With two of his children, Robina and Lance. John Gokongwei, Jr. passed away Saturday night, at the age of 93
Culture Spotlight

The outsider’s outsider: The more human side of John Gokongwei

From a teenage vendor plying roasted garlic peanut with 20 peso-a-day earnings, to a nonagenarian who left behind five publicly listed firms that hold a combined PHP 1.2 trillion in market capitalization, John Gokongwei’s story is both inspiration and legacy of a titan—built both by fate as well as a man’s strengths and weaknesses.
Quintin Pastrana | Nov 12 2019

The tributes continue to flow, befitting a Titan.

This obituary, briskly written amid the panoply and pipeline of paeans, offers none of those. Rather, it will try to break new ground as Mr. Gokongwei tried to do for the better part of his 93 years on this earth and beloved country.

Along with the deserved praise and grand, potted tour of the man’s legacy, what else can be said? Perhaps the telling will be in the perspective. Not the content, but the context.

The Gokongwei family 1938: (clockwise, from left) Henry, Juanita, Edward, John, Sr., John, Jr., Lily Cristina and Johnson.

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Because an institution is still the length of an individual’s shadow, let’s curate the best parts of Mr. Gokongwei’s legacy in contrasting stages of his prodigious life:

From a teenage vendor plying roasted garlic peanut with 20 peso-a-day earnings, to a nonagenarian who left behind five publicly listed firms that hold a combined PHP 1.2 trillion in market capitalization. In an age where people vote with their feet, clicks, and wallets, this patronage is the testament to the staying power of his life’s work.

From a spurned shareholder of a leading conglomerate to rallying his troops as the heart and soul of the first truly Filipino multinational firm—one that boasted of the highest P/E historical ratio among its peers and brands that found a home in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and China, while his competitors were more or less satisfied with the spoils back home. Add to that the sister firms that would bring a ubiquity that sticks with you like a formative, cherished memory—from Jack & Jill treats, to a kid’s first domestic flight to Boracay, to this author’s first rent-to-own flat.

Gokongwei started by selling fried peanuts, and worked his way up to selling thread, soap, and candles.

From a man bereft of a college degree, to benefactor of business and engineering schools that are leading top rival universities into the 21st century, with enough fuel—half his earthly wealth—allocated to STEM and higher education.

These are but a few that allow us to bring Mr. Gokongwei’s life full circle, and to an all but neat close.

But those who know better will argue that the Big Man himself wouldn’t want to be remembered in such a pigeonholed fashion. To paraphrase a beloved tutor in the History Boys, in commemorating something or someone in too tidy a fashion, we risk forgetting their true legacies altogether.

To paraphrase a historian, a person of true greatness is one whose weaknesses were essential to his or her strength.

What in John Gokongwei’s humanity and origin story can we use to remove him from the pedestal before biographers and onlookers set his feet in lifeless clay?

First, that he was an outsider’s outsider. Most of the 20th century taipans will claim their provenance in Imperial Manila, and even if in the fringes, their success stories would be forged in the crucible of the capital and its myriad opportunities, especially in the post-war optimism that drove many of our industrialists. Big John was a Cebuano, especially proud of it, and even badged his airline not as an insular backlash against national carriers, but as a symbol of pride of his hometown.

In 1968, he opened Cebu Foodarama, his first retail store.

It was the same outsider and underdog stigma that made his and his fledgling firms’ failures more public and arguably more painful. From being rejected from his rightful seat in San Miguel Corporation, the failure of his earlier agri-business ventures, to the tragedy of Cebu Pacific’s airplane disasters, to the protracted birth pains of entering and stabilizing a generic pharmaceutical business, to establishing a petrochemical hub, placing his full faith and belief in an industrialized Philippines. Let alone the personal crisis of a daughter’s kidnapping, eclipsing the hardships he himself endured as the family’s breadwinner after the War. 

Big John was a Cebuano, especially proud of it, and even badged his airline not as an insular backlash against national carriers, but as a symbol of pride in his birthplace.

All these, even before the virulence of social media, were in full display—as was his resilience and grace in turning defeat into opportunity to come back with success and avenge his vision, his able successors, and his shareholders and over 75,000 employees.

A man like John Gokongwei would frown his big, baggy eyes on the sort of hagiography that let all industrialist-philanthropists off the hook because of their latter-day sainthood. His early methods to penetrate markets still leave an underwhelming taste. One can still remember the counterparts to market leaders, and more Machiavellian approaches to gaining and growing market share. One still has a hard time thinking if these tactics were forgivable tradeoffs for the risks he embraced in taking on the erstwhile giants and market leaders in these sectors.

Gokongwei with his son Lance, who now leads JG Summit conglomerate.

But like any leader worth emulating in all their humanity, he had a capacity to adapt, move up the chain, and move his surviving firms to leadership positions that brought more trust and value. It’s a never-ending cycle and learning curve of setbacks, tradeoffs, and collateral damage, lessons learned and capitalized on for growth. And it’s what has set up his successors on a firm and sustainable path with hard-earned lessons that they and we forget at our peril in our own lives and pursuits.

In overcoming these earlier tactics, he democratized access to what we today take for granted: travel, taste and tourism, medication and home improvement, as well as an easier way to put a roof over our heads. In sailing against the winds with Promethean risk and its discontents, Gokongwei brought something most of us could call our own.

His vulnerability made him more human—and therefore more accessible as a business leader and role model, a quality  shared by other taipans, including the ones who left us in the span of the last 12 months. But what set him apart, and brought him further down to earth was that his sense of grit and humility—shared by his fellow juggernauts—was uniquely leavened by his humor, which was especially in full display during his enduring touchstone of a commencement speech at the Ateneo, and bite size curly top editions in the leading magazines and newspapers. That he needed no spokesperson or speechwriter to dispense his wit, grit, and generosity made him an icon across classes.

What set him apart, and brought him further down to earth was that his sense of grit and humility—shared by his fellow juggernauts—was uniquely leavened by his humor

A final point of context and contrast: John Gokongwei’s life serves as a much-needed and refreshing counterpoint to today’s crop of movers and shakers, with his unvarnished and unbridled power of example.

Gokongwei passed on many teachings in his life—from “It’s okay to make mistakes” to “spend money on experiences"—which his son Lance compiled in a book for his father's 90th birthday.

Here is a man who displayed the very best of what Chinese ethnicity and culture can contribute to an economy and society. Bearing the hallmarks of the good we’ve come to know amid the onslaught of horror stories and malevolence we’ve seen from the Mainland.

Like his two fellow taipans in the last year—with their imperfect humanity, ambition, but clear contributions, there are touchstones, almost old fashioned code that husband their stories. Honor, empathy, resilience—these often shopworn words are enlivened by the trajectory of their lives and examples. The old school becomes new again, timeless, and tested for generations that will never know such loss and risk. That they forged these in the crucible of long, complex lives also stands as an antidote against the Faustian-sellout politicians and robber barons who outlive their heroic peers, and threaten to bring their industries and our nation down with them.

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Gokongwei says that one of his biggest failures was not being able to get a seat on the board of San Miguel in 1976, despite buying enough shares that should've ensure it.

Gokongwei is survived by his wife Elizabeth, and children Lance, Lisa, Robina, Faith, Hope, and Marcia.

Expanding further, Gokongwei shuttled back and forth Manila and Cebu by boat to sell rubber tires. 

Early on, Gokongwei correctly invested on flour and cornstarch to feed the growing population.

This year, Forbes listed him as the third richest man in the Philippines, with an estimated net worth of USD 5.8B 

Much more will still be said about this private individual in the coming days, in the anniversaries of his passing, or in the merited success of his scions. Already, stories of how he always came home to dinner with his family, witness accounts of his enduring simplicity, to testimonials of those who were transformed by his largesse and scholarships, are already adding to a still inscrutable legend. But the little we’ve come to know–vicariously, or through a passing association with his person and the products and services he brought within reach–will have been enough.

Most of us hardly knew you, but all of us have a reason to be thankful and responsibility to remember and relive this example in the sacred ordinary of our lives. Beyond this ineffable testament to hard work and grit—like the Grateful Dead’s sleeper hit that bears his name, what he’d want to know is, “are you kind?”