The Manila Times Feature: The Girl with the Hard Hat
May 03, 2019

Written by: Cora Llamas - Main Article

From a hole in the ground to tall towers, she has seen a city evolve and prosper
“I look at the Bonifacio Global City (BGC) and think I’m part of [its] history.”

Sheila Lobien, CEO and founder of the Lobien Realty Group Inc. (LRG), stands by this earnest claim. More than a decade ago, when this particular central business district was just one enormous space of vacant lots, narrow roads and a few manicured lawns, she was at the forefront, “talking to multinational corporations (MNCs) to take the [future office] space even though [the building itself was] just a hole in the ground.”

Flash forward to now, and Lobien holds court in her own office at the South Corporate Plaza on the BGC High Street, famous for its posh restaurants and prestigious corporate spaces. Ask her for directions, and she will give you more than just a few landmarks.

“There were only a few buildings when we started BGC in 2008,” she recalls with a smile. “I can tell you how this particular building started and who its tenants are.”

Emerging market
Press her for more, and she will give you updated information on how the current real estate industry is doing, the status of its many players, the emergence of a new market and what the professionals in it should do to keep up with the pace. Right now, Lobien couldn’t be happier because the forecast, especially “when you talk to developers, is about expansion. Foreign investors are looking at us [the Philippines]. A growing population means more real estate. The young professionals right now who are leasing spaces will at some point, ay mag-aasawa at mag-aanak [will get married and have kids.]”

In a presentation she made at The Manila Times Business Forum last March, Lobien reported that more than 70,000 residential condominium units are forecast to be built by the year 2020, with a majority of them designed for the middle-class market. Business sectors such as business process outsourcing (BPO) and online gaming, however, still command a huge share of the pieces of property that are being developed, at 40 percent and 32 percent respectively. Then, there is the new kid on the block — the flexible remote working spaces designed to cater to start-ups, small business owners and about 1.3 million Filipino freelancers.

“I do my homework every day. I am always reading, not just about real estate, but what’s happening to the economy. I know a lot of things beyond the buildings we sell. That’s my edge"

Lobien has been part of the many phases and changes that have shaped the Philippine real estate landscape. After her graduation from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a degree in Tourism, she hit the ground running in sales, starting with corporate packages for resorts like Island Cove Resorts. Then as expatriates and domestic businessmen alike saw the need for a more permanent place to settle into without plunking a lot of money for long stays in hotels, she moved to introduce them to serviced apartments like the Fraser Place.

The next phase was the precursor of the popular remote working spaces of today, albeit a bit grander and more formal, and Lobien was again pioneering in the field as the general manager for Regus. Then, she opted to learn more about how her industry worked on a global level, and stayed with a “Fortune 500 property consulting firm” for some time before moving on her own.

Though she impressed her foreign superiors with her ability to deliver top-notch sales, Lobien realized that she did not want to remain an employee forever. In helming her own firm, she says: “I can be more creative and can make my own decisions. There are so many opportunities, and you can do a lot of things with a growing industry like the Philippines.”

There was the expected period of adjustment when she established LRG in 2019 with a loyal core group of eight, who now have grown into a 20-strong workforce. While she enjoyed tapping into her international employers’ core of resources as an employee, she found herself like all other entrepreneurs worrying about essential details like office costs, workplace construction and salaries of her own staff, just to begin with.

Lifelong learning
There were several support systems she banked on, and which saw her through. One was her own network of clients whom she had been servicing way from her first day in the business. Lobien maintains that relationships remain the lifeblood of sustainability. She says” “If [the clients] trust and like you, they will work with you, wherever you are. You have a track record and credibility. You do have to deliver — and if you can, more than what you have committed.”

Lobien has always been passionate about lifelong learning. While she avoids micro-managing her workforce and allows them space to be creative, she believes that constantly keeping up with trends and other relevant data helps her stay on top of the game. She says her people’s expertise inspires clients’ confidence. But Lobien adds: “I still do my homework every day, I’m always reading, not just about the real estate market, but what’s happening to the economy because it affects me.

“I read global reports [from organizations] like the ADB [Asian Development Bank] and the World Bank. I know a lot of things beyond the building [we are selling]. That’s my edge.”

Her education goes beyond the books, print or onscreen. There are other degrees and certifications aside from UP’s tourism: a Management Development Program at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM); Master of Business Management, University of the Philippines-Manila; and a Management Executive Program at National University of Singapore and INSEAD Business School.

Learning also continues outside the expansive confines of her BGC hub. The CEO does not linger at her desk but goes around town, checking sites, listening to requests of her high-net-worth corporate clients and getting feedback from colleagues like engineers, architects and designers. It’s one reason she always has a hard hat nearby.

All that collaboration and consultation are necessary to ensure that the clients’ targets are happily met. “We input a lot more stuff to make [a building] more competitive and appealing to [its] target market,” she explains. “We look for tenants who will rent or buy their building.”

Lobien, a self-admitted extrovert who likes engaging people, says success in the business comes from knowing and interacting, not just with the powers that be, but with their gatekeepers as well. Some of them, such as secretaries and security guards, may look like a modest lot, but their influence is not. It was a lesson she learned when she was just starting out.

In the pre-Internet days sans corporate websites and social media, the younger Lobien literally went door to door to sell her packages to companies who might have wanted to try a resort for team-building. “I’d go inside a building, check a directory, see which companies were there, and then do cold calls,” she beams. “You have to be friendly to the security guard. They will be, if they see that you are smiling and look corporate. That’s the start. You can ask who’s the decision maker.” Sometimes, it’s the HR (human resources) head who will have to sign the dotted line.

Women of influence
Lobien adds that while charm can open doors, even with the power players, in the end, it’s the competence and expertise that make them invite you to stay. In an industry where it’s still the male executive, who dominates in the MNC boardroom, she has never “felt at a disadvantage as a woman.” There was only one snide remark about a decade ago, when a male colleague half-jokingly told Lobien that “the client signed up with [her] because he had a crush on [her].”

Not surprisingly, an important advocacy of hers involves women empowerment. She currently heads the Women in Business Committee of the European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines (ECCP). Through its networking activities, she acts as a bridge between the senior women business executives and their younger counterparts, who are looking for successful corporate predecessors to mentor them. Lobien’s own support group of personal friends is composed of highly accomplished female leaders in the C-suite.

On a personal level, Lobien, a mother of two, names her own mom Patricia Rase Guelas as a huge influence in her career. With her father Alfonso Guelas, a seafarer away most of the time, the two women spent a lot of time together as Lobien grew up first in Tondo, and then Binondo, both in Manila. Her mom also worked as a supervisor for a semi-conductor plant in Manila. When the company reopened in Morocco, after shutting down in the Philippines a few years later, her mother was the only woman out of the five supervisors who was recruited.

At the age of eight, Lobien went with her mom and did her elementary-level years in a French school in Casablanca. Her initial exposure to students from Africa, the Middle East and the US. was her first preparation in dealing with foreign clients decades later. She remembers her friends in Morocco, saying: “They’d count their number of tablecloths. They also loved to share food as a family. During mealtimes, like them, you’d use your hands [in eating].”

Lobien also saw first-hand her mother’s own diligence and initiative. The older woman would go above and beyond the call of duty, especially if no one else would volunteer. She would always tell Lobien, “Magi kang tapat. Gawin mo iyong trabaho mo para ka ma-promote [Be loyal and steadfast. Do a good job so you can be promoted.”

Lobien’s two kids, daughter Samantha and a son Juan have inherited their mother and grandmother’s passion for their work and interests. As students of Southville International School and Colleges Manila, both have had their fair share of competing as their school’s representatives in international contests. Lobien’s husband of 17 years, Jeruel, is a senior executive in the banking industry. While they both take charge in watching over the kids, her significant half, who is more academically inclined, is the one who actively tutors them.

Still, there is a time for R and R. Weekends are spent strictly for family. The family of four are also travel bugs and have a penchant for just taking trips, from a simple walk around their Alabang residence to a month-long vacation in Europe.

It may not be far-fetched to imagine Lobien returning to her old haunting grounds in Binondo. She is fully aware of the tremendous changes that have been happening. "Noon, sabi nila, magulo raw. Pero sanay ako sa area, and parang walang problema ang mga tao noon. [They used to say back then that it was a chaotic place. But I’m used to the area, and from what I recall, the people then didn’t have problems.] But now there are a lot of [p[property]evelopments, especially as the [T[Tsinoys]on’t want to leave the area.”

Come the boom, Lobien and company will probably be there, at the forefront again, to shepherd both the area and the industry into the next phase of their amazing evolution.

* * *

Having been around the block and around again, Lobien is certainly worth listening to.

• On rejection. Rejection is a part of it (life). Friends ask me how I deal with it. I just say it’s normal.

• On public speaking. When you reach a certain level, they expect you to know and share something. To stand out, you have to speak out and really talk about your industry. Public speaking is something I have embraced, liked and enjoyed.

• On managing. I’m not hands-on. I look at results. I can see the numbers and if you are delivering on your commitments.

• On reading. I look for books that are inspirational and touch on leadership. I don’t read from cover to cover, but browse. I have books about Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Then, there is that one book titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***.