John Gokongwei Jr., In His Own Words (And The Words Of Those Close To Him)6 min read
The Philippines lost a taipan, and someone many would say was a great man. This week brought the passing of John Gokongwei Jr.
The Filipino billionaire is known as the founder of JG Summit Holdings, one of the Philippines’ largest conglomerates. It includes companies such as snack food and drink producer Universal Robina, shopping centers Robinsons Malls, and everyone’s favorite budget airline Cebu Pacific.
While many billionaires love saying they came from “rags to riches,” Gokongwei was born with a silver spoon that he lost at a young age.
His father, John Gokongwei Sr.,came from a wealthy Chinese-Cebuano family. He was known for having a string of successful businesses in Cebu–-including several movie theaters that made the young Gokongwei popular among classmates, hoping for a free ticket.
However, when his dad died at the age of 13, his family lost its fortune and the young Gokongwei became the breadwinner. He supported his family as a peddler in the market before starting his first trading company and, with hard work, grit, and some luck, began earning back and increasing the riches he lost.
Gokongwei’s storied life of ups and downs, failed companies and successful ground-breaking business firsts, is a fine example for anyone who dreams to building a business. In this post, we’ve collected some of his wisdom in his own words, and in the recollections of those closest to him.
As told to his son, Lance Gokongwei:
Wait for the right one
The most important decision you have to make in your life is whom you’re going to marry. That decision will dictate the rest of your life, whether you will have a happy life or a miserable one.
Don’t be ashamed of starting from the bottom
Dad started from the bottom and he made sure we all did, too.
“How will you be able to do your job at the top later on if you don’t know what people down there are doing?,” he said.
Huwag mag smart-shame
He told us to hire people who are smarter than us, who are better than us, so that we can improve the business.
Be responsible for those you serve and who you employ
The business is not there to serve the family. The family is there to serve the business. He always tells me that I am a steward of the business, that I am responsible for the business. I serve the people the business serves—our clients. I serve the people who work in the business—our employees. I have a responsibility to all of them. I have a responsibility to make our business succeed because our employees and their families depend on us for their livelihoods.
As told by Robina Gokongwei during the funeral:
So I can eat delicious things
When I was little, his warning to me was: If you don’t work, you don’t eat. I made sure I had my food.
A lot of people would ask me, “Why is your dad so fat?” That’s because he worked so hard. As he said, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.
In a speech given to graduates of the Ateneo de Manila University in 2004:
Get away from the rat race
If you dream of creating something great, do not let a 9-to-5 job-even a high-paying one-lull you into a complacent, comfortable life. Let that high-paying job propel you towards entrepreneurship instead.
Just keep swimming
Success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the small successes achieved day by day that build a company. So, don’t be impatient or focused on immediate financial rewards.
From a speech given at the University of San Carlos in 2018:
Three great loves: Work, Family, Country
At 92 years old, I still wake up early and I still love to do what I’m doing. I still know everything that is going on in my company. I still love to learn and am always reading books, and now, online stories in this new digital age. I always tell my children, my grandchildren, and my colleagues: Love your work. Work hard for it. Love your family. Love your country. Never stop learning.
From a Town & Country profile in 2017:
Get off social media
I don’t participate in Facebook or Twitter. I’m too busy! I read all the newspapers and about 20 magazines. I read books.
Know when to hold them, know when to fold them
Negotiation is subject to the other fellow you’re negotiating with. If he’s not going to be as fair as possible, you react. It depends who you’re negotiating with.
Negotiations that last more than a month, wala na. It’s not going to be very successful. I think the first one or two weeks is the most critical. Like the PLDT thing took us one to two months to finish. We were discussing and both parties were dealing in good faith and we were able to finish it.
If it’s not done in good faith, we stop the dealing. Stop the negotiations and walk out. Why should I be afraid of walking out? If you’re not successful here, you’ll look somewhere else.
If you’re in business and you stop growing, you’re dead. You have to grow and do different things in different ways than other people. Otherwise, if you stop and do the same things as other people, you’re going to die. You’re going to shrink year after year.
In a speech he gave at the 2007 Ad Congress:
If you get rejected, try again
In 1957, at age 31, I spotted an opportunity in corn-starch manufacturing. But I was going to compete with Ludo and Luym, the richest group in Cebu and the biggest cornstarch manufacturers. I borrowed money to finance the project.
The first bank I approached made me wait for two hours, only to refuse my loan. The second one, China Bank, approved a P500,000-peso clean loan for me.
Years later, the banker who extended that loan, Dr. Albino Sycip said that he saw something special in me. Today, I still wonder what that was, but I still thank Dr. Sycip to this day.
Real Pinoy Pride
To be a truly great nation, we must also excel as entrepreneurs before the world. We must create Filipino brands for the global marketplace.
If we want to be philosophical, we can say that, with a world-class brand, we create pride for our nation. If we want to be practical, we can say that, with brands that succeed in the world, we create more jobs for our people, right here.
Then, we are able to take part in what’s really important—giving our people a big opportunity to raise their standards of living, giving them a real chance to improve their lives.
Four crucial questions to ask before going into a business
First: Is there a market?
Second: Could we compete against both local and foreign players?
Third: Could we find the right people for the job and did we have enough capital to pursue the business?
Last and most important: Did we have the stomach for it? That is, could we take the sleepless nights, the cutthroat competition?
As a boy, I sold peanuts from my backyard. Today, I sell snacks to the world.