LEVY V. Espiritu, president of Datem, one of the country’s leading homegrown construction companies, was an aggressive project manager of DM Consunji Inc. when he was 25.
It was in 1981. He was working his first job and he felt he had to prove himself. He had graduated with a Civil Engineering degree from the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Quezon City, and had just married his college sweetheart Roxanne, a graduate of De La Salle University.
“Those were challenging times,” he said. “We were under martial law, and I was just starting my career and raising my own family. I was a young father, with my wife just giving birth to our oldest, our daughter Lesley.”
When DM Consunji hired him, young Levy set out to prove his mettle. At a time when lumber and wood served as buttresses and framework and were the industry standard, his team used steel form with steel rods as frame, scaffolding, posts and beams. His first project was the twin 27-story Ritz Tower project on Ayala Avenue in the Central Business District of Makati City. The project was completed ahead of schedule with substantial savings in time and cost. His team was given a performance bonus.
He quit DMCI in 1984 and with an architect and three engineers he met at DMCI, he and a classmate from UP formed Datem Inc. It was a bold venture, with the construction industry then dominated by giants DMCI, EEI and Ayala.
The new company was unfazed. After all, they had innovation and new methodologies guiding them. They finished the Ritz Towers way ahead of schedule using materials not yet used by their giant competitors and, building floor by floor and, for the first time, incorporating precast elements for the entire design.
“It was a tumultuous year, with Ninoy Aquino being assassinated,” he said. “We had few projects, with our finances just enough to feed our families and our six employees. At that time, our wives sustained us. My wife was the marketing manager of Evenflo at that time. She was the family breadwinner.”
“The years 1984 to 1988 were the most trying times,” he said. “But we remained true to our objective of making our services—unconventional, but reliable—available to those who believed in us. After all, we were responsible for the well-being and gainful employment of our employees.”
Despite the challenges, there was a singular unifying factor that remained unwavering for the Espiritu couple: Their belief in God.
“After my elementary grades, I could have pursued my high-school education at the UP Integrated School,” he said. “But my parents demurred. They enrolled me, instead, at the Marist School in Marikina, so that my schooling included my growth as a Roman Catholic.”
Espiritu said business started to pick up in 1988.
ABS-CBN selected Datem to construct the Eulogio Lopez Building on Mother Ignacia Street in Quezon City.
“We partnered with an Australian company. We finished the project six months ahead of schedule using a prefixed, precast system that, among other innovations, sealed the enclosure, making it water-tight,” he said.
“Our accomplishments were not lost on the big developers like the Ayalas and the Lopezes. Even if we had the highest bid, our reputation for integrity and fairness, as well as our innovative methods, has been among our strongest suits,” he said.
Espiritu intimated the construction business has not always been above board. There were practices in the industry that helped the practitioners survive during the most trying times.
“We always pay our workers above minimum wage. Our belief is a fairly paid employee is a happy and productive employee. We have never cut corners. We survived by the grace of God and our being true to our corporate mission,” he said.
“Datem is family. We hold our values close to our hearts,” he said. “Integrity. Excellence. Innovation. Malasakit [empathy].”
Datem has 800 regular employees. At any given time, the company has 11,000 skilled workers—steel men, masons, carpenters, plumbers—many of whom are parents now working with their children.
“We give our employees and workers what is rightfully theirs, and we trust in the Lord,” he said. “We internalize and He gives us the gift of discernment.”
Makati Development Corp. (MDC), a member of the Ayala Group of Cos., has—on many occasions—accepted their bid to build projects, including Greenbelt 2, 3 and 4. For those particular projects, they finished eight months ahead of schedule. This was in the year 2000.
Datem also consrtructed Market! Market! and Serendra for MDC.
MDC was so pleased with Datem’s performance that it offered the company a nonexclusive partnership, meaning they would make Datem their partner, but there was no guarantee Datem would get all of MDC’s projects.
The Datem board refused the offer, saying, “If you believe in Datem, you will award projects to us because you believe in us, and because we deserve it”.
Today Datem has 28 ongoing projects with various developers, including Federaland, Robinsons, Megaworld and San Miguel Corp. It is into residences, commercial establishments, hotels and office buildings. Among other projects, it was involved in the construction of Discovery in Boracay, Hilton, Sheraton and Westin Hotels.
Espiritu said Datem has been recently awarded construction of the Marriott Hotel in Caticlan.
Asked how he sees the company evolving, Espiritu said, “I see myself retiring in two to three years. We have a Datem Family Constitution, ensuring succession of this business into the hands of the founders’ children,” Espiritu said. “We encourage our children—the second generation—to work for three years outside Datem, to get insight, experience and expertise from without, and then incorporate these into Datem’s core values when they join us.”
Right now, oldest child Lesley, an architect who studied at UP, is with Datem. Levs took up Hotel and Restaurant Management from La Salle’s College of St. Benilde; Larissa graduated Management and Interior Design from Ateneo; and the youngest Laurence is finishing his Civil Engineering degree from UP.
Aside from his executive duties at Datem, Espiritu is also executive director of the International Federation of Asian and Western Pacific Contractors’ Association and the Philippine Contractors Association Inc.
Together with his fellow alumni from the UP College of Engineering, he formed “Engineering Heroes Giving Back” in 2016 by raising P20 million as seed money for a Study Now, Pay Later fund for UP Engineering students from the D, E and F brackets. They lend the student P60,000 a year to cover his schooling and other expenses. After graduation, they help the student get hired and work, and begin paying back his obligation for at least P5,000 a month three years after graduation.
The group currently has 12 scholars per semester.