Mr. John and his bike
His is not the rags-to-riches story often associated with taipans of his sort, but something quite different—the classic tale with a twist: a riches-to-rags-to-more-riches story.
John Gokongwei Jr., who passed away peacefully on Nov. 9 at 93, began life as a child of privilege, lost it all at 13 years old, and had to start at that tender age to rebuild and grow the family fortune that would, in time, make him the third richest Filipino, the trailblazing tycoon behind a highly diversified group of companies with some 75,000 employees and a total market capitalization of over $12 billion.
That Chippy salty snack, C2 ready-to-drink tea and Great Taste coffee? They’re among the multitude of food and beverage products of Gokongwei’s Universal Robina Corp.
Flying off aboard Cebu Pacific? Then you’ve joined the over 150 million passengers carried by the airline that has been disrupting the industry since March 1996 because of Gokongwei’s pioneering “low fare, great value” strategy.
Shopping at Robinsons Galleria? Getting a snack at Ministop? Buying tools at TrueValue? Then you’re engaging with a Gokongwei enterprise.
And so on — from telecommunications to banking to power distribution.
All these, painstakingly built from scratch by Gokongwei who, barely out of puberty, with just 10 centavos in his pocket, was rudely forced into adulthood by the sudden death of his father due to typhoid fever.
Before that, he had been a carefree child, the eldest of six children born into a rich Chinese-Filipino family in Cebu, where his father owned a chain of movie houses, including the first air-conditioned one outside Manila.
They lived in a big house in Cebu’s equivalent of Forbes Park, and the boy was driven by a chauffeur every day to San Carlos University, with friends whom he often treated to free movies at his father’s movie houses.
When his father died, the privileged life vanished in an instant. They lost everything, said Gokongwei in a 2007 speech. Because his father’s business was built on credit, their big house, fleet of cars and business were lost to the banks. And when the free movies stopped, Gokongwei said he also lost half of his friends.
What then could Gokongwei do to help his mother, widowed at 32, and the rest of his siblings? He worked, starting by selling roasted peanuts with his mother in the backyard of their much-smaller home.
Because that was not enough, he opened a small stall in a palengke, waking up at 5 every morning for the long bicycle ride to the market with his basket of goods — soap, candles and thread.
“The pesos I made in the palengke were the pesos that went into building the business I have today,” said Gokongwei.
It was from battling adversity at an early age that Gokongwei imbibed a crucial life lesson he would impart later on to his children, as daughter Lisa, Summit Media president, recalled: Never resort to the 3 Cs to get ahead in life — cutting corners, “chamba” (fluke) and connections.
Only son Lance, JG Summit president, shared in a 2019 speech that his father made sure he and his siblings did not get anything on a silver platter. There were no large allowances, or cash for birthdays or for Christmas.
One of Lance’s first jobs was to put price tags on bras sold in his father’s department stores. Robina, the eldest child and CEO and president of Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc., started out as a clerk in the bodega of the department store, the only place where there was no air-conditioning. She had to punch in and out, just like everybody else.
Gokongwei constantly told his children: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” And while he missed out on formal schooling, he was a lifelong and enthusiastic supporter of education; his generous donation of a big portion of his shares in JG Summit Holdings to the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation has provided endowments to several universities and hundreds of scholarships to deserving students. He took great pride in receiving his own diploma — at 51 years old.
Gokongwei was a practical man, as can be gleaned from his advice on love and relationships: Choose the right partner, he said — “That decision will dictate the rest of your life, whether you will have a happy life or a miserable one.”
But in everything else, he was a bold dreamer. This apt quote accompanied the announcement of the passing of this remarkable Filipino: “I often wonder whatever happened to my first bike. The bike that was my companion during those first years when my family had lost everything and I sold wares at the market every morning. That bike reminds me that success can be achieved through hard work, frugality, integrity, responsiveness to change, and most of all, boldness to dream.”
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