John L. Gokongwei, Jr. has been, and still is, one of the biggest names in the Philippines. With an estimated net worth of $6.1 billion, the man behind the JG Summit conglomerate is among the country’s wealthiest and most influential people. One would almost find it hard to believe that he had once been a homeless street vendor, down on his luck and struggling to survive.
And yet, Mr. Gokongwei, in his adolescence, was once waking up at the crack of dawn, making his way to the markets of Cebu on his bicycle to peddle candles, thread, and soap. When his father, a Filipino-Chinese businessman, died and took with him his family’s fortune, his mother and five of his siblings chose to return to China. However, the young John, 13 years old at the time, chose to stay with his uncle to strike out a living.
A few years later, and in the early stages of adulthood, the future business magnate was already trading using a wooden boat, taking items to Lucena by sea, and then to Manila by truck. It was all up from there.
From the cornstarch plant he started in 1957, Mr. Gokongwei paved the way for the growth of the largest food and beverage companies in the Philippines. Now, his multibillion enterprise has expanded to practically every industry in the country, from air transportation to telecommunications, banking, power, and property.
Mr. Gokongwei also holds claim to the 250th spot on Forbes’ 2017 Billionaires List, which identifies over 2000 of the world’s richest people. So wide and far-reaching his influence is that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Business Awards 2017 recognized his exceptional entrepreneurial spirit and immeasurable impact to the Philippine economy by awarding him with the iconic Legacy Award.
The Legacy Award recognizes the passionate commitment of entrepreneurs to growth, genuine development and excellence in their national economies, as well as those who have significantly contributed a positive impact to the ASEAN Community. These entrepreneurs are the ones who “set the standard of excellence in doing business through the test of time, surpassing challenges, and inspiring others towards success, sustainability and shared prosperity.”
“JG Summit has pioneered breakthroughs, broadened its enterprise and stayed at the forefront in every phase of the country’s rise to development — the entrepreneur, who invested in agribusiness and the manufacture of feeds and prime food commodities; the visionary, who channeled resources and expanded into financial services, textile and property, all backbones of a growing economy; the captain of industry, who invested in power, telecommunications, petrochemicals, cement, and air transportation, all requisites for industrialization; the innovator, who continually provides value and fun in snacking; and the new regional multinational, who has embraced the challenge of global competitiveness with zeal,” the ASEAN Business Awards noted on its Web site.
Among Mr. Gokongwei’s crowning achievements is JG Summit’s largest subsidiary, Universal Robina Corporation, the Philippine-grown multinational corporation. Hailed by the ASEAN as one of the fastest growing food and beverage companies in the region, the Pasig-based company deals in the production and sale of snacks and beverages, sugar milling and refining, and agribusiness.
Cebu Pacific Air, Mr. Gokongwei’s foray into air transportation, is the country’s largest domestic airline carrier with an expanding international network reaching Asia, Australia and the Middle East. Robinsons Land Corporation, which develops mixed-use real estate properties, offers a portfolio of modern commercial centers, office buildings, hotels, residential condominiums and housing project subdivisions.
Other Gokongwei-owned and operated ventures are JG Summit Petrochemicals, the Philippines’ first and only integrated petrochemical manufacturing operation, and Robinsons Bank, which serves the growing number of suppliers, tenants, distributors, business partners and employees of the entire JG Summit and Robinsons Retail Group.
JG Summit also has dipped its hands in telecommunications and power through significant minority positions in the Philippines’ largest telecoms company Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT), the Philippines’ largest electricity distributor Manila Electric Company (Meralco), and one of the Philippines’ leading power producers Global Power Business Corporation (GBP). The group also owns a minority position in one of Singapore’s leading property developers United Industrial Corporation/Singapore Land.
“JG Summit’s place in Philippine business has for its cornerstone a business portfolio of market leaders, a solid financial position, a formidable management team, and a vision of leading the country to global competitiveness and making life better for every Filipino,” the ASEAN Business Awards said.
From peddling in the streets to claiming a place of honor among Southeast Asia’s most exceptional business leaders, Mr. Gokongwei’s journey seems almost storybook. The climb he undertook from the young age of 13 was yet untrodden, and it took him to heights which have scarcely been reached. Now, at the summit of his accomplishments, his path now serves as the legacy in which others may follow. — Bjorn Biel M. Beltran