Interview Judith A. Torres
Images Magis Homes
“She’s kinda quirky,” says Gino Cariño, one of Magis Home’s six partners. “Um, she changes hair color, like, every week. Green, pink, lavender, gray, now she’s back to black. I don’t know if it’s natural or not. When I asked her why black, she said, ‘Oh, it’s pandemic season, so I need to be in black.’”
Cariño brought Jacklyn Cayetano into Magis Home late in 2019 as an accounting consultant. They had worked together in his previous company and Cariño, Magis Home’s human-centered design advocate, wanted help “putting things in order, in a way that would make sense for me the way I would run it.”
“So, I asked Jak, who was absolutely scared, to tackle a role she had no training in whatsoever. But she said, so long as she was guided, she’d take it on.”
Cayetano juggled the responsibilities of the HR department head while putting order to the Accounting department. She was the stopgap until Magis could find an HR person. But after a month in HR, Cayetano decided she wanted the role full time.
“Are you sure you want this? Because it’s a big headache,” Cariño warned her.” I asked her why she liked it, and she couldn’t really place it, except to say that she’d be of more help to people in HR than in Accounting. And then I go, ‘Okay, think about it some more. We’ll hold off from getting your replacement in HR for a month.’”
When Paolo Periquet, the founding partner of Magis Home heard Cayetano wanted to stay in HR, he gave her a call. “I said, ‘You know what the job of HR is? You’re like the mini president of the company. The first thing that you have to do is instill discipline because that is something so lacking in this industry. Are you sure you’re okay with that?’ Because I remember the first time that I told a welder to wear glasses, he gave me the death stare. ‘Are you sure you can handle the men? These guys are tough, and they respect toughness.’
“Then I told her, ‘The second job is you have to be Hope. You’re going to have to go there and find out what their dreams are, what gets them going, and you have to somehow deliver that hope.’ And I could tell in that phone call she was so sold on the idea of getting to know the men, offering hope, and making dreams come true. Maybe it was some self-actualization button in her that just switched on.”
Periquet’s speech seemed to have worked because Cayetano kept reminding Cariño to find her replacement for Accounting. “Get me out of Accounting. I wanna focus on HR,” she would tell him.
“We warned her that it’s a double-edged sword. Once you go down that path, requests will start flooding in. ‘Ma’am, pwede bang pautang? Can you lend me money?’You know, all of that. So, be wary, you know. But she said, ‘It would be nice to actually get to know them, to understand exactly what their needs are.’ So she took on the HR role, knowing that the Magis partners, especially Paolo, had many plans for HR. And, well, fast forward to today, she’s still HR!”
Magis Home is unlike any construction company I’ve known. They design, build, and maintain homes. They work with Filipino master architects and designers like Eduardo Calma, Dominic Galicia, Tina Periquet, Jorge Yulo, and Joey Yupangco to design a limited series of homes that are customizable to the lots the clients purchase for their residence. The houses are backed by warranties and a maintenance or care-package program because “No one knows our homes more intimately than we do.”
I asked to interview the two partners, Gino Cariño and Paolo Periquet, after seeing a Magis Home Instagram post praising Cayetano.
It read: “Today we celebrate @jakcayetano who guided the company through the harsh 2020 lockdown and is now in Round 2. She has kept over a hundred men—some rather stubborn—safe and healthy during these crazy times. There were lots of thanks from our men—those were for you. Women do make powerful leaders.”
[Note: The interview with the two gentlemen took place by teleconference last April 19, 2021.]
What plans did the Magis partners have for HR that you wanted Jak to handle?
Cariño: Quite a lot. Some of the things we’d always wanted to do had already started. Of course, there’s the Employee of the Month. We were studying the educational plan for the children of our workers when the HR department head left. We had plans to put up a multipurpose cooperative for the men to augment their income. It was hard to implement and follow through when you’re relying upon on-site guys to implement these for you.
Cariño: Site engineers, site architect. The discussions are pretty lively and fruitful when you’re in the office, but the moment you get to the site, as you can imagine, it’s a whole different mechanic. For example, when the Employee of the Month was implemented. Maybe after six months, somebody from the site would forget to submit something, so we’d miss a month. It gets bogged down that way.
Jak spotted the problem. Back then, there were about three to four HR people making the rounds of the sites. She came to me and said, “You know, we gotta do something about our site engineers and our site architects because whatever the HR concern, every one of them passes it on to the office, no matter how small it is.”
That was a huge insight. If that’s how the site leads treat workers’ concerns, what else were they neglecting or passing on to the office instead of acting on it immediately?
Like what shouldn’t they be passing on?
Cariño: Well, for example, a foreman consults the site engineer on a case involving a compliance issue. Rather than looking at the code of conduct or the procedures that we already have written down, the site engineer goes, “Oh, go talk to HR.”
What sort of compliance issues?
Cariño: For example, when you’re logging in your timesheets, you have to log in at the right time. There’s a period within which you’re supposed to do that, to submit. Another one is wearing PPEs. When to liquidate, you know, all this micro-level stuff.
So, Jak goes, “I gotta deputize these site engineers.” That’s her word. “We gotta deputize them for HR and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to start training them on essential things—procedures, policies, like filing for leave. They don’t know how to do that. So, she started training the site leads, and it led to a considerable improvement. We weren’t getting so much noise from the sites. The men seem more motivated. We weren’t getting the usual questions on how the salary was computed or when their SSS loan would be approved, et cetera, et cetera.
It’s small, but to us, it’s vital Jak spotted that particular gap in how Magis is running things. And yeah, it led to a deeper relationship with the men.
Who are the site leads? The site engineer and site architect?
Cariño: They’re on top of the site leads. There’s the foreman, of course. Then the heads of each group—masonry, carpentry, electrical, and plumbing.
You said she wanted to get to know the men better. How did she do that?
Cariño: She would do one interview, one-on-one with a construction worker per week. She was ramping up on this in early 2020. She was getting real needs directly from the source. The thing is, the lockdown happened, and so that particular plan took a backseat.
But, this year (2021), when things started to open up, she resumed that plan. We didn’t prod her or anything. She just asked, “Okay, I gotta resume discussing with the men. How best do we do it?” We couldn’t have her doing one-on-ones, so we decided to do a workshop. Fifteen construction workers only because we were limited per site due to pandemic restrictions.
The workshop dealt with two things: the men understanding the direction Magis wants to take and our understanding, through Jak and the site leads, why the men are in the company to start with.
Jak had this idea of grouping them in small groups because one insight she gathered was it’s already hard to get the men to speak up one-on-one. Getting them to speak up in front of everyone else, they’re not gonna wanna do that. So, we broke them up into teams of three. We wanted to know who they were, what’s important to them, what makes them get out of bed every morning, what makes them tick.
Heavy stuff, man.
Cariño: Yes, heavy.
I can’t imagine many construction workers have undergone a self-discovery workshop like that.
Cariño: They don’t. The feedback nga is nobody does this. For the 30 years that they’ve been working, they’d never encountered or heard of it. And it was hard at first. But the moment one guy spoke up, everybody started sharing in those groups of threes.
Did you guys listen in?
Cariño: No. I intentionally didn’t want to be present. Paolo happened to be looking at the site, but he wasn’t with the men. The site leads that Jak developed were all facilitators.
What did you learn from the men?
Periquet: Before the workshop, the facilitators had this preconceived notion that the men were there because of the pay. It’s their livelihood, ‘di ba? And they need to send the money to their families. But then, a dominant theme that came out wasn’t the pay. The number one reason, which was surprising for most of us, is dangal or honor. The other reason was pamilya or family, and they spoke specifically about their children. The third was pride in what they were doing, but I forgot, it was a deep Tagalog word.
I think, intuitively, we knew it because, for example, when a designer walks on-site and then she says, “You didn’t follow the plan” or “You didn’t follow this detail. Redo it.” You immediately see in the body language… they’re down. Sometimes, some of them, surprisingly, won’t even show up. They’ll make tampo for two days.
And the impact of someone like Jak is at a different level. We’re all men. And it’s a macho industry. In that seminar Jak ran, one of the questions was, “What is it like being part of Magis?” That was really something. The men spoke up and were really saying thank you. Thank you for how you were with us during COVID.” This was before the second lockdown.
What did you do with the knowledge that you gained from that workshop? The men spoke of dangal, family, and pride in their work, no? What did you do with that knowledge?
Periquet: We have to do four more workshops, which we can only do for a group of 15 for each site. Jak was scheduling all of that, but then another lockdown happened.
Cariño: But, you know, in hindsight, Paolo, if I may, a prototype discussion of this in Jak’s first few months when she had talked to a few of the guys, led to Concepts by Magis, eh. Remember that? It led to a program to help our older construction workers—the guys pushing retirement age soon, who want to continue being productive but can no longer work on-site. That led us to a prototype version of Concepts by Magis, which is a furniture fabrication company for these retirees.We actually churned out some pieces. Jak had input in that, giving us that insight.
Periquet: Judith, there were a few programs that we’re doing that we will re-prioritize based on what we find out from the workshops. For the team at large, there’s the Bold Entrepreneur program. We will develop our own project, and we did announce that we are opening it up for everyone to invest in. It involves capital, and that’s not an easy thing to come by with now. So, the company will forward a little bit of capital where they can pay us back in installment just so they can invest in the program and be shareholders.
Second, as Gino mentioned, there’s Concepts by Magis, which is purely for the benefit of the men. Unfortunately, it got stalled because we lost our off-site and have to relocate, so we’ll restart when we get a new off-site.
Then the third is, we have been supporting fifteen children through school. It’s still a small number because Magis is not exactly that big. But it is a start.
It’s a good start.
Periquet: Thank you. So, the Bold Entrepreneur program addresses the drive for honor and dignity first. Although it was an unwitting thing—I mean, it was something that we wanted for everybody, not because of the workshops. And then, the educational support addresses the family and the kids. And we will rearrange or strengthen each or do something new as we find out more about what really drives our men.
Cariño: When it’s safe, she’ll continue the workshops. That’s important because it would lead to all the other programs, eh.
Gosh, you guys are progressive.
Cariño: It’s not progressive. (Laughs) But we want to be. There is one plan—I’m not sure if I should—this is barely anything yet; it’s just an idea Jak floated to hire more site engineers that are women.
Periquet: Oh, I’m all for it. I bet you the finishing people, the painters, the detailers, I bet you that women will be much better.
Cariño: Jak made one hire, Rhea. She’s not a civil engineer, industrial, actually, um, who took on a site, a big one at that. Did well, actually. But the hiring is all on hold, again, because of COVID.
Gino, you were praising Jak on Instagram, right. What did she do?
Cariño: Well, that, that’s a bit of a story. COVID hit during Jak’s fourth or fifth month in the company. She had only been doing HR for maybe three to four months. So, you know, ECQ [Enhanced Community Quarantine] landed. March 2020, right? All hell broke loose, and there was talk of a mass exodus out of the city. So, our site guys were asking us, “O, papano ‘to? Everybody wants to go home to the provinces. What do we do?” I remember all the partners of Magis that time had to conduct town halls for the men to know the situation, the evolving plans, and how we intended to care for them.
And then we had a question in the very first town hall that was straightforward. “Okay, sir, so ang options, we stay at the barracks. Or we go home to the province. What happens if it’s a long lockdown? What about our pay?”
We said, “We will give you financial aid. Not full salary, but at least, we’ll make sure that you are taken care of.”
“Yes, sir. Madali pong sabihin, but it’s a lockdown, so how do we get the money?”
Most of our men are paid in cash. Because they wanted cash payroll weekly to send to their families. Without skipping a beat, Jak goes, ‘Ako bahala. If I have to walk to bring you the money, I’ll do it.” Jak ended up keeping around forty of our men in barracks. The majority went back home to the provinces. Forty was a good number because when the economy started opening up again, our sites were back in business, but they restricted the number of site workers. For example, from an average headcount of twenty to twenty-five site people in Magallanes, they limited it to a skeletal workforce of ten. So forty worked out.
So, Jak walked to deliver money?
Cariño: The first three weeks of the first ECQ, Jak had to walk from somewhere in Timog all the way to EDSA. You’re looking at a three-kilometer walk? Because there wasn’t any public transport. And that was to and from banks, bringing check vouchers, encashing money.
Adrian, our other Magis partner, would meet Jak somewhere on EDSA. The two of them would go to the barracks and start handing out cash. So, it was that situation for three weeks. I couldn’t because I live far, in Silang, Cavite. There were border checkpoints that wouldn’t let you through.
They did it weekly?
Cariño: Two three-kilometer walks at least twice a week. First, it was financial aid. Then they quickly realized the financial aid didn’t really do much for them. They were actually better off with supplies. You know, the food they need to eat, toiletries, et cetera, et cetera. So, Jak assigned people to go out and where to get the food. She worked out a crude but effective system where she put money in Peso Padala weekly for a buddy system per site, and those two guys would now go out to buy the supplies for their cluster. She used money from her Unionbank account to transfer to Peso Padala because that was the fastest way. And the only thing we did was reimburse her right away.
This was while keeping in tabs with all the IATF, DOH, DPWH, and LGU rulings. She was on top of that. And there was quite a lot of confusion. Even Paolo and I were pretty confused by the conflicting stuff out there. So, if you needed anything, if you needed clarity, just call Jak. Regardless of time or day, weekend, or in the middle of the night, you call her, so you can decide how to move things going.
How long did the Peso Padala and buddy system last?
Cariño: Until September 2020? When the sites opened up, skeletal crews were allowed on all sites, and we could move about. Now the new problem is, okay, we have work again, but how do we make sure we’re all safe? Protocols had to be put in place. Our team had to do that, not just Jak.
Periquet: It wasn’t easy. You tell them to wear PPE, you tell them to wear a mask, they don’t even believe in COVID. I heard the most bizarre things. “COVID, hindi totoo ‘yan.” “COVID dilawan.” “COVID pang-mayaman lang ‘yan.” So, when they were locking us down last year, people did not want to wear masks. They felt they could handle it, that it was just like a fever or flu.
Cariño: But the protocols worked. We had a clean record last year. We had our first case this year, and let me clarify this, with a fresh hire, somebody who, like Paolo was saying, “Wala ‘yan, COVID’s not real,” it’s that kind of guy who got COVID.
Cariño: He’s in the clear now. He’s okay. And now, he’s speaking an entirely different tune. “COVID is for real. Masakit pala sa katawan!” Prior to this civil engineer I’m talking about, we had a clean record.
Then, Jak also gave us the idea of creating a next-in-line group, cherry-picked by the partners. So, somebody from that next-in-line layer could step in if something happens to me. We developed that team over lockdown last year. What’s happened now is that this is the exact same team that we’re grooming now for bigger things. They’re not just supervisory level; some are on track to becoming managers. One of them is on track to possibly become a partner.
You have a succession plan in place!
Cariño: That next-in-line group also developed Magis Genie.
Magis has a genie? [Laughs]
Cariño: We were worried about how architects or homeowners would visit sites during the pandemic. So, this next-in-line team, the techy guys, and I’d like to think that I’m part of that, they developed a virtual way to check sites. This team would do 360 videos. They’d make the rounds and take snapshots of every room, hallway, garage, everything in the house. And then there was a platform where all of these photos were stitched together.
They developed their own websites so that for every site, the architect or homeowner can click a link and look at site metrics, what’s been accomplished, pace, Gantt Chart, stuff for approval, and there’s a 360 tour.
And the 360-tour is updated how often?
Cariño: Twice a month. You click the link; it gives you a walk-through on your screen. You can click arrows. It’s VR-ready, so you can wear goggles and, you know, do virtual reality stuff. Walk through your house.
That kind of became the primary mode for site visits. Clients were always asking, “Oh, hey, it’s the 15th already. Where’s my 360?” So, they too preferred not to go to the site that often, I suppose. The detailed site metrics, admittedly, only the most meticulous client would actually login to look at all the details. But the 360 tours were quite helpful.
Which of the designers were active in checking out the metrics?
Cariño: Tina Periquet. Tina actually asks for that quite a bit.
How about Jorge Yulo?
Cariño: Jorge’s staff, yes. Somebody from Ana Sy’s team from CS, too. And then one other site in Alabang, but it’s the client, the homeowner, not the architect that’s asking.
How many projects do you have ongoing now?
Cariño: We have four ongoing and delayed because of the pandemic. We have four more waiting to start. And then we’ve got the development for Bold Entrepreneur that Paolo was talking about. That’s gonna startup, hopefully, by July.
Did you lose work?
Cariño: Quite a bit. None of it was canceled. There’s a little bit of pride in there that the whole team is happy. We actually turned over all the sites. There are only three left, the ones that were delayed, and two of them should’ve been turned over except for the recent lockdown. They’re 98 to 99 percent accomplished. Unfortunately, the other one is in a condo, and that condo is very strict; we’re only allowed to work with four men.
But everything else, all the work put on hold, we didn’t leave the homeowners or the architect high and dry. We finished the job, and yeah, we’re starting up new ones.
That’s promising. How many men do you have now?
From 40, that went up to about 65. But after these two recent lockdowns, it went down to 35.
The sites aren’t coming back online yet. Even though the quarantine rules aren’t as strict as before, some villages don’t want us to build. Jak processed the first round of ayuda [government financial aid] last year. We’re waiting for the ayuda coming from DOLE this time around. We’ve been supporting our core men with 150 pesos a day. We can’t support everyone, but the men in the barracks have food, it’s clean, it’s sanitized, and safe.
We can’t give everybody because we don’t charge this back to the client. And, you know, we’re just a contractor. But as Paolo mentioned, the men are thankful that we’re around despite all of this. You see the construction workers on EDSA; a lot of them don’t have jobs. We kept our men even if there was no accomplishment. So that we’re able to get them back right away to work on the projects as soon as we’re allowed.
How are you handling vaccination?
We secured vaccines for our men, for us as well. It’s coming by July, hopefully. Meanwhile, Jak is monitoring the local governments for our barracks in Muntinlupa, Las Piñas, and Makati. If the local government is ready to vaccinate our guys, then all well and good. But at least, we secured a healthy number of vaccines.
Why do you do what you do? The discovery workshops, advancing capital for Magis employees to join the Bold Entrepreneur program, the financial support, investing so much in your people. Is it because your philosophy doesn’t prioritize making money?
Periquet: You know, we ran Magis more corporate for the first three years because that was the culture that I’m from. I’m from investment banking, where we were probably born without a heart. And the other people with us in Magis were along that track as well—good people, just a different set of values.
Then three years ago, Gino was with us by then, we put out a culture book. It outlined the personal values that we decided were important in running Magis.
What values are those?
Cariño: It’s like 50 pages.
Periquet: Yeah. At first, every rule started off with the search for excellence and what-have-you. But later, as it went along, the culture book became the values that my mother passed on to me, and Gino’s mom to him, so everyone started adding. Simple things, like honesty. Pulling each other up and not wanting to go alone or even succeed alone on our journey because everyone’s on a journey, right?
We soon grasped that if we build a team that subscribes to these values, and we’re happy in the environment where these values are being upheld, we would produce better output. And you know, Judith, if you see our work from the time we started to today, it has gotten so much better along the way. I think our culture had a lot to do with that.
May I have a copy?
Periquet: Oh, it’s not the most eloquent thing, but—
Please? I won’t share what you don’t want me to share.
Periquet: Um, yeah. So, the whole culture bit, it’s not that we’re nice people and it’s fun to hang around with us and all that. It’s not about that. I think what happened was that you have the guys who have been with us for a long time, and we took care of them. When a newbie comes and starts acting in ways he’s not supposed to, or he shortcuts something, the guys police their own and say, “That’s not how we do things here.”
From a construction company that started off with traditional ways of doing things, you know, “We made a mistake here, redo it,” to a team where you have people on-site looking after you, the number of errors and back-jobs has been reduced.
So, I’d like to argue that it’s going progressively lower and lower in terms of operating expenses. Hopefully, it reaches the point that it’s negligible. Right?
It’s because people are happy here and so, they look after us as well. You know, several years ago, we had one of those rotten eggs, and he was disciplined, and he got upset. He put concrete in a pipe. That happened in our prior setup, where it was about stiff fines and strong discipline—very different from our approach today. We don’t get that sort of thing now. And the stress level? My gosh. On-site, it’s so much less.
We could be faster, and we still have a ways to go, but it is so much better now. And so, I would argue that what we’re doing is a cost-effective solution, in fact.
You’re saying you have superior quality now?
Periquet: I’m so scared of that word, “superior,” but we’re far better than what we were. We’re not where we want to be yet. I’m frustrated by the fact that we can’t build in half the time, right. And why shouldn’t I be able to say that I am going to produce zero defects? Why can a car company do it, and we can’t, right? Or why can’t I say that I’m going to guarantee your house for the lifetime of the house? Why not?
You know, in this industry, the most valuable currency is trust. On the client’s side, they have to trust you, but on our side, we have to trust the people on our site. And without all of that, it falls flat. We wouldn’t be getting projects from the Ed Calmas of this world or the Dom Galicias, Tina Periquets, and Jorge Yulos if there were no trust in the team.
Do you remember when we presented to an investment banker, Gino? He looked at our portfolio, and he saw we were building for Jorge, and we were building for Ed, and he asked, “Why does Jorge Yulo trust you with his reputation? You’re the new kid on the block.”
What did you say?
Periquet: I struggled to answer that because they could have gone with the DMCIs of this world, but I believe they did trust our team, and that’s what I said.
So, in answer to your question, why do we do what we do? I argue that it’s the profitable thing to do. I think people make the biggest investment of their lives building their homes. They’re going to put it in the hands of the good people. Right?
Everything we talked about, those are, to my mind, all necessary stuff.
Young people today certainly think so when looking for work. I’ve never heard of construction workers being treated so well… We think about aspirations and self-actualization for ourselves but haven’t stopped to think about what fulfills them—shame on me and shame on us for taking them for granted.
Periquet: We need to invest in our guys because for so long as we build a house by hand, the number of eyes you have on-site will never be enough. The moment you turn your back, something’s going to happen. So, unless you plant the proper set of values and you show our men that “Hey, tulungan tayo. We help you; you help us. We’re here for each other,” we’re not going to go very far.
You’re asking, “How will this all play out from a business standpoint because we were investing quite a bit on our guys? My theory is good residential contractors are in short supply because, at some point, the good ones graduate to bigger things. Like we developed our own thing. And maybe from build and sell, get bigger and bigger and bigger, and do pocket communities, and possibly larger communities.
Periquet: We consider Magis’ construction as a ground-up custom building. We won’t be doing this forever. Hopefully, in a few years, we choose who we want to build for. Like, let’s say there’s this architect that, you know, helped us along our journey; maybe we’ll build one of his projects. But we wanna do our own thing na. That’s where we wanna go.
Which makes the culture of caring for your people, who then care for the company, a necessity.
Periquet: It is. This is, I think, the most significant thing HR was able to do. Not just for the site people but the team at large. The huge difference between how we were when we started out with that scrappy team we put together to the one now is not just attracting and keeping the best people. It’s keeping the bad guys out, too, right? If you want to build a strong culture. HR played a big role in that. Judith, if you meet the team now, it’s so nice. We’re really more horizontal now. There’s a certain character in the company.
What character is that?
Periquet: A little bit more Gino and less me.
Paolo! None of this would have happened without you.
There’s a more—how do you say it, Gino? Judith’s word was actually correct. There is more care. People like going to sites now. The Magis construction uniforms, they used to have numbers. And that was because we used a CCTV system at the site to monitor even if we weren’t there. So, if someone was not wearing a helmet, “Number 107, we saw you. You’re penalized. Here. See that?”
Now, people know their names. I know the first 30, the senior guys. And so, I can go there and, “Oh, so, Dante, how are you? Kamusta?” Or, you know, “Clarence, is your daughter still an honor student?” and all that. We get to know them more, and that’s because of HR. Before Jak, I always heard, “Mali ‘yong timesheet ko,” and they were all upset at HR. Now, it’s a very different tone. It must be the female touch. So Jak, even though she’s young and didn’t have HR experience, she’s bright, perceptive, and really cares. And that made all the difference. •
The Magis touch over at @magishome