By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
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 the Robinsons and his Cebu Pacific Air that revolutionizes 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 from 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 put 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 has the entire world to conquer.
The entrepreneur, who loved working hard, was married to his wife Bia for more than 50 years. They had six children. Son Lance Gokongwei 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: “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.”