Doing His Utmost Best
The three-term mayor’s crowning glory is the Hall of Fame award for the Seal of Good Local Governance (SGLG).
BY MARIDOL RANOA BISMARK
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO PERALTA, JR.
If he had a school yearbook, the caption under Guiguinto, Bulacan Mayor Ambrosio “Boy” Cruz’s teenaged face would have read: “The boy least likely to succeed.” After all, the odds were against Cruz when he was a skinny teenager growing up in working-class Divisoria.
His classmates played basketball, lived in dorms in Manila, and got regular school allowances from their parents. Meanwhile, Cruz was working in his aunt’s candy factory.
That’s because his father, a warehouse man for a popular softdrinks company, lost his job after the future mayor graduated from high school. The family was forced to leave the housing unit the company provided. Cruz, the first of 10 children, joined the four other eldest children in Divisoria. The five youngest stayed in their hometown.
Surprisingly, separation from family and the trying times that went with it failed to make Cruz wallow in self-pity the way others in his shoes would. This, he says, is the first miracle in his life.
“I never questioned my fate. I had to accept it. I considered it the natural course of things.”
For this young man, the natural course of things meant staying with a cousin to review for the certified public accountant (CPA) licensure exam. It meant being content with a grade of 75 or thereabouts because he had no time to study. He had to survive. All he wanted then was to get passing grades.
He worked as kargador (shipper). Instead of hanging around with men his age, Cruz mingled with Chinese merchants who called the small, lanky boy “Chiquito.” Divisoria being the melting pot of lawless elements at the time, Cruz rubbed elbows with petty thieves. To this day, he says he can spot a crook when he sees one.
Cruz learned to speak the language of the streets. Most of all, he learned the ropes of running a business straight from the horse’s mouth: the Chinese themselves who peddled their wares in Divisoria.
Yes, he had no money to buy textbooks. Instead, Cruz learned the ABCs of life in Divisoria’s busy streets. This hub of commerce gave him grit, the competitive spirit and never-say-die attitude of someone who’s seen the worst, and survived.
He learned not to mince words, an attitude which would later serve him well as a tough-talking local government executive.
Cruz woke up at 5 a.m. to attend classes at the University of the East (UE), where he finished an accounting course. Cruz studied for the CPA exams on his own since he didn’t have the means to enroll in a review class. He quit his work in Divisoria and bid goodbye to his aunt.
He returned to Divisoria a CPA. Cruz’s aunt rewarded him with his own store in Divisoria, but he still didn’t mind doing all the dirty work. He packed candies and delivered them to customers. The business flourished, and Cruz became the target of intrigues from competitors.
The tough guy carried on. He sold firecrackers starting August, not minding the dark spots which the powder left on his hands. His reward was windfall profits come New Year’s Eve.
Cruz would have gone on forever hadn’t his college taxation professor bought firecrackers one day.
“What are you doing here?” the professor asked. “You’re not applying what you learned in college!”
The student obeyed. He bid Divisoria a permanent goodbye and applied for a job in Makati. The city’s gleaming buildings and barong-clad office people awed the simple Divisoria boy. But he managed to blend in when he agreed to get a job that paid Php200 a month.
barong-clad office people awed the simple Divisoria boy. But he managed to blend in when he agreed to get a job that paid Php200 a month.
Cruz got the surprise of his life when he was deployed in a small firm even if he applied in a big company. Little did he know that his first office job would be his ticket to something bigger.
E&G Inc., the company he worked for as assistant chief accountant, pioneered in what was then a flourishing computer industry.
“I learned the whole gamut of accounting: bank reconciliation, pricing, releasing goods from the Bureau of Customs (BOC), etc. The company only had two employees: a messenger and myself,” says Cruz. One day, fate stepped in again. His friend’s boss called Cruz to say that there was a vacancy in Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Company. Is he interested? Cruz said no at first because he already had a responsible post. The boss persisted, “Why won’t you be assistant chief accountant? There are only two of you in the company!”
Cruz transferred to Shell, where he first worked as an analysis and control assistant. His next exposure was in sales. The young man found the sales representatives’ brand-new cars too tempting to resist. He said yes when the manager asked him to join the sales team.
When Cruz asked Php200 from his mother to register the company car, she took it as a joke. She thought her son was boasting. But he got behind the wheel and took her to Luneta that day. She was in tears as she sat in the passenger seat.
Another miracle awaited Cruz. The manager assigned him to Bulacan, his home province, where he acted as a Good Samaritan to his kababayan.
“I gave loans to struggling dealers. Our deal was for them to inform me when they can’t fund a check. Otherwise, I’ll get kicked out of work and I won’t get my retirement pay,” recalls Cruz.
Out-of-town checks took longer to clear back then, so Cruz was able to extend credit to many struggling dealers who amassed wealth in the process. The gamble paid off. Cruz got promoted to become the youngest district manager in Metro Manila at 32 years old.
At a time when one-stop shops in gasoline stations were unheard of, Cruz applied his Divisoria background by selling groceries in a Jose Abad Santos (corner Rizal Avenue) gasoline station, thereby turning it into a convenience store. Those stations were then known as Shell shops.
He earned his first million in just six months. Conflict with his boss, however, forced Cruz to resign, a move the vice president rejected.
“I’m only from UE. You’re from Harvard. I can’t replace you,” Cruz explained. Besides, he didn’t see himself as an employee. He wanted to earn wealth on his own.
His wife Prescila was against the resignation. Being the wife of a district manager had a lot of perks. Getting VIP treatment among dealers was one of them.
But Cruz had decided. He studied everything about running gasoline stations: hauling, trucking, contracting, distributing, etc. Successful dealers he helped as a manager in Shell came to the rescue.
They allowed Cruz to pay merchandise when he’s able. They lent trucks. Another promised to transfer funds to the bank if Cruz’s check bounced. But the need for such never occurred. Cruz honored financial obligations. Trust is sacred to him.
As a result, Cruz won the maintenance contract for Shell service stations in the entire island of Luzon.
He invested his earnings in a huge tract of land in Guiguinto which he developed into St. Agatha Resort & Hotel, a first-class subdivision which carries his only daughter and youngest child’s name. He opened more gasoline stations.
After his neighbors were forcibly evicted from the squatter’s area near Roxas Boulevard, Manila, Cruz bought the vacated land and sold it at a profit of almost Php700,000. In no time at all, he felt “old rich” himself by moving into a more than 1,000 square meter house in New Manila, Quezon City.
FATE STEPPING IN AGAIN
Fate stepped in again when Cruz found himself in deep conversation with fellow Guiguinteños. He told them, “How can you progress in a landlocked area? Your businesses are along MacArthur (Highway, Malolos, Bulacan). You need an expressway that will give you access from Manila. It will make things easy.”
Then somebody asked Cruz a question that would change his life: “Why not run for mayor?”
The idea never occurred to Cruz, who hated politics because he considered politicians corrupt. But the willingness to serve won in the end. Cruz learned the joy of service without asking for anything in return when he joined the Rotary Club.
Now, “for once in my life,” he wanted to serve his kababayan. Cruz talked to 1,000 local leaders. He produced the movie Sino Si Boy Cruz? (Who is Boy Cruz?) to let people know him better. He won by a landslide in 1998.
Cruz left all his businesses in the hands of his then 24-year-old eldest son Archimedes. Archimedes agreed on one condition: he would take over for only three years. But he proved to be even better than his dad. He made the businesses grow and earned the admiration of his dad’s peers. Cruz decided to focus on politics.
He introduced the Halamanan Festival, an annual fiesta showcasing what Guiguinto, the Garden City, is now known for: plants. It was adjudged Best Festival in 2018. After 22 years, the Halamanan Festival was celebrated online amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Uploaded videos reached more than one million viewers, indicating the interest and awareness of the people in the festival. The awareness translated to additional sales for the gardeners. The Halamanan Festival has become one of the admired festivities in the country, and it continues to bring pride to the Guiguinteños.
Cruz welcomed businesses and increased tax collections. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) proclaimed Guiguinto the Most Business Friendly Local Government Unit (LGU) in the Philippines. This raised investors’ confidence, and businesses in Guiguinto flourished. Combined annual gross receipts from local businesses reached Php26.59 billion in 2020. This represented a remarkable 284.57 percent growth from Php9.34 billion in 2014.
The municipality was recognized as the LGU with Best Practices and Exceptional Contribution in Environmental Management and Preservation in 2018. The green initiatives for innovation and infrastructure run parallel to the objectives of Guiguinto’s Kalinisan at Kapaligiran Program, which aims to ensure ecological integrity and a clean, healthy environment. Guiguinto further proved its commitment to the environment when it recently passed the LGU Compliance Audit for Manila Bay Clean-up, Rehabilitation, and Preservation Program, with a rating of 88 percent. Some of Guiguinto’s pioneering initiatives for the environment are Bokashi Balls, also called Mabuhay Balls. This product is made from clay, ceramic powder, brown sugar or molasses, and rock salt. The mixture is formed into large balls and left to ferment for several weeks until it is coated with a fuzzy white fungus. After the balls were dropped into the river on April 8, 2021, latest test results showed an improvement in water quality. The LGU also produces eco bricks and hollow blocks which are made from cement, sand and shredded plastics mixed with water to produce bricks that can be used in pathways, parking lots, and even hollow blocks for building facilities. Shredded plastics were also collected from the 14 public elementary schools in the municipality. This project helps reduce the negative effects of plastic in the environment by converting them into usable products; soil conditioner that is made from soil, coconut dust, and biodegradable food waste from the lasagna type composting process of barangay Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs), can be used as garden fertilizer; recycled garden pots that are made from used clothes or fabric, cement, and sand for house gardening. When dried, they can be painted for aesthetic purposes; Guintong Likha products from used sachets and wrappers are turned into colorful bags, pouches, and wallets.
Guiguinto became the first LGU in the Philippines to take on the challenge of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Environmenta Management Bureau in piloting the Refill Revolution. This aims to discourage the practice of buying condiments and other commodities sold in sachets. More than 1,000 households refilled their bottles and tumblers with condiments during the two events, thus preventing more than 1.5 tons of plastic sachets from being dumped as nonbiodegradable wastes.
The three-term mayor’s crowning glory is the Hall of Fame award for the Seal of Good Local Governance (SGLG). Guiguinto also got a Blue Certification from the Office of the Ombudsman, showing that the municipality’s system measures up to standards of doing business with the government. On his second term as local chief executive, Cruz took his governance up a notch by being a four-time SGLG awardee and a recipient of various recognitions in the fields of financial administration, disaster preparedness, social protection, peace and order; business-friendliness and competitiveness, environmental management, tourism, culture, and the arts. Before the implementation of SGLG, Cruz launched a 7K Program to guide the management and administration of Guiguinto. The seven (7) Ks refer to Kabuhayan, Katahimikan at Kaayusan, Kalinisan at Kapaligiran, Kalusugan, Kabataan at Kalinangan, Kaunlaran at Kahandaan, and Karunungan which make up the areas of good governance.
In 2019–2021 Guiguinto was adjudged the Most Business-Friendly LGU, and got an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification from TÜV Rheinland, the first to do so in the region. Another milestone achieved by the municipality is the maintenance of its ISO 9001:2015 Certification after passing the follow-up audit by TÜV Rheinland in 2019. Guiguinto is the first ISO-certified municipality in the province of Bulacan. It means that its quality management system is aligned with international standards. It is constantly able to satisfy the needs and expectations of its constituents and other stakeholders and complies with relevant statutory and regulatory requirements.
For this and his other achievements, Cruz was named Most Outstanding Mayor in 2019.
More positions of honor followed. Cruz got elected president of the League of Municipal Mayors in Bulacan in 2016. He served as Executive Vice President of the League of Municipal Mayors of the Philippines (LMP) in 2016.
At 74 years of age, Cruz is not resting on his laurels. He wants to help the Fifth District of Bulacan as their representative in the next Congress.
As a congressional bet, Cruz promises to replicate his success in Guiguinto, in the Fifth District towns of Pandi, Bocaue, and Balagtas. He plans to make these places more accessible to businesses. He promises to invite investors and build educational institutions, thereby decongesting Manila.
If elected, Cruz will work for the creation of a Department of Water that will ensure that the towns are flood-free when typhoons come. He’s all for a federal government that will bring services down to the barangay level, resolve court cases faster, and reduce poverty.
It’s a tall order. But Cruz, as usual, will do his utmost best. That’s how he turned things around in Guiguinto. Cruz transformed Guiguinto from a third class to a first class municipality with his prudent approach to local financial management. When he assumed office in 1998, the municipal government had a total revenue of Php33.28 million, which skyrocketed to Php100.26 million at the end of his third term in 2007. The revenue growth was more than 201 percent.
In his second term, Cruz surpassed the 1998 to 2007 revenue growth rate by 5 percentage points with the total revenue of Php625.08 million in 2020 from Php204.12 million in 2013. It is also worth noting that with the steady increase in local sources, Guiguinto became less reliant on Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA), at only 45 percent. The uptrend in revenue spawned various efforts to promote Guiguinto as an investment destination, along with streamlining and expediting processes such as computerization of government transactions. The successful computerization of the local finance offices together with prudence in handling public funds paved the way for Guiguinto to be recognized as among the first implementers of the New Government Accounting System (NGAS) in the Philippines. It was chosen as one of only two municipalities in Central Luzon for the pilot testing of the Public Financial Management Assessment Tool (PFMAT) for Local Government Units.
Guiguinto is also a perennial recipient of the Good Financial Housekeeping honor since 2013, and a passer for the Financial Administration focus area of the SGLG since 2017.
Cruz is not resting on his laurels. He wants to serve more, do more. The road ahead is filled with new challenges. And he can’t wait to meet them, head on.