Screenshot of the Facebook cover of Evangeline Escobillo, former regulator, risk manager, insurance reformer, tough love advocate, life of the party
Screenshot of the Facebook cover of Evangeline Escobillo, former regulator, risk manager, insurance reformer, tough love advocate, life of the party

Two were lost last weekend: Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao’s bout with Floyd Mayweather and Evangeline Crisostomo Escobillo‘s life.

Escobillo, known mostly for her short and bittersweet stint as insurance commissioner, was on her way to Laguna with her husband after watching the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight in Manila when the car she was driving hit a tree. According to the report, her husband, retired Major General Nestor Sadiarin, perished on the same day, May 3, while Escobillo died the day after.

Her death is a shock, a wake up call even. “Tita Vangie,” as I have called her after we have moved on from our source and reporter roles to being friends, was always full of life that it is hard to imagine she is no longer alive. I consider her one of my most memorable mentors, the kind who have contributed to the shaping of my career as a business journalist.

We first met in 2004, when I was doing a series of stories on the crumbling pre-need industry, which affected the financing plans for the educational needs of millions of Filipinos. The giant College Assurance Plan was the first to unravel, followed by about a dozen more. Industry professionals, policy makers and regulators all urged me to talk to her as I vigorously pursued the core issues that led to this financial mess.

I remember going to her office in Makati where she was then president of a small bank. She spent hours explaining the nitty-gritty’s of the issue. We met again not long after. I brought a list of additional questions plus a diagram of who was doing what. She answered all of them with ease. She had a knack for tackling technical things in layman’s terms. Her years of doing actuarial services and being a go-to person for policy makers and regulators built in deep stock knowledge that she could easily refer to as I asked her endless questions. I was passionate and she was patient.

She also gave me copies of industry studies that recommended reforms implemented a little too late, as well as access to a robust database of financial reports that became crucial in my reporting. (My Newsbreak magazine reports on pre-need and related issues bagged a Jaime Ongpin Investigative Journalism award, considered the Pulitzer in the Philippines.)

Some of my pre-need and insurance stories:

Broken Promises” on College Assurance Plan’s impending demise. Published in Newsbreak

When Good Plans Go Bad” on Pacific Plan’s collapse. Published in Newsbreak

Legacy Group is Philippines’ version of AIG mess,” an analysis of the fall of Legacy Group by businessman-turned-politician Celso de los Angeles. Published in and Newsbreak

US financial woes become personal to Filipinos” includes the reforms Escobillo wanted to implement in the insurance commission to avoid the financial-turned-economic mess the Americans found themselves in. Published in and Newsbreak

Death hits pre-need industry” includes a rundown of the issues and government personalities involved in the fall of the pre-need industry. Published in and Newsbreak

My interactions with her were itself a discovery. One time, she agreed to meet me after 9pm at the Makati Sports Club after she couldn’t find a slot in her schedule to accommodate my request for a rush interview. I walked into the tailend of her birthday party. She switched on her “explainer” hat not long after the dance music died down and a round or two of samba and singing. She doesn’t really care much about media spotlight, just the dancing lights when she struts around to the beat of cha-cha or something else.

She was generous not just with her time but also with her infectious laughter and bits of life lessons. She wasn’t shy about her humble roots and admit that she’s a woman in a hurry. She hated compromise, however, stressing principles and values she held dear. She was aware there are short cuts to where she wants to be or things she wants to get done, but she wouldn’t take them. She was hard headed that way.

Because she wouldn’t bend, the others tried to break her during her stint at the Insurance Commission. She lost that fight, but she didn’t lost the battle. Most of the reforms she started were carried on by her successors.

This gregarious and life-of-the-party lady was used to bumps in life and love. After her shortened government stint, she focused on effecting reforms by going global and regional, accepting roles in different Asean-level industry groupings and in multilateral institutions, before going to Harvard and marrying her new love. We kept in touch via Facebook, occasionally chatting online and exchanging virtual winks for our travel and life-happens -related posts. We have vowed to meet up and catch up, but our careers and travels got in the way.

Goodbye, Tita Vangie. I will truly miss a friend and mentor. Go party in heaven!

By the way…

Below is my profile story on her which I wrote for Newsbreak magazine but, unfortunately, was not printed. (Newsbreak moved online.)

I wrote it in October, 2005, after she assumed office at the commission. It was meant to introduce who she was and what she wanted to accomplish. She died 10 years after.

The New Boss

The new insurance commissioner takes on a controversial position as she dodges the issues hounding her as well

By Lala Rimando

Evangeline Escobillo knows what she wants and how to get it. When she learned that finance secretary Gary Teves is looking for candidates to replace Benjamin Santos at the Insurance Commission (IC), she eagerly sought people who can include her in the shortlist, introduced herself to those who had issues about her possible appointment, and prayed hard to get the job.

Escobillo, 51, was about to retire from being a banker, but wanted to serve the government – specifically at the IC – before eventually settling down as a farmer-entrepreneur in her hometown in Laguna.

“I know I can make a difference,” she confidently tells Newsbreak when asked why she pined for the top position at the regulatory body for life and non-life insurance companies. Her designation comes at the heel of controversies surrounding the reported unceremonial dismissal of her predecessor, who claimed it was the big players who worked to have him kicked out from the IC because the reforms he was initiating were affecting these players adversely.

But Escobillo, who was proclaimed the commissioner in October 6, said she would rather focus her energies on her own mandates than bother to probe the circumstances involving Santos ’ discharge.

Escobillo came from a poor family of nine from the town of Mahayhay in Laguna. She’s comfortable with numbers since she was young. She was in charge of tending one of their sari-sari stores and would weave baskets and mats to augment her and her siblings’ school allowance. Every cent counted so she honed the skill of computing each transaction in her mind.

She looks up to her mother, who at bedtime, would entice her kids to dream big. She took those dreams to heart and eventually became president of Anchor Savings Bank, a thrift bank, where she worked for 23 years. On the side, she was actuarial consultant for several insurance companies, officer of various industry associations, and one time governor of the International Actuarial Association.

She is the groovy, life-of-the-party type. She even once impersonated Tina Turner in gathering of the Management Association of the Philippines , with fishnet stockings to boot. On her first day at the IC, she showed up in her sparkling pink suit.

With style and motivation, Escobillo is dodging issues raised against her designation as well. Top of the list is her involvement in the controversial USAID-funded Agile body, which about three years ago was accused of being the American government’s instrument to ensure that the interests of big American companies in the country are prioritized over the smaller and Filipino-owned ones. Escobillo was part of an Agile study, commissioned by then trade secretary Mar Roxas, that looked into the pre-need industry, a competitor of the insurance industry. (See related story on pre-need)

Escobillo’s interest in the pre-need industry is traced all the way back to 1991. She and other concerned actuaries (professionals who provide the intricate computations to value a financial product that benefits buyers in the future) offered their services to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to examine how the pre-need products, which include the popular educational plans, are being priced. Their examination showed that the pricing assumptions “are too optimistic and unreasonable,” and that the accounting method used “understated the true liabilities.” For years, their warnings recommendations fell into deaf ears because it was the good times then.

In 2001, an Agile group who was already mid-way in their study, tapped her for technical inputs and analysis. The results of the Agile study was cited in the 2002 hearings at the senate and congress, essentially blowing the alarm on the impending insolvency problems of the pre-need industry.

In hindsight, it turned out that the warnings had basis. Last year, College Assurance Plan (CAP), the market leader in educational plans, missed out on the tuition payments of its availing plan holders. What the company considered a mere paper loss of about P20 billion turned into a real one. Last April and August, Pacific Plans Inc. and Platinum Plans went to court admitting they have liquidity problems and submitted their respective rehabilitation plans. These troubled companies left a trail of almost a million plan holders whose parents are now worried sick about how else to afford the education of their children.

Amidst the sob stories, the Pre-Need Code is now a priority legislation and is expected to be passed very soon. In the house version, however, SEC remains the regulator, while the senate version calls for the industry’s transfer to the IC.

This is why the Federation of Pre-Need Industries is apprehensive about Escobillo’s appointment at the IC. Miguel Vasquez, the president of the federation, tells Newsbreak, “She is intelligent, but based on her previous positions about the industry, we know that she has her biases already. We would rather be with a regulator who is impartial.”

Escobillo earned the ire of the federation because of her recommendations in the Agile study, which includes uniform accounting practices and tempered actuarial assumptions, both now enshrined in the SEC’s internal rules for pre-need companies. The federation complained of lack of consultation with the industry players, citing they only had a few weeks to review the changes before they were cast in stone. The industry players are contesting these changes because these require them to increase their capitalization and allocate more in the trust funds.

Escobillo defended her role in the Agile study when she ran into Bulacan representative Prospero Pichay who mentioned that this is the main issue raised against her. She told him it is not her goal to kill the industry, adding, “I didn’t join [Agile] because it was a foreign consulting firm. The objective of the study is to strengthen the [pre-need] industry, so I didn’t see anything wrong with that.”

Pichay, who was also in the shortlist, was impressed. He lobbied for Escobillo’s appointment. Pichay told her to be available for her oathtaking the day after they met.

Her marching order from finance secretary Teves is to prioritize the reforms in the required motor vehicle insurance, also known as the compulsory third party liability (CTPL) policy. This was controversial because of the billions of pesos in uncollected taxes and victimized millions with fake policies. Junking the previous plan to create a consortium which is perceived as a cartel, she and the industry players already have a general roadmap to institute a clearing house system, much the same as how the banks process their checking accounts. This proposed system allows a client to purchase his policy through the banks, which will transmit the information to the clearing house owned by participating non-life insurance companies, which will then pass it on to the Land Transportation Office. This way, all the policies are assured to be legitimate.

Next on her things-to-do is the review of the proposed increase in capitalization. While this is supposed to strengthen the industry and make it at par with that of the other countries’, she says it is important to follow a risk-based approach. A higher capitalization is required from companies who have more appetite for riskier businesses or put assets in riskier investment instruments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.