By James Loyola, Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat, and Marjaleen Ramos
John Gokongwei Jr., who started his business empire selling thread, soap, and candles in Cebu, died peacefully Saturday evening “surrounded by loved ones.” He was 93.
Fatherless at 13 years old, John Jr. grew to become one of the most successful businessmen in the country but with unmatched business acumen. He was best known for his consumer business by founding Robinsons and Cebu Pacific Air that revolutionized budget air travel.
“When I was 13 years old, my father died, leaving me to take care of my mother, my four brothers, and my sister. At the time, my youngest brother, James, was only nine months old. I took care of them all because the family has always been my priority,” said John Jr. in a speech at his alma mater University of San Carlos in Cebu in October, 2018.
The young Gokongwei started selling spools of thread, bars of soap, and candles in Cebu on a small table that he set up in the market, to feed his family.
“I earned about twenty pesos a day by working longer and harder than everybody else. But it didn’t matter since I really loved my work,” he said. “It was here in Cebu that I first earned my first few pesos. I used to wake up way before dawn to ride my bicycle to the public market many kilometers away.”
John Jr. always loved being an entrepreneur and learning from what he called “the school of life.”
A valedictorian from his elementary school, John Jr. was admitted at the University of San Carlos as a scholar. While pursuing his trading business, John Jr. never left school. It took him four years to finish his MBA at De La Salle University because he was a working student.
“When I got my diploma, it was one of the proudest moments of my life,” said John, who then proceeded to Harvard in 1972 to take the advance management program.
His entrepreneurial skills made him establish one of the most successful mall chains in the country – Robinsons Malls. A shrewd businessman, he set up a bank, flour mill, textile, went into property development, chemicals, aviation, and the country’s popular beverage tea drink, and expanded his businesses overseas. With Cebu Pacific, he had the entire world to conquer.
The entrepreneur who loved working hard was married to his wife Elizabeth for 61 years. They had six children – Robina, Lance, Lisa, Faith, Hope, and Marcia. Son Lance has been entrusted by his father to take the reins of the family’s business.
Even at an advanced age, John Jr. told his audience at his alma mater last year: “At 92 years old, I still wake up early and I still love to do what I’m doing. I still know everything that is going on in my company. I still love to learn and am always reading books, and now, online stories in this new digital age. I always tell my children, my grandchildren, and my colleagues: Love your work. Work hard for it. Love your family. Love your country. Never stop learning.”
“Our beloved husband, father, and grandfather John Gokongwei, Jr. passed away peacefully 11:41 p.m., November 9th, at the Manila Doctor’s Hospital surrounded by his loved ones. Please pray for the repose of his soul. Details of his wake to follow,” Esquire Philippines quoted Lance Gokongwei.
Ranked by Forbes magazine as the country’s third richest with an estimated net worth of $5.3 billion in 2019, Gokongwei was the founder and chairman emeritus of JG Summit Holdings, Inc., which has interests in food and beverage manufacturing, air transportation, telecommunications, petrochemicals, banking, power, property and hospitality, retail, and media.
“The pesos I made in the palengke were the pesos that went into building the business I have today. After this experience, I told myself, if I can compete with people so much older than me, if I can support my whole family at 15, I can do anything!” Gokongwei once recounted.
In 1990, Gokongwei placed all of his major business under the flagship JG Summit Holdings, Inc., which went public and listed its shares at the Philippine Stock Exchange in 1993.
After enjoying immense success in business, Gokongwei decided to give back in a bigger way by donating half of his stake in JG Summit, worth about P20 billion in 2006, to the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation (GBF). At 80 years old, he declared that he would focus on philanthropy.
Having an intimate knowledge of how education can make a difference because of his own struggles against many challenges, Gokongwei found a yearning to help build institutions for learning as well as give the underprivileged a boost in life through scholarships.
Since 2006, GBF has offered scholarship programs producing 337 graduates as of September 2017. At present, GBF offers seven scholarship programs for college, technical-vocational, and high school students.
Tribute to Mr. John
Malacañang extended its condolences to the loved ones of JG Summit Holdings, Inc., founder John Gokongwei,
“Our people recognize Mr. Gokongwei’s amazing journey as a self-made industrialist, respected business leader, and generous philantropist. A grateful nation respects the man for the indelible legacy he made in the fields of business, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
“Mr. Gokongwei was an exceptional and ideal Filipino. He exemplifies the traits that should endow us: industrious, disciplined, indefatigable, creative, generous, always hungry for knowledge, grateful and never forgetting his origins, and most of all, a loving person to his family and his country,” he added.
READ MORE: Palace remembers John Gokongwei
Senators on Sunday also paid tribute to business tycoon John Gokongwei, remembering him as a man who was big on “vision, dreams, and kindness.”
“Mr. John was a national flag carrier who planted Filipino greatness in other lands and in the minds of his people that yes, a poor promdi like him can,” Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said in a statement.
“Everything about Mr. John was big—vision, dreams, kindness—yet he never tired of punching above his weight, and the obstacles he toppled paved the way for others,” Recto added.
Sen. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara on Twitter wrote: “RIP John Gokongwei, a man who always tried to provide value to Philippine consumers.”
Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, recalled how Gokongwei officially donated 10 mobile patrol cars to the Philippine Constabulary-Metrocom after they were able to rescue his daughter Robina from kidnappers.
The 75,000-strong employees of JG Summit Holdings and Robinsons Retail Holdings, joined the nation in paying tribute to the founder of the first Philippine multinational conglomerate, a philanthropist with a passion for education.
“We mourn the peaceful passing of our Founder and Chairman Emeritus John L. Gokongwei Jr., on November 9, 2019. He was 93.”
Mr. John, as we fondly called him, was a visionary. He was an inspiration to entrepreneurs and businessmen around the nation, with his pioneering ideas, his strong work ethic, his passion, and perseverance.
The 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. 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. (With Argyll Cyrus B. Geducos and Hannah L. Torregoza)