Gokongwei Group: Navigating through the pandemic

Published October 17, 2021, 7:00 PM

by James A. Loyola

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shaken economies worldwide in a way that has not been felt since World War II.

“Just as my father saw the second world war as a great equalizer, this pandemic has also been an equalizer. The virus has subjected the whole world to a grave health risk that has massively disrupted our lives,” said Lance Gokongwei, President and CEO of JG Summit Holdings Inc.—one of the country’s largest conglomerates with interests in the airline, real estate, food and beverage, petrochemicals, telecommunications, power distribution, and retail industries.

JG Summit President and CEO Lance Gokongwei

In his presentation before the Makati Business Club, Gokongwei said that, “COVID-19 also came at a time when JG Summit was starting to reap the fruits of its transformation initiatives. Suddenly, we were thrust into a very unfamiliar business landscape that put our resilience and strength to a supreme test.”

Since nobody had a template for what to do during a pandemic, Gokongwei said “Our Purpose, Values, and Ambition provided us with clarity, courage, and confidence to navigate the unprecedented challenges. Together, they form our North Star that guides all our actions.”

He explained that their purpose includes the group’s commitment to provide better choices for its customers, creating shared success with stakeholders.

“We believe that if we live out our values of entrepreneurial mindset, integrity, and stewardship to deliver on our purpose, no challenge is insurmountable,” Gokongwei noted.

With the onset of the pandemic in March last year, the Gokongwei implemented an aggressive five-point recovery plan focused on: protecting the health and safety of its people and customers; ensuring operations and supply chain continuity; strengthening its balance sheet; and helping communities and the country.

“Fifth, and as importantly, we continue to pour a lot of effort in reimagining our business and exploring new opportunities to continue to be a leader in the new normal,” he added.

To deliver on the first point, the Gokongwei Group implemented various measures to protect employees’ well-being. These included the provision of transport and lodging services during the strict lockdowns, permitting work from home arrangements, and setting up the group’s telemedicine service and COVID Protect vaccination program.

Because of these measures, as well as the dedication of the group’s employees, many of the group’s business units were able to operate during the various lockdown periods. Among them were the group’s retail units, such as supermarkets, convenience stores, and pharmacies.

The third part of the plan calls for the strengthening of the group’s financial position, ensuring that it has enough liquidity to weather what remains of this crisis.

Much of the fundraising focus was understandably on Cebu Pacific, as aviation was among the sectors hit the hardest by the pandemic. So far, it has raised $1 billion in fresh capital.

Gokongwei also mentioned cash-raising activities of other companies in the group, including URC, which is divesting from its operations in Australia and New Zealand; and Robinsons Land, which has raised P23.5 billion through its real estate investment trust company.

The Gokongwei Group achieves the fourth point, helping local communities, through various ways. Cebu Pacific’s humanitarian efforts during the crisis include the Bayanihan flights, as well as the transport of life-saving vaccines.

Robinsons Malls, for its part, has teamed up with different LGUs to provide safe, comfortable and accessible vaccination sites, while JG Summit’s major shareholder, the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation (GBF) created a P150 million fund to support various COVID-related initiatives through its Juan Communities program and its participation in Project Ugnayan.

The fifth part entails continuing the group’s digital transformation journey and then strengthening its core businesses and adjacencies. While the Gokongwei Group began its digital journey before the pandemic, it has had to step up the process to stay ahead of the curve.

“Our strategic thrusts especially digitalization and customer centricity have become more important especially in light of rapidly changing consumer behavior and an evolving business environment,” explained Gokongwei.

While the Group has made impressive gains in the digital space, Gokongwei maintains that the digital transformation journey is still in its infancy. “But what gives us confidence is that this is really of primary importance to our leadership team, to our board, that digital transformation is on top of our agenda,” he said.

Realizing that growth will not come through digitalization alone, Gokongwei revealed that it will continue to strengthen its core businesses and create new adjacencies.

Recent moves in this area include URC’s acquisition of Central Azucarera de la Carlota and Roxol Bioenergy, Robinsons Retail’s acquisition of Rose Pharmacy, the leading drug store chain in the Visayas and Mindanao, and JG Summit Petrochemicals’ 60-billion peso expansion program, as well as its recent entry into the fuel sector.

Gokongwei noted that the group’s companies have made it through the worst part of the crisis because they have adapted well to the circumstances, and will continue to adapt in the years ahead.

“It is not the strongest of the species nor the most intelligent that survives; it is the one most adaptable to change. During the early period of the pandemic there was great confusion, and there was no playbook to guide us through. And yet, here we are now – getting better and wiser by the day, I hope and believe – because we have embraced change as an opportunity to improve and make life better for all,” he said.

 
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