Vision and authenticity

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Annabella Santos-Wisniewski stood on her favorite Boracay Island beach in her native Philippines and had a vision. Looking behind her into a forest of palm trees, she said, “I see something white like a jewel sparkling at night. It connects inside and out to the environment such that nature is inseparable from the whole.”

Four years later we are standing in the same spot, surrounded by Annabella’s recently completed dream. Discovery Shores, where we’ll be spending a few days with the Cornell Hotel Society, Asia–Pacific conference, is extraordinary for its natural beauty, superb taste and an easygoing spirit first manifest as school children welcomed us with delightful Filipino songs and dances.

When I asked Annabella to describe herself as a visionary leader of her industry, she

told me three things: “First, I was born with vision and accept it as a great gift not to be taken lightly. I have to share it for others to multiply the enjoyment; second, I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to develop the left part of my brain – education and other tools for grounding my right brain and building teams to implement my ideas; and last, my lucky star gave me the optimism that all would work out, and this helps me risk adventure.”

Annabella’s journey began after she graduated from a Catholic girls’ school in Manila where she decided she wanted to be an architect. Her mother, a successful restaurateur who had turned a three-table coffee shop into 28 cafeterias, three restaurants, a catering service and 750 employees said, “Make that your hobby, and go study business so you can support it! By reputation the Cornell Hotel School is the best place for you and they’ll accept foreign students.” In 1965, Annabella was the first Filipino to graduate from the Cornell Hotel School, where she later completed academic requirements for a master’s degree and met and married her husband, Thomas Wisniewski.

“Education is not purely academic,” she says. “Experiences make you stronger, especially if you fail once in a while.” Even while raising their three sons, she and Tom were willing to move to where the best opportunities arose – Manila, both coasts of the United States, Hawaii and Singapore. In 1990, at the peak of their productivity in California, their lives changed dramatically when Annabella suffered an abscess in her cerebellum and doctors said she would either die or become a vegetable unless she had an immediate operation. Drawing on her considerable strengths and a deepening spirituality, she healed within three months.

“I learned that God has a design if I’ll just let go and let God,” she said. “Having lived, I decided that I must have a mission in life and that my job was to listen and feel out what that might be over time.” After several years she knew that her life’s work was to return to the Philippines to make a difference in her own community.

Businesses had begun to move from an autocratic toward a more democratic model, and Annabella decided to create a standard that promoted the dignity of her staff despite the rigid class structure. Her focus became growing her organization and the people in it through their niche – developing luxury hotels and food parks. Her son explains how the latter works: “We conceptualize and build food courts inside office buildings, and then we sublease the space. We also operate our own stalls to keep us grounded in operations.”

Raintree Partners is changing the food and hotel business in the Philippines, and in 2003 won a highly prestigious “Best Employer in Asia” award from Hewitt Associates with the Asian Wall Street Journal. “You give them roots and you give them wings and it’s wonderful to see them fly,” Annabella says of her employees.

Observing Annabella during our time in the Philippines, I see that she functions in absolutely the same way in business and with her family. She is a leader who is respected for her tough love because she has such a big heart. What you see is what you get and it’s spelled “authenticity.” When I ask this visionary woman so at home in the world how she would like to be described, she says: “By being there she helped a life. She made a difference. She opened doors and lived for others, not herself.”

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She writes a monthly column for Washington Window

and teaches a course, “Congregational Leadership: Family Systems Theory for Clergy” at Virginia Theological Seminary’s Center for Lifetime Theological Education.

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