Oct 202013

I wonder if you have heard of Spanx. It is described in its website as a shapewear. What it really does, according to its inventor, is to better control how a woman’s behind looks without revealing a panty line when wearing tight jeans.

It sounds frivolous to some of us but according to Sara Blakely who invented it and made millions making and marketing it, it responds to a very real need for a lot of women. Ms. Blakely was interviewed on CNBC’s Squawk Box last week as one of America’s entrepreneurs who make for a vibrant American economy.

She wasn’t always the hotshot entrepreneur she now is. She recalled she was selling fax machines door to door. Her eureka moment arrived when she struggled with the problem of having an undergarment that did the job Spanx eventually did.

Asked how she became a sucessful entrepreneur, she responded she didn’t have a business education and that helped. She just jumped into it without any fear because she didn’t know any better. She said she was not afraid to fail.

Why was she so fearless? She recalled that her father subjected her and her brother to this drill at the dinner table. They were asked nightly: where did they fail today?

The whole idea is to make them feel failure is nothing to fear… it is an opportunity to learn. The important thing is they tried to do something challenging, something different.

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Putting the question more positively, I guess their father wanted to know what new thing they tried to do that day. The outcome is not important. It is important that they tried and learned something from the experience.

My father should have thought of that when I was growing up. I grew up in fear of failure. In a family of achievers, I had this nagging fear of not measuring up. I eventually outgrew that in the competitive world of UP and then media so all’s well that ends well. Lucky for me too my kids took after my wife who had always been adventurous and had no fear of failure.

But enough about me… how does this lesson from a maker of women’s undergarments relate to our national situation? Easy… I think this administration could accomplish a whole lot more, specially in the infrastructure side, if it was not afraid to fail.

To be fair, we have to credit P-Noy with being daring in trying something as novel as the Conditional Cash Transfer program even with the harshest criticism from almost everybody. He was determined to break the grip of poverty one way or another and he took a big bet with the CCT. He isn’t bothered by the possibility of failure.

P-Noy also took a big bet on the peace process with the MILF. He wouldn’t have gone as far as he has so far if he was afraid to fail. Indeed, even a failure here can eventually prove to be a foundation for eventual success as it will give us lessons we can use the next time around.

But the administration lacks daring in fixing up our transport infrastructure. That’s because P-Noy has not taken a direct hand in it from the start. He entrusted it to Mar Roxas who was so obviously afraid to fail that he failed to move.

Mar’s replacement, Jun Abaya is pretty much like him so far. That explains why nothing good is happening to our trains, airports, sea ports and even car license plates.

But I am hopeful Jun Abaya is now tired of following Mar’s route and will soon enough be his own man. That sounds like wishful thinking, but Jun is trained in a military academy and he knows what risks and failures are all about. I am hopeful that deep inside, Jun is raring to take some risks.

Actually, Jun has no choice. He has to deliver a civilized NAIA 1 by this time next year. He has committed to deliver a fully functional NAIA 3 at about the same time too. He has been thrown to the deep end of the swimming pool and he has to sink or swim.

Jun has publicly said they have learned enough on how to handle PPPs so the next few tenders will be successful. Unless he takes some risks including one of failure, he will definitely fail.

I also get the feeling Jun is getting pretty frustrated with the boys Mar left behind at DOTC who have exhibited their fear of failure big time… which explains their dismal failure to produce visible results so far. But believe it or not, I have also heard good feedback from private sector bidders for the LRT1 and Mactan airport projects that finally, the technically clueless lawyers of DOTC seem to be getting it.

A recent article in Project Finance Magazine had very interesting observations about our government’s PPP projects, mostly DOTC’s and why these have been failures. I hope these failures are the lessons Sec. Abaya is talking about and that they are learning that will help them to eventually succeed.

In sum, the magazine observed “The larger brownfield transportation projects are particularly vulnerable to problems in allocating roles, risks and responsibilities on PPPs.” Here are excerpts from that article:

“The government is slowly realizing… that certain issues, such as rights of way, payment of concession fees and tax immunity need to be carefully thought through before a project comes out to tender…

“Rights of way issues have been the main factor in LRT1’s lackluster progress. The government was understood to control around 85 percent of the land it needed, and suggested that the winning consortium would start construction on the areas where the government had already obtained rights of way access before moving on to other areas once they were acquired.

“Bidders would have had to be confident that the country’s notoriously cumbersome judicial process would deliver the land on time, and this land issue is understood to be a factor in the decision of three of the consortiums to walk away from the bidding.

“The LRT1 deal also struggled because it was too dependent on the completion of additional works outside the control of the project company. Government was to be responsible for the delivery new light rail vehicles and upgrading existing infrastructure. Bidder skepticism about the ability of government to deliver suggests that government needs to be clearer about the scope of PPP contracts before sending them out to bid.”

In hindsight, DOTC could have moved faster in these projects even if they knew the chances of bidding failure could be high. They could have used the lessons learned, as they should be doing now, to refine their bidding terms of reference to ensure a successful process later.

They were so afraid of failure… so they nitpicked and agonized with every potential weakness in their terms of reference to the point that they couldn’t get anything out in the market. The lawyers were obsessed with protecting Mar from potential ZTE type scandals and they ended up not having any projects at all.

Of course it didn’t help that the lawyers had no real grasp of engineering or economic issues that mattered to private sector bidders. Too much time was spent with technical questions going back and forth between bidders and DOTC lawyers. So the reaction of bidders to LRT1 and Mactan airport is to be expected.

It is always best that they get things right the first time. But that’s not always possible in the real world. Risk taking is always part of the game. Hopefully they now get it, or at least Jun Abaya gets it. Otherwise, we would still be twiddling our thumbs when the delegates to the World Economic Forum and Apec start arriving. Or worse, a serious accident happens at the operating rail systems.

Maybe P-Noy should take a direct hand in pursuing our transport infra projects. I have observed that if P-Noy gets obsessed with getting something done, it somehow gets done because he doesn’t let go. These projects deserve his attention too.


From the Professional Heckler, slightly edited.

Television viewers saw how churches, houses, landmarks and buildings got destroyed.

In Malacañang, some officials panicked when things started falling: lampposts, walls, roofs, ceilings, and President Aquino’s satisfaction rating.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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