Philtranco Always Tried Horizontal Integration

Horizontal integration is the setting up or the acquisition of a company at the same level of the value chain and that is meant to help the company compete. It can be a competitive strategy where economies of scale, more efficiency and increase of market power are the objectives. Companies engage in horizontal integration to benefit from possible synergies. But sometimes the resolution of a problem or a bottleneck prods a company into horizontal integration.

Philtranco Service Enterprises, Inc. (PSEI), the leading bus company in the Philippines then tried this strategy over a generation ago. From running a big fleet of buses from Manila to the southern part of the Philippines up to Davao City, they established their own RORO companies in the San Bernardino Strait crossing that linked Sorsogon and Samar. However, the results were certainly very mixed, to say the least, and controversial.

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The Cardinal Ferry 1. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

Since 1979, Philtranco buses (they were still known as Pantranco South then) have been rolling across already to Eastern Visayas via the San Bernardino Strait using the newly-fielded RORO Cardinal Ferry 1 of Cardinal Shipping. Newport Shipping which had ferries and cargo ships from Manila to Samar then followed with their Northern Star and Laoang Bay.

This reaction of Newport Shipping was very understandable as Newport Shipping was not really doing well with their Manila to Samar route and maybe they felt they have to defend their home turf as the owner of Newport Shipping is from Laoang, Northern Samar. They might have also felt that this new intermodal route might kill them in the long term and so they have to join the fun.

"Maharllika 1" Ferry unloading Bus

MV Northern Samar. Formerly the MV Northern Star before she was refitted. Photo by Lindsay Bridge of PSSS.

Before the ROROs arrived it was the motor boats of Bicolandia Shipping Lines (this company has legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas) which dominated the route across San Bernardino Strait. But with the buses now rolling the passengers no longer have to cut their bus trip to Matnog and they do not take a local bus to Allen, Northern Samar to take the lancha (motor boat). Convenience is what the intermodal system offered. Cargo of the passengers that was once a hassle became less with the bus for it afforded less handling and haggling.

Immediately, there was a surplus of bottoms in San Bernardino Strait as the government-owned Maharlika II (later replaced by Maharlika I whom it replaced earlier) was also plying the official Matnog to San Isidro, N. Samar route. Moreover, the passengers to Eastern Visayas did not immediately shift to the buses especially the passengers to Leyte. They were still content with the liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines which had calls in Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban and other ports in Leyte and Southern Leyte. In terms of comfort the bus is actually inferior to the liners which has its own toilets and baths, are equipped with bunks with mattresses and even linen (called “beddings”) plus the meals are free and the rice servings are generous. However, they only call in ports unlike buses which roll through the various towns.

Maharlika I

The Maharlika I. Photo from Edison Sy of PSSS.

In the aftermath of that surplus of bottoms, Cardinal Shipping and Newport Shipping teetered especially when Eugenia Tabinas got into the RORO act starting when she was able to acquire the Northern Star in 1981 which she then renamed into the Northern Samar. Eugenia Tabinas was in a strong position as she dominated the intra-Bicol routes with her motor boats and so she can compete in one of her routes at just break-even.

However, with many buses crossing San Bernardino Strait, Philtranco thought they could save money if they operated their own ROROs where they will always have priority. And so they also got caught in the RORO act (they were still strong then and they have just re-fleeted into Hino) and they thereby acquired the Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping which was renamed into the Black Double. In 1984, this became the Philtranco Ferry 1 of Philtranco Services.

1984 0915 MV Philtranco Ferry I

The Philtranco Ferry I. Research of Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

It is here that things began to get interesting and lively. Eugenia Tabinas or Bicolandia Shipping smelled that Philtranco was operating without a Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) and complained to MARINA, the Maritime Industry Authority which is the country’s maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial powers. Philtranco countered that since they were only loading their own buses then there is no need for them to get a CPC. Now, if MARINA agrees with that then Philtranco will be the only sea carrier without a CPC and that has great implications.

Along the way, Black Double got unreliable as she was built in 1962 and diesel engines were not yet as reliable (with changes in design and technology that changed in the mid-1960s especially when Daihatsu marine engines became dominant). She was sold to Badjao Navigation and she became the Badjao and she plied a route from Cebu island to Leyte.

While the case was pending (as it reached the higher courts as MARINA quasi-judicial decisions can be appealed in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court), Philtranco acquired the salvaged Mindoro Express from Prince Valiant Navigation which then became the Christ The Saviour and Christ The King. The RORO became the Luzvimin Primo because she was now under the Luzvimin Ferry Services, the new ferry company of Philtranco.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

The Mindoro Express just before she became the Christ The King and Luzvimin Primo . Photo by Edison Sy of PSSS.

In due time (which means a long time), the Supreme Court sustained the ruling of MARINA that a shipping company cannot carry passengers without a CPC and the ferry service of Philtranco stopped. By that time Philtranco was already toppling and it was fast losing its Hino buses.

Philtranco then fell into the hands of transportation mogul Pepito Alvarez who then equipped Philtranco with his new MAN and Nissan buses. Soon, he was able to reach a deal with the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos to operate the already-weak Maharlika ferries which in that time consisted only of Maharlika I and Maharlika II (this one was not in San Bernardino Strait but in Surigao Strait).

After settling in, Pepito Alvarez added the Maharlika Tres, Maharlika Cuatro and Lakbayan Uno (this was later sold to Millennium Shipping). And then the Luzvimin Primo became the Maharlika Cinco. Later, the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were also also added to be followed by the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 which came from Phil-Nippon Kyoei. This time Philtranco was already careful about the CPC. In these moves, Pepito Alvarez worked through his protégé Cristopher Pastrana.

Liloan ships

Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz. Photo from the PPA.

The horizontal integration of Philtranco was not necessarily beneficial for the passengers unless maybe in its early years when the dominant Bicolandia Shipping Lines engaged in what is locally-known as “alas-puno” system of departures when a ferry will only leave if it was already full of rolling cargo (and that was the cause of their downfall later). With that system, the buses and its passengers lose time and it could be in the hours.

But when ROROs bloomed in San Bernardino Strait, horizontal integration became a negative because Philtranco buses have to wait for the ferries (Maharlika ferries were not so reliable and it tried many routes in the country including in Catanduanes, Masbate, Marinduque, Batangas and Panay and so its presence in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait was actually diluted and trips were few) as Philtranco buses have no freedom to sail in competing ferries.

I was once a passenger aboard a Philtranco bus from Davao. Our driver was driving fast so we can board the morning RORO of Maharlika in their Dapdap port (owned by sister company Philharbor). We arrived at 8:30am only to see the ferry has just left. There was only one Maharlika RORO then there and we waited for its return. Finally, we left Dapdap port at 1:30pm and everybody was so pissed up including the drivers as we saw several ferries leaving the competing BALWHARTECO port ahead of us. If our Philtranco bus had freedom, we would have been aboard the first of those that left BALWHARTECO port and saved several hours of waiting time.

Dapdap port

Grand Star RORO I and Maharlika Tres in Dapdap port. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

The Philtranco driver/conductors also didn’t like that they have no freedom to load the buses in competing ROROs. The reason is they can’t avail of the “rebates” offered by the competing shipping companies. This comes in the form of free ferry tickets that can be sold by the driver/conductors to their passengers. Even if only half the tickets are free that can come up to an average of P1,500 for the driver/conductors in additional income.

When Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the name of the shipping company established by Pepito Alvarez) weakened and they just had a limited number of ROROs running, Philtranco finally allowed its buses to ride the competing ferries as passengers began to shun them. However, when the FastCat ROROs came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the Philtranco buses were no longer allowed that again. There was also the experiment where the Philtranco buses were no longer boarded aboard the FastCat ROROs and only the passengers and their cargo were loaded. In that system, a Philtranco bus will be waiting at the opposite port.

Philtranco 1833 and 1710

Philtranco buses that disembarked from a FastCat. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Now, Philtranco’s fleet is whittled and it is already far from its number in the 1980s after they re-fleeted from Leyland to Hino. And the tables turned already. It is so-many FastCats that needs them now and not the other way around.

Now, did you know that founder A.L. Ammen tried horizontal integration too?

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