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MANUEL VILLAR HIT THE big time when his property company, C&P Homes, was listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange July 31. Priced at 49 cents, the initial public offering closed at 67 cents that day, up more than a third. The value of Villar's 80% stake in the company ballooned to $1.5 billion. Not bad for a shrimp-and-fish vendor's son who started out in 1975 with a $400 loan to haul construction material to housing projects. Elected to a second term as congressman in May, Villar, 45, spoke with Contributing Reporter Wilhemina Paras in Manila. Excerpts:

How does it feel to be an instant billionaire?

Nothing spectacular, really. It's just on paper. I'm basically a low-key person. Nothing has changed. But I'm more security-conscious now. My eldest son, Manuel Paolo, has been studying abroad for the past several years. I'm also sending Mark, my second son, overseas, though he is still in his last year in high school. My youngest daughter, Camille Linda, who is 10, is almost always by our side.

Do you plan to diversify now that you have a huge capital base?

No, not yet, not now. I'm the biggest private low-cost home builder in the country, but I want to become the biggest home builder in the world. That's still my focus.

What about the competition?

Even if you combine the next four companies [after C&P Homes], we're still the runaway winner in terms of units built. But I expect many competitors to enter the housing industry in the next five years. Real estate in the Philippines is really on the upsurge and nobody can blame entrepreneurs if they enter this very lucrative business. But C&P Homes is not in any way threatened. Being in the business for 20 years, with housing projects nationwide and supported by sales brokers, contractors, suppliers and bankers, we definitely have a major competitive advantage.

But property is really a cyclical business.

There's always a boom and a bust. Still, I don't see any serious downturn in the Philippines because we're starting from a very low point. I don't think there's a problem in the low and middle segments, which are small and growing steadily. Look out for boom-and-bust trends in big properties, however. I sell to people who don't speculate, who live in the houses they buy, so there is very little possibility of a bust for C&P Homes.

You cannot go wrong by investing in Philippine property. But like anywhere else in the world, there are pitfalls. Timing is the key. Since the Philippines is just taking off, it has more risks than a developed country but the returns are greater. I'd say it's a very good time for foreigners to invest here. We're going to be more prosperous in the next five years. My forecast is that we'll have annual economic growth of between 6.5% and 9%.

Does your being a member of the House of Representatives benefit your business?

When I travel I don't charge the government, although it's allowed because it is work-related. I pay my own way. When you are this big, you have to follow the rules. You can't afford not to, because all eyes are on you. It is not a wise business practice to use government perks. I'll serve the three terms [allowed by the Constitution.] After that, I'll think about the future. But I'll stop at being a congressman.

What advice do you have for other business people?

I want to set an example to Filipino entrepreneurs. A lot of our people think that Filipinos by nature can't make it in business, that only the Chinese have the capability. I have shown that it can be done. I don't stop until I achieve what I set out to do. You have to be persistent, hardworking, determined. And of course you have to have the guts.

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