Sometimes the passing of a person invokes large swathes of a population toward an epiphany. Sometimes that epiphany is glorious, a vindicating swan song fit to serenade the valkyries as they accompany the deceased to the heavens. Sometimes, it’s a morose vision of what has been lost in the here and now as well as for the future. The passing of John Gokongwei Jr. is one such occasion, and no doubt many Filipinos are wondering what it means for them. His life can and should be a source of inspiration, like many of the titans of industry the Philippines lost this year.
From peanuts to billions
John Gokongwei, Jr. passed away late last night, November 9, at the age of 93. His story is well known in the Filipino business world. Based in Cebu, he started out as an entrepreneur at the tender age of 13, forced to earn money for his family after the untimely passing of his father. He started very small, selling fried peanuts, and worked his way up to selling thread, soap, and candles on a bicycle. Expanding further, he shuttled back and forth to Manila by boat to sell rubber tires. He invested in himself, correctly betting on flour and cornstarch to feed the growing Filipino population, before greatly diversifying one of the most recognizable business empires of the Philippines. This year, he was listed by Forbes as the third richest man in the Philippines, with an estimated net worth of USD 5.8B, including interests in food, retail, real estate, aviation, telecommunications, power, media, and banking, and is behind so many household names today including Cebu Pacific, C2, and Jack n Jill snacks such as Chiz Curls and Chippy.
He is survived by his wife Elizabeth, six children, Lance, Lisa, Robina, Faith, Hope and Marcia. On John Gokongwei’s 90th birthday his son Lance, who has been leading the JG Summit conglomerate for years now, wrote a book with the hope of passing on the teachings of his father. The book, Lessons from Dad, John Gokongwei, Jr., had many passages including “It’s okay to make mistakes” and “spend money on experiences.” But one passage stood out: “The path to success is full of failures”
This striking passage celebrated Mr. Gokongwei’s failures as a businessman. One of the biggest failures in his father’s eyes, Lance wrote, was “in 1976, when he did not get a seat on the board of San Miguel Corporation, one of the largest companies in the Philipines, even after buying enough shares that should’ve ensured that.” The matter was even brought to the Supreme Court where Gokongwei suffered defeat again. Imagine the Gokongweis at the helm of San Miguel, how different would the Philippines’ business landscape look? Other failures listed included Presto ice cream, Yahoo juice drinks, Litton Mills, Mark Electronics, and Robina Chickens.
Imagine the emotional trauma of having a daughter kidnapped, or a son facing a national firestorm over a plane crash, or a President using the full extent of his office against you.
Gokongwei’s foray into telecommunications is no doubt something more familiar to the public. He challenged industry giants PLDT-Smart and Globe Telecoms with Digitel and Sun Cellular. To this day, regulators point to the entry of the Gokongwei Group, and its competitive pricing practices for prepaid subscribers, as a catalyst for lower service fees in the much maligned arena of Philippine telecommunications. PLDT put an end to this by buying Digitel and Sun Cellular in 2011. Gokongwei parlayed years of operating at a loss in the name of competition into a sizeable stake in PLDT.
Cebu Pacific has had many failures, including more recently varying degrees of complaints regarding flight delays and cancellations. But these are nothing compared to Cebu Pac’s early struggles against Philippine Airlines with a fleet of just four airplanes. The 1998 crash of Cebu Pacific Flight 387 killed over 100 people was an especially trying time for the business and the family. But even that failure bore fruit. Members of the Gokongwei family believe that was when Lance proved himself capable of taking over for John Gokongwei Jr, having faced all the combined anger and judgement of the families of the crash victims, government, and the public. Lance kept Cebu Pacific afloat. Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng wrote that “during that difficult time, Lance showed he could withstand the pressures of running a business and help his moral compass at the same time.”
Another memorable trial for Mr. Gokongwei was the kidnapping of his daughter Robina in the 1980s. Senator Panfilo Lacson, then a Lieutenant Colonel with the Philippine National Police, Tweeted out a short anecdote. “In 1981, I instructed him not to sound intimidated while negotiating for Robina’s ransom snapped at her kidnappers, “10M? Do you know how long it’ll take me to count that much money? You can have my daughter!” I said, not too bold either Mr John.” Robina Gokongwei delivered a speech on her captivity years later at the University of the Philippines, published by the Philippine Star, poking fun at kidnapping, and calling such occurrences common place. She also bravely blasted the judicial system for allowing the ‘mastermind,’ the son of a judge from Cebu, to be acquitted.
Gokongwei also had to tackle a President, Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada. Estrada filed a a multi-million dollar libel lawsuit against the Manila Times when this was still run by Robina Gokongwei, for an article that painted him in a bad light. Estrada would later be forced out of office amid an impeachment trial, but the Gokongwei’s still apologized to Estrada, before bowing out of the newspaper business entirely. The family would enter publishing again, but only several years later, with Summit Media. That operation is still going, but it is now completely digital, and it has no politics whatsoever.
These trials and tribulations all happened within John Gokongwei’s 93 years here on earth. No doubt the early years were punishing, peddling wares off a bicycle, or off a boat crossing between Manila and Cebu. But imagine the emotional trauma of having a daughter kidnapped, or a son facing a national firestorm over a plane crash, or a President using the full extent of his office against you. These are enough to drive any man or woman give up. Yet Mr John Gokongwei retired a wealthy man, passing away surrounded by loved ones, having witnessed his brood expand to at least a dozen grandchildren.
His simple mantra of hard work, kindness, and grit are not revolutionary, yet they have proven quite effective for himself, and his family. Mr. Jonh Gokongwei Jr.’s life is an inspiration, not because of his achievements, but because of the trials and failures he overcame along the way.
John Gokongwei, Jr.’s wake will take place from Monday, November 11 to Thursday, November 14 at Heritage Park, Taguig, from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Daily masses will be celebrated at 7 p.m. The funeral mass will be on Friday, November 15 at 8 a.m. at Heritage Park. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to your favorite charity.