Corporate Watch

“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,” billionaire taipan John Gokongwei, Jr., then already second richest man in the Philippines, told his only son and successor-apparent Lance, when young Lance was just was starting to look at girls — or rather, when girls were starting to look at extremely good-looking Lance. The son, now happily married, relates this anecdote in his book Lessons from Dad, his tribute on his father’s 90th birthday in 2016.

“The problem with being handsome is that so many women chase after you,” Mr. John, as he was affectionately called, jokingly said at a private dinner with three friends invited to Cebu Pacific’s maiden flight, Manila-Shanghai-Manila, about a decade ago. (Mr. John was accepted and respected at a star-level, despite his customary ragged look and perceived hasty toilette.) The test is, why should a woman chase you — whether you are handsome or not? Ah, a woman chasing a man is a suspect, Mr. John preached. Another lesson in life, applicable to business acquisitions and related decisions: Why buying something that someone is pushing so hard for you to buy? What is the motivation? Buyer beware.

Mr. John had a small business of importing second-hand goods and selling these in his native Cebu, when he saw Elizabeth Yu, whose father owned a hardware store there. “When I saw my wife for the first time, she was 17 and I was 23 or 24,” said Mr. Gokongwei. “I told my mother, she’s the one I’m going to get married to, so I chased her for four years. (Married her in 1958.) Doing business was easier (than chasing her down),” he said in a 2016 Forbes Magazine interview.

There could be no motivation but pure love on both sides, in the forever-partnership of John and Elizabeth Gokongwei. Lance recounts his dad’s words of wisdom, “Marrying the right person also means marrying someone who shares your ideals on how you want to raise your kids, because the kids will ultimately decide your happiness or unhappiness.” And so John and Elizabeth had six children, Robina, Lance, Lisa, Faith, Hope, and Marcia — raised in the love and care of family — who all “turned out pretty good,” in Lance’s own “humble” opinion, he said.

Another lesson in business: Always be humble, Mr. John admonished. “Dad always made sure that we did not think we were better than other people. He told us to hire people who are smarter than us, who are better than us, so that we can improve the business,” Lance said in his book about his Dad. And to train the children to be humble, Mr. John made them work in the lowest, most menial tasks in the family business — like marking price tags, counting inventory in the bodegas (warehouses), or working in the kitchen at their hotel, the Midtown in Malate. The children never got an allowance, they had to work for spending money when they were in school. And when they were adults and working in the family businesses, they never got anything free — they had fair and just salaries and had to pay for goods and services from money legally earned. Don’t give your children a sense of entitlement, Mr. John admonished. And no side businesses or deals on your own, whether you are child, uncle/auntie, or any relative or acquaintance. That would be conflict of interest, he emphasized all too often.

“Dad always made it clear that the business is separate from the family. 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,” Lance said. Mr. John was intensely aware of corporate social responsibility long before the buzzword was coined.

On his 80th birthday, celebrated at his Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ortigas Center, Pasig City, John Gokongwei, Jr. announced that he would donate half of all his shares in the JG Summit Holdings conglomerate to various charities through the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation, wrote Wilson Lee Flores of The Philippine Star in 2006. He said he was doing this “after discussions with my wife and children.” The total market capitalization of JG Summit Holdings, Inc. at that time was pegged at P41,462,869,108. “Gokongwei’s donation is the biggest philanthropic endowment in Philippine history,” at least P20 billion, Lee reported.

Mr. John celebrated his birthdays with a thanksgiving party, bringing together his huge family of relatives, friends, and employees to acknowledge their participation, directly or indirectly, in the success of the JG conglomerate. “We all work hard which is one of the biggest open secrets of our family business’ success,” wrote Lance. In his speeches, his father, Mr. John to all, never failed to emphasize the importance of cooperation and support for one another to make their hard work bring success for all, and a better life for society. Employing close to some 75,000 people around the world made the Gokongwei Group one of the biggest employers in the Philippines today, an article in Esquire Philippines on Nov. 10, reported.

And so it all goes back to the spirit of “family” that had driven John Gokongwei, Jr. since he and his family were orphaned by his father when he was 13, and had to be head of the family for siblings and his mother. He sent them all to China, sending them money regularly from his meager income at the time, made from buying and selling various wares. The Esquire article outlines how in 1956, he founded Universal Robina Corp. (URC), which first started as a corn starch manufacturer. He made the coffee brand Blend 45, the first locally manufactured instant coffee blend. Robina Farms produced poultry, hog products, and animal feeds, as URC established leadership in the savory snack market with the Jack N’ Jill brand.

Much of the Gokongwei group’s growth happened after the 1986 People Power Revolution. A favorite anecdote is how Henry Sy and John Gokongwei supposedly tossed coin to get the corner of EDSA and Ortigas Ave., the site of the EDSA Revolution, as the future site of a big Ortigas-area shopping mall. Gokongwei won the toss, and Robinson’s Galleria sits on that historic corner which has the EDSA Revolution chapel (now a Catholic shrine) and the EDSA monument across it. The success of Galleria led to a chain of Robinson malls, supermarkets, and department stores nationwide.

Cebu Pacific Air was launched in the early 1990s. A BusinessWorld story on Oct. 14 this year cites that Cebu Pacific operator Cebu Air, Inc. recorded growth of 116% in its net income in the first half to P7.14 billion, driven by increased passenger volume and higher average fares.

The JG Group has JG Summit Petrochemicals Group with the first and largest integrated polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) resin manufacturer in the Philippines today, while JG Summit Olefins Corp. operates the first and only naphtha cracker plant in the Philippines. There is also Robinsons Land and Robinsons Bank, “to help people manage their finances, expand their businesses, and achieve their dreams of having their own homes,” the JG Group declared as its mission.

The Gokongwei family controls over $20 billion of combined market capitalization for all the companies they own.

John Gokongwei, Jr. died in Manila on Nov. 9, 2019 at the age of 93. Exactly one week after his death, his widowed wife Elizabeth Yu Gokongwei also passed away. Partners forever.


Amelia H.C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.