Pioneers from the beginning
The country's first business house, 1834
Antonio de Ayala, son of Don Raimundo Ayala and Doña Maria Lorenza Ortiz de Urbina, arrived in Manila, by way of a circuitous route, from the small town of Alava in the Basque Country of Spain.
Poor but determined to make something of himself, the young man had arrived eager to assist his uncle, Jose Maria Segui, the Archbishop of Manila, an Augustinian priest who had served as a missionary in the Philippines and China.
But Antonio displayed equal zeal in the world of commerce. He concurrently held the job of assistant to Domingo Roxas, descendant of settlers who had arrived by way of Acapulco in the late 1770s.
Antonio de Ayala and Domingo Roxas formed Casa Roxas on March 10, 1834. It was a company that would engage in farming sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo; in manufacturing liquor, metal castings, and gunpowder; and in various trading and mining concessions. It is not known whether the two Spaniards were aware that they had, in fact, built the first conglomerate in the Philippines.
While at its heart it was a simple operation that held a stable of different enterprises, it was endowed with the flexibility of having diverse sources of income and the ability to invest with powerful focus.
The first major investment of Casa Roxas, on its first year of operation, was a crude distillery that relied on a primitive still fashioned from a hollow log. This most basic piece of equipment would soon give rise to a manufacturing complex, located at the foot of the Ayala Bridge, that would produce the country’s first commercially produced gin, Ginebra San Miguel.
Events that soon followed on the Roxas side of the partnership changed the future of Casa Roxas once and for all. Domingo Roxas, who had always ran afoul of the Spanish authorities for his radical views, died in a Fort Santiago cell in 1843.
With Roxas’ death his daughter, Margarita Roxas, assumed control of the company, and quickly introduced changes in its identity. With the participation of Margarita’s brothers Jose Bonifacio and Mariano, Casa Roxas was renamed Sociedad Roxas Hijos.
The responsibility over the distillery fell on Margarita, while the brothers took care of interests and properties in Nasugbu, Calatagan and Laguna—fertile agricultural lands that their father had invested in early in his career.
One of Jose Bonifacio Roxas’ investments was the purchase of a tract of rolling riceland in San Pedro de Makati, bounded on the north by the Pasig River, for the grand sum of P52,000. At the time it seemed a foolhardy investment: it was too far from Intramuros, then the center of business, or from San Miguel, where the Roxases resided. Even as agricultural land, it was marginally productive. No doubt fuelled by the most far-reaching of visions, this investment would prove its worth in time.
In 1844, Antonio de Ayala and Margarita Roxas were wed in a simple ceremony. For Margarita, still only 29, it sparked a powerful burst of energy: all at once, she had divested herself of her role as daughter and emerged as an equal partner in a relationship and a powerful business leader. Indeed, the marriage did much to strengthen a two-year business partnership and revitalize the company’s 10-year-old leadership. To these she added important positions in the social and civic scene.
With the departure of Jose Bonifacio due to other business interests, the company was renamed Roxas Hermanos. The subsequent death of Mariano Roxas would concentrate the leadership even more, prompting another change in the business dynamic, as well as another change in name. Roxas Hermanos was promptly rechristened with the name that bore the roots of its future: Casa Ayala.