounded management style that makes GE executives so sought after. For Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the priority is to focus on the user and everything else will follow. Here in the Philippines, the late Washington Sycip set a culture of excellence that his firm SGV & Co. is recognized for.

In the same way, Jesus M. Zulueta, or Gigi, founder of The ZMG Ward Howell Group, made his mark and left his style of leadership that will always be unique to the firm’s identity. This is how I remember him a year after his passing on November 2nd 2016. His memory, spirit, and legacy still remain as clear and palpable as ever.

Making business “personal”

When one traces the roots of The ZMG Ward Howell Group in the Philippines, one will find Gigi’s personal imprint on it. In 1993, he led a group of consultants and investors in acquiring full control of W.D.Scott Philippines, which was initially an Industrial Engineering consulting business set up in 1981. The company evolved and a new firm was launched as ZMG, and later renamed ZMG Ward Howell after becoming the Philippine affiliate of Ward Howell International. He recognized that W.D.Scott’s strength was in executive search, and he nurtured this strength to become even more synonymous with the ZMG Ward Howell brand. For Gigi, being in the human capital business meant that hiring for clients will never only be transactional, and will always need to focus on the value of people. With the firm at the center, Gigi created an ecosystem of clients, business contacts, and talents that continually grew over the years.

Gigi’s forward-thinking attitude in running his business also applied as he developed the employees who would later stay on and form the firm’s leadership team. He was a sharp executive recruiter who could easily foresee a candidate’s next role. Similarly, he knew potential when he saw it in the junior associates he took under his wing, or even senior managers who were ripe for higher executive roles. He used a “learn by doing” development style that always kept his mentees on their toes. It was never easy to be in a meeting with him because he always challenged assumptions and one could not be prepared enough to anticipate his thinking. His style was more intuitive than it was straightforward. One could not help but get the feeling of being tested. But once he is convinced of an employee’s potential, he creates an environment that will ensure success.

When it comes to making business “personal,” Gigi had a strong sense of the boundaries and timings of certain hats he wore in the office. He shifted from being boss to brother to father to friend. And he knew just when to do so. It was as if he perfected the art without even having to learn or practice it. And to many, he was just that—boss, brother, father, and friend. And he never wavered in giving the support where it counted. From newly formed romances, marriages, births, and deaths of family or loved ones, Gigi was present and was personally invested. To me, Gigi was a great teacher from whom I learned greatly by example. Simply watching Gigi behave were lessons in themselves—lessons that were often about generosity of heart, competence, kindness, and steadfast faith.

Subtle strength

The ZMG Ward Howell Group operates heavily on long-established and nurtured relationships—a crystal clear reflection of Gigi’s way of doing business. To Gigi, reputation was more than enough to enable account growth and clinch new logos in the firm’s portfolio. Reputation translated to trust, and trust did not need all the bells and whistles many companies employ to be recognized in their industries. This was one corporate value that is kept intact even up to this day. Gigi believed that reputation will outlast campaigns, and that quietly excelling in your job is all the noise you need to make. He had such an illustrious curriculum vitae but was modest about it. He preferred that the gravitas of his credentials show in his dealings with clients, peers, and staff. It was a subtle strength that he consistently exuded, and it in turn commanded respect and awe. This was most evident when many of the country’s leaders from various fields were present at Gigi’s wake to offer condolences and comfort.

Entrepreneurship and expansion

The ZMG Ward Howell Group carried a well-known international brand, and was set to make its presence felt outside of the Philippines. In the late 1990s, Gigi knew that market expansion was in the horizon. Long before the idea of the ASEAN economic integration became widely known, he already anticipated the business interconnectivity that will be further developed in the region. When Asia Select, Inc. was founded to cater to mid-level positions, international staffing, and placements, it further expanded The ZMG Ward Howell Group’s footprint beyond the Philippines. Gigi also foresaw early on the potential of the outsourcing industry, hence the establishment of the Asia PeopleWorks business. The entrepreneur in Gigi was indeed quite bold yet calculated. He was never tentative in taking risks, and now we continue to reap the benefits of the seeds he sowed.

Stewardship and realizing the future

Gigi had an eye for the future and took the steps needed to ensure that ZMG Ward Howell was well- prepared for it. He believed that ownership is shared, and no single person can take full credit for what the firm has accomplished. He injected “new blood” in the firm’s veins to benefit from diversity and facilitate succession planning.

A year after his demise, Gigi’s absence is still poignantly felt, and I am lying if I say I don’t catch myself wondering what Gigi’s views and advice to me would be for certain decisions I had to make. Occasionally, my break-time discussions with peers and employees would lead to memories of Gigi. Some are hilarious, some sad and bittersweet. But all affirm how he is missed.

We are in the midst of remodeling Gigi’s old executive office, which is to be fitted out with the board room beside it. Redesigning his former space was not an easy decision, but we felt that it was the right time for us to show Gigi that we are ready to step away from his shadow and define ZMG Ward Howell in our own way, while staying true to the identity that Gigi has worked so hard to establish for us. We aren’t pushing his memory aside, but are in fact honoring him because he knew this was a way forward for us. As we forge ahead, we remember Gigi with fondness and pride.