By Denise A. Valdez, Reporter

PHILIPPINE billionaire and San Miguel Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Eduardo “Danding” M. Cojuangco, Jr., who built Southeast Asia’s oldest and largest food and drink empire, has died. He was 85.

Mr. Cojuangco, an ally of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, died on June 16, San Miguel said in a disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange, without saying the cause of his death. He battled various ailments including lung cancer, according to ABS-CBN News.

“The board of directors and the entire San Miguel group deeply mourn the passing of our chairman and chief executive officer,” it said. “His contributions to our company’s history are numerous and indelible.”

Mr. Cojuangco survived political exile in 1986 and returned home to continue his political ambition, running for president in 1992 but lost.

He was governor of Tarlac province before Mr. Marcos came to power.

Mr. Cojuangco has held his seat in the listed group since July 1998. He led its growth from a food and beverage company into a diversified empire whose interests now include oil, infrastructure and power.

He emerged to be one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country, posting a net worth of $1 billion (about P50.61 billion) this year based on Forbes World’s Billionaires List.

Mr. Cojuangco founded the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), the vehicle he used for his 1992 campaign.

Mr. Cojuangco was vital to San Miguel’s success as a conglomerate and “its pursuit of socioeconomic progress for the Philippines through its diversified corporate endeavors,” presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque said in a statement.

“He enabled the company to generate thousands of livelihood and employment opportunities, benefiting thousands of Filipino families,” he added.

“The legacy and vision of NPC’s big boss will continue with all its members, friends and especially among his family,” Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III who is a party member said in a statement.

“I have been with the NPC since the start of my political career and I witnessed how he has shaped, over decades, the ideals and objectives of the party that centered on love for country,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, another party member, said in a statement.

Mr. Cojuangco faced corruption charges for years because of his Marcos connection. He was accused along with other associates of conspiring with the dictator in pocketing taxes from coconut farmers.

The government of the late Corazon C. Aquino, Mr. Marcos’s successor and Mr. Cojuangco’s estranged cousin seized his stake in San Miguel, which he eventually got back during the presidential term of Joseph E. Estrada.

Since 2002, San Miguel has been led by Ramon S. Ang as president and chief operating officer. Mr. Cojuangco sold his stake to him and other allies in 2012.

“For the memories and all that you taught me, I will always remember you and keep you present,” Mr. Ang said in a Facebook post. “Thank you for always having my back, ECJ.”

Mr. Cojuangco was also a sports advocate, having supported professional basketball in the past four decades.

As San Miguel chairman, he “guided our expansion, diversification and transformation,” the company board said. “His vision for San Miguel — to be a beacon of hope for the Philippines and a partner in nation-building — remains at the core of everything we do.”

Mr. Cojuangco was the eldest child of Eduardo C. Cojuangco, Sr. and Josephine B. Murphy. His mother, the daughter of a US Army volunteer who married a Filipina, was born and raised in Baguio City. His father was of Chinese descent.

He attended De La Salle High School, University of the Philippines Los Baños and California Polytechnic College.

Mr. Cojuangco is survived by his wife Soledad “Gretchen” Oppen-Cojuangco with whom he had four children, and domestic partner Aileen Damiles with whom he had two children. — with Michael Angelo S. Murillo