Favorite Things | Puzzled

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To a civil engineer like Levy Espiritu, jigsaw puzzles are like miniature construction projects.

Interview  Pola Esguerra del Monte  |  Photography  Chari T. Villegas

Levy Espiritu, president of construction firm Datem, Inc., is a builder of worlds both large and and small. Where his work involves real-estate projects that are shaping the metropolitan skyline, his hobby involves putting together jigsaw puzzles with parts as small as fingertips.

Two thousand minuscule pieces are let loose on the table, marking the beginning of a sporadic two-month journey through a chaotic jumble. Mr. Espritu, a civil engineer by profession, lines up the pieces methodically. “Solving requires strategy,” he says. The border is built up first, and then the remaining pieces are grouped by color—dark shades last. They are inserted one by one, until Mr. Espiritu discovers a pattern in the order of jigsaw tabs and slots.

Scouring places like the souvenir shops around The Musée du Louvre in Paris, he has added to his 16-puzzle collection a number of religious-inspired images, including versions of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper and L’Adorazione de Magi. The finished puzzles enjoy their appointed places on the walls of Mr. Espiritu’s home, framed and hung alongside paintings by Filipino masters. He deems the puzzles to be just as valuable as these artworks, which cost millions, and considers passing them on to his children as family heirlooms. 

Mr. Espiritu has fallen under the puzzle’s spell. “When you see the progress,” he said, “it gives you inspiration.” A puzzle, after all, is more than just a sum of its parts. Once all the oddities find their rightful places, the puzzle ceases being an enigma. It is greatly satisfying to see a piece, which tells you nothing on its own, join a thousand others in creating a halcyon image of a European village bathed in afternoon light.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s L’Adorazione de Magi in puzzle form.

Why do you like puzzles?

I was trained as an engineer. There’s a structure in doing the puzzles. It’s not just randomly putting pieces together. You also have a plan in completing a certain area. You look at it like any construction project: there should be pre-planning, implementation, and post-construction analysis. In pre-planning, you see how you will construct the project in the most efficient, productive, cost efficient way of completing the project earlier.

In the context of a puzzle, that’s where you strategize. You group all the same colors together, etc. In post-construction, you compare what you have planned—budget vs. actual. In a puzzle, when you discover a new pattern, say, in the middle of the puzzle, you adapt it in the next series of pieces. Just like in a project, what you learn in the analysis you adapt it in the next. You look at the ingredients in managing the project: material, manpower, machinery, money, and the fifth, which encompasses all the M’s, is management. For you to be able to successfully complete a project, or a puzzle, you need to manage it well.

Do you also think puzzles relate to running a corporation? 

Let’s say you have 2,000 pieces. The first piece, or the 200th piece, or the 2,000th piece is important. If you lose one piece, you don’t complete the puzzle. It’s a very important piece. In an organization, all the employees are part of the family structure. They are involved, they participate, their inputs are very important for the success of the organization. We look at every piece of the company as part of a puzzle.

You’ve decided to take Datem, Inc. public. In a sense, you’ll be adding more pieces to your puzzle. How will you manage? 

We have so many plans for the company—plans for expansion. In these plans for expansion, we had to look at the ingredients of expansion, and the only way for this expansion to be successful is to go public. In going public, then you have to be ready with the plans for the company, the expansion plans. There should also be a strategy, these are detailed strategies. You cannot take a step if you don’t have specific plans for the expansion of the company.

What are your dream projects?

We want to go to building homes, then we want to focus on water supply. Our Filipino countrymen deserve to live comfortably. That is a continuing dream for us. We dream of that scenario where you have a beautiful city, and you are part of building that city. It’s like building a puzzle, on a larger scale, and in the real world.