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How Filipino tycoon John Gokongwei Jr challenged his next generation successors

By James Beech

John Gokongwei Jr, a Philippine billionaire who started his $5.7 billion family business empire by cycling around island towns selling snacks, has died aged 93.

Affectionately known as “Mr John”, the founder and chairman emeritus of the first Philippine multinational conglomerate was an “inspiration to entrepreneurs and businessmen around the nation, with his pioneering ideas, his strong work ethic, his passion, and perseverance,” JG Summit Holdings said in a statement.

Gokongwei (pictured) was survived by his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth, and his children Robina, Lance (president and chief executive of JG Summit), Lisa, Faith, Hope and Marcia. His in-laws and grandchildren; brothers Eddie and James Go (chairman of JF Summit), sister Lily; and his nieces and nephews count among his descendants.

The humble third richest Filipino billionaire and philanthropist was born in Fujian, China but raised in Cebu province in the Philippines. Supporting his five siblings after their father died when he was aged 13, the young entrepreneur began by items from his bicycle on the streets.

“I often wonder whatever happened to my first bike,” Gokongwei said.

“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.”

Gokongwei progressed from bike to boat to truck and invested his earnings in cornstarch production, a raw material for food, paper and textile industries. The corn mill launched his venture Universal Robina, a snack foods and beverage producer.

Robina formed the cornerstone 27% of the diversified portfolio of JG Summit Holdings. Another 26% was of the portfolio was property developer Robinsons Land Corporation and 14% was leading Philippines airline Cebu. The family controlled, Manilla-listed JG Summit was the third largest Philippine conglomerate in terms of market capitalisation.

The patriarch’s grounded attitudes to his family business were praised at his eulogy this week. He hired and mentored extended family members, but they were expected to work as hard as he did.

His daughters Lisa, Faith, and Hope started out by stamping prices on cans in a bodega. Marcia was a kitchen assistant at the Manila Midtown Hotel. Robina was a receiving clerk at the warehouse of Robinsons Department Store.

Lance Gokongwei (pictured), his only son, was appointed chief executive in 2018 as part of his father’s succession plan. However, his father instilled in young Lance his work ethic when he was also put to work as a clerk in a Robinsons bodega.

“Our parents never gave us cash for Christmas or our birthdays,” Lance said.

“There was no ampao [monetary gift] to look forward to every Chinese New Year. For them, it was honourable to work. If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Despite graduating with distinction from the University of Pennsylvania, Lance’s feet were kept on the ground when he returned to work in the family business.

“I was paid P2,000 ($39) a month. Dad let me use an old car, a Datsun with a broken air-conditioner. I may have been the son of the boss, but I worked harder than anybody else to prove that I wasn’t just the son of the boss.”

John Gokongwei Jr always told his son he was the steward of the business.

“I serve the people the business serves—our clients—and the people who work in the business—our employees,” Lance said.

“I have a responsibility to all of them.

“He taught us that diversification is important, and that competition and the ability to confront change are what make a business continue to grow over a long period of time. In the end, it’s not about the connections of ‘who-you-know.’ It’s about what you know and how well you operate the business. It is about grit and resilience, and being able to bounce back from your lowest moment.”

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