By Zerylle Mae Lim
Juan Mario Lotho Santiago, better known as “Mario” to everyone else, was born to Victorino Pablo Santiago Jr. and Rudisinda Victoria Lotho on June 24, 1952 in Sta. Ana, Manila.
Soon after completing his secondary education in Ateneo De Manila in Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Mario joined the activist movement under the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP), which was led by Edgar Jopson. He dropped out of college briefly after starting this in the University of the Philippines Diliman and was later on compelled by his martinet father to continue his studies until he eventually graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering from Central Colleges of the Philippines, Quezon City, after entering and leaving a series of other institutions, namely Ateneo De Cagayan and Baguio Colleges Foundation.
Mario was thrown in jail in a military camp in Tarlac during Martial Law era at the time when he was leading the Student Council in Baguio Colleges Foundation as the President whilst simultaneously serving as a member of the Kabataan Makabayan. Luckily, as his father was a military man from Philippine Military Academy and was well-connected, Mario was released under the custody of the Philippine Constabulary and was made to report weekly to the office of the Commander, General Ramon Montano in Camp Crame.
Just a year after having graduated from college, he passed the board exam and took on a job in a contracting firm in Pasig City, after which he was relocated to Davao City to be a part of the engineering team that supervised the construction of the Compania Maritima Wharf and Docking Facilities in Barrio Ilang beside the Sasa-Sasa Port. He returned to Manila, where he worked double-time as an Engineering college professor and as a Marine Engineer and later applied in Erectors Incorporated- a contracting company which had projects in the Middle East, particularly in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Mario was determined to take on a challenge to prove that Filipino engineers who gained experience in the Philippines could be a match to the Western-bred engineers in an international setting, thus took on to starting his first career in the Gulf. He landed a job as a Precast Inspection Engineer in 1981 and just after a year, got promoted as Assistant Quality Control Manager in a massive project called the King Khalid Military City Project, located in Hafar Al Batin, Saudi Arabia, near the Iraqi border. Soon enough, Mario was again promoted to the position of Chief of Quality Control in the USD 150-million worth Military Brigade Project and in the first quarter of 1985, his rank further rose to being the Deputy Project Manager.
In the latter part of the same year, Mario transferred to a local company named Yusuf Bin Ahmed Kanoo, which is a Middle East Conglomerate that had an opening for the position of Civil Engineer. Due to his extensive past experience in the field, he applied for the position along with two hundred other multi-national applicants and right after the personal interview with the Managing Director the recruitment process was stopped and he was immediately offered the job.
Mario started as a Supervising Engineer with YBA Kanoo in 1985 and was promoted two years later to the position of Property & Maintenance Manager of the Property division of the same company, alongside the Supervising Engineer job, thus given the nickname “The Trouble Maker”, not for literally bring one, but because the two westerners who were the Property Manager and the Maintenance Manager respectively were always shoving him in the ‘firing line’ in front of the Kanoo family members and officers whenever a dispute erupted at work.
This helped him become known and drawn closer to the Kanoo family members who were the Board members & Chairpersons of the different Kanoo companies. So in time, the employment contracts of the two westerners were not renewed and in their place, an Asian and a Filipino Engineer were appointed to the joint positions of Property and Maintenance Manager.
Through the years in YBA Kanoo, Mario was promoted to Division Manager of the Property and Maintenance Company until 1996 when he requested to go back home to the Philippines to answer the Call of then President Fidel Ramos for OFW Engineers to integrate in the revived and growing Philippine economy. However, in 1997 the Property Market crashed in Asia which started in Singapore and disturbed much of the Philippines but this did not affect him too much as he was employed in Jardine Davies (Makati) and later on transferred to Landco Pacific Corporation, which had projects in Batulao, Punta Fuego Batangas and in Fort Bonifacio Global City.
Mario was determined to prove that Filipino engineers have the potential to stand out in an international setting.
In the year 2000 Mario was requested by the company to go to the Gulf Countries to assist and promote the Landscaping Division since he had strong ties with companies and prominent individuals in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It was at this time when he was once again offered by the Kanoo family to work for them in a proposed man-made island project which would be the first private company to carry out such a project in Bahrain. The original name of the Project was “Salman Island”, which was promoted in an International Magazine at that time but later on the name was changed to “Amwaj Islands” (“Amwaj” meaning “waves” in Arabic).
He was appointed as the Project Manager of the Amwaj Islands Project by Ossis Property Developers B.S.C. (c) which privately owned the project, and while he was mandated to reclaim the man-made islands in three years through European technology and American production, they were able to complete the reclamation work in just one year. It actually took ten months to reclaim the islands but because siltation-removal in the lagoons had to be carried out, the completion took another two months.
The Al Marsa Floating City was also born in the Amwaj Islands in 2002 as Frenchman Architect Bernard Spoerry whose father, Francois Spoerry built the Port Grimmaud in Saint-Tropez in the South of France in 1960, designed the Venice-inspired floating city at the southeastern portion of the Amwaj Islands, with Mario as the Project Manager and the owner’s representative.
The developer also built the Meena7 Towers as a landmark in the Floating City consisting of seven buildings with extra-large community-sized swimming pools, a beach, a mooring area for boat enthusiasts, and lush gardens.
Thereafter, Mario returned to work directly under the Office of Saud Kanoo who formed several companies to undertake development projects and then left in 2009 to transfer and carry out consulting and supervisory works in Arc International Consultants- a Dubai-based company. In 2011, he joined Al Mahara Contracting Company and Kingdom Projects W.L.L. serving as General Manager-Projects.
Mario is now in the process of planning and preparing for another big project involving the making of a new man-made island in Bahrain which could possibly commence shortly this year, targeted to be completed in five years. The concept includes contemporary-designed villas and lavish greenery under the lifestyles of Ocean Living, Beachside Living, Garden Terrain Living, Sky Top Exclusive Living and Marina Living.
Mario’s advice to his fellow engineers and OFWs is, “We should not be choosy in our jobs but should learn to work hard and prove our worth despite the difficulties and hindrances. Do not be too sensitive (or “balat-sibuyas”) and don’t give up so easily. Do not be intimidated by other nationalities, but instead be steadfast and cooperative. The rewards come thereafter”.
Outside his professional undertakings, Mario is also active in Community work and served as Filipino Club Chairman during the mid-90s.