In Memoriam: Esther Vibal, trailblazer in Philippine textbook publishing

She was a disciplined career woman who led the biggest textbook publishing house in the country

ANCX Staff

Young Esther at age 15, while still studying at Colegio de Santa Rosa, Intramuros.

She was known as a trailblazer, a tireless worker, one among a rare breed of women whose careers in publishing had that weight of national importance. 

Esther Asunción Vibal, who founded Vibal Publishing in 1953 with her husband HP Vibal, began her career in the newspaper business in post-war Manila. Fresh out of the University of the Philippines where she was an English major, a scholar, and a writer for the esteemed college paper, the lady from Camiling, Tarlac started out selling advertising space for the Manila Times. This was before she was given assignments to write for the women’s section of the newspaper and wrote a column called “A Little of Everything.” The man who interviewed her for the Times job, editor and owner, Joaquin “Chino” Roces, would become her mentor in both journalism and the business of print. 

Esther Vibal as a UP junior receiving a garland of flowers from the senior class, an annual ritual conducted at the university until the early 1970s

The post-war years were exciting times in Philippine print media. Esther’s peers included the young, spunky reporter Ninoy Aquino, and she found herself polishing her craft by working with the luminaries of the period, among them E. Aguilar Cruz, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil and Jose Luna Castro. 

The young Esther was known in her circle as the frugal one, skipping meals to cut back on her expenses, always saving 3/4 of her pay while her contemporaries spent their salaries on lavish purchases. There were times she got her sustenance, according to her son Gus Vibal, solely from powdered milk.

She was smart about money and knew early on the value of investing in real estate—which would serve her well when she and her husband quit their jobs and decided to venture into their own. Esther’s property in what was then Highway 54 (now Edsa) became the collateral for a loan that will help establish what would become Vibal Publishing House Inc. 

Even in college, Esther found time to be both scholar and activist. As UP student council secretary, Esther was one of the student leaders who visited then President Manuel Roxas on a courtesy call.

In 1957, through Vibal, she launched Science in Schools, the country’s pioneer science education publication, a supplementary school magazine created for teachers. It was the year the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched, and science education had become increasingly important for the West and the Philippine government. Esther saw the advantage of melding her company’s mission with that of the larger world. 

When she finally went full time into the business in 1961, she launched Vibal’s textbook publishing division which the house would eventually be known for. While she immediately wanted to focus on sales, the newspaperwoman in her knew the importance of quality content. According to her son Gus, her mother was very hands-on with the production of the company’s text books, hiring only the best illustrators and authors to put these schooling tools together, sometimes even editing the books herself. 

She was a very disciplined career woman, according to Gus, as well as a very determined salesman. She would travel to different parts of the country, meeting with school superintendents and different textbook boards, bringing with her copies of Vibal’s books, courting them to use her titles. 

Esther as a working UP student. Here she is walking to the Manila Times office, 1949.

While HP’s debilitating stroke was certainly one of the most trying moments in Esther’s life, it didn’t stop the woman from continuing on. She quickly created an executive committee to help her run the publishing business—a decision that led to new successes for the corporation, enabling Vibal to participate in the World Bank text book publishing teaching and distribution program. 

Esther Vibal passed away last Saturday, November 28, leaving the leadership of the family business in the hands of her son Gus. He says her mother was already 92 when she decided to step back from working, and that even in her advanced age, Esther remained sharp and would even regularly climb the stairs to her sixth floor office. 

She may have left a company of 400 employees in a pandemic but was able to see it pivot to relevance for the contemporary age. Vibal, after all, is no longer just a book publishing business but has also gone into online courses and synchronous virtual classrooms—even before the global health crisis necessitated these tools. 

A staunch advocate of women, Esther is shown here at a private meeting with then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during the latter’s visit to Manila during the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting on 20 November 1996.

In 2010, she was given the Ernst & Young Women Entrepreneur Award “for blazing a trail in entrepreneurship, leadership and community development.” Under her management, the award said, “Vibal Publishing dominated the textbook publishing market, accounting for 50 percent of textbooks distributed to 18 million Filipino children in public and secondary schools.” 

Esther Vibal said then that she was not just in this field of publishing for profit but “the spirit of sharing and [to] make it possible for every child to have an education, because it’s every child’s human right.”