Reminiscing John Gokongwei Jr., humble billionaire and generous philanthropist

Tribute of Retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN to honor Dr. John Gokongwei Jr. who passed away on the evening November 9, 2019. It was published in full in the Philippine Star on November 11, 2019.


I first met Dr. John Gokongwei Jr. in the late 1960s when he was bidding to buy the back-to-back properties of Ateneo de Manila and Assumption College bounded by Padre Faura, M. Adriatico and Pedro Gil Streets in Manila. I was lawyering for one of the three largest business groups in the country at the time while he was just starting to spread his wings.

After a deep study, my client decided to withdraw from the bidding. It concluded that the streets bounding the property were too narrow for the intended purpose. So, Gokongwei was very happy when I told him the withdrawal of his formidable competitor.

But it also signaled the beginning of our long friendship, to the point that I could call him simply “John,” even if he was 10 years my senior. Initially, he built the Manila Midtown Hotel on the property but later on transformed it to the giant multi-purpose “Robinsons Place Manila.”

Since then, he had assembled one of the largest conglomerates in the country with diversified holdings in food, beverage, airlines, petro chemicals, livestock, farming, financial services, power distribution, power generation and telecommunications, mostly in the Philippines but also some abroad.

His family’s JG Summit Holdings, Inc. controls a combined market capitalization of about US$12 billion, making him one of the wealthiest Filipinos in dollar terms.

Though we had become friends, he never visited or called, much less asked, me any favor, directly or indirectly, during my eleven-year stint in the Supreme Court. However, after I retired, he renewed our friendship and invited me to sit as an independent director of Robinsons Land Corporation (RLC), one of our country’s largest real estate companies. RLC owns and develops shopping malls, hotels, office buildings, residential condominiums, and subdivisions including a large estate in Chengdu, China.

During his 90th birthday on Aug. 11, 2016, he treated his personal and official families to a “family-only” dinner at his company-owned Crowne Plaza Galleria Hotel in Ortigas Avenue, Pasig City. By “official family,” I refer to the directors (including me), executives and about 500 selected representatives of the 75,000 employees of his huge conglomerate.

The informal after-dinner program was bright-lined by the anecdote-laden reminiscences of his wife Elizabeth, his only son Lance and his youngest brother James.

But what really drew the most applause were the familiar tunes, spiced with modified lyrics revealing the taipan’s soft and funny side, gleefully sung by his five daughters (Robina, Liza, Hope, Faith and Marcia) and baritone Lance. But, truth to tell, they were nearly upstaged by the well-choreographed dance and song numbers of their children (John’s grandchildren), led by the eldest, 21-year old Jason G. Pe.

To cap the memorable evening, the guests were gifted with an easy-to-read book, “Lessons from Dad” authored by, who else, Lance Gokongwei (with Yvette Fernandez). After reading it, I was so fascinated that I handed a copy to our eldest grandson Miggy P. Sandejas, with this scribbled message, “Not being a lawyer, you cannot be a chief justice. But with this book, you can someday be a tycoon!”

Here are three major lessons from Gokongwei on how to be a taipan and a philanthropist:

1) To him, family comes first and foremost. Though a workaholic, he always came home for dinner. To quote Lance, “The best lessons I learned from my parents were from being with them, observing them, and listening to them at the dinner table. I learned about the importance of family, and the importance of working hard. I learned about running a business from the stories my father told us – he had many adventures! We shared in his many successes and failures.”

Orphaned by his father at age 13, John – as the eldest child – took care of his mother, brothers and only sister and moved them to China, sending them money regularly from his meager income at the time from buying and selling various wares. His enduring bond with his siblings was passed on to his children. Together with their uncles, aunts, and cousins, they gathered and celebrated on Chinese New Year and the Autumn Mooncake Festival.

He hired his extended family members and paid them what they deserved, just like any professional. To borrow the words of Lance, “No more, no less. If one worked for the family business, one cannot have one’s own business on the side.”

He loved to travel with his wife and children “to see the sights, watch shows and visit museums.” To Lance, “Those are some of my happiest memories – exploring the world with my parents and sisters.”

2) Next to family, Gokongwei valued education. He was a “voracious reader.” He read “anything and everything: fiction, biographies, history, tomes, books, three or four newspapers a day… on his treadmill, in the car, in the bathroom, and all the way to bed.”

After siring six children, he enrolled in the Masters in Business Administration program of De La Salle University. Since he had no college degree, he had to take up additional units and finally graduated in 1977, “one of the proudest moments of his life.”

He made sure that all his children finished college, with Lance graduating at the Wharton School of Business, summa cum laude, with double degrees in applied science and finance. He also encouraged and supported his talented brother James’ enrolment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later on, James helped John in managing the conglomerate, succeeding him, after his retirement, as the top honcho of the group and the boss of Lance and John’s five daughters.

On his 75th birthday, John gifted Ateneo de Manila with P200 million which was used to build the John Gokongwei School of Management; and on his 85th, he gave De La Salle University P250 million which started the Gokongwei College of Engineering there.

On his 90th birth anniversary, he donated to the Sacred Heart School in honor of his only sister Lily Ngo. Earlier, he generously gifted the Xavier School where Lance finished grade and high school and the Immaculate Conception Academy where his daughters studied.

3) Gokongwei thrived on free competition. His businesses weren’t (and still aren’t) rent-seeking; they didn’t depend on connections, whether political, family or otherwise. Rather, they depended on the free market, on selling the best quality at the least price.

He believed in transparency and accountability; thus, he listed his large companies in the stock market. He had no boss mentality. He was not a power tripper. He never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He believed in leading by example.

He was strong-willed, but also open-minded. He told his children “to hire people who were smarter and better than they so they could improve the business and to pay them well so they would stay.”

Though family was first, Gokongwei stressed that “the business is not there to serve the family… We never charge any of our personal expenses to the company. We pay for our tickets on Cebu Pacific, stays at Go Hotels and goods at Robinsons Department Stores.”

John enticed and trained his siblings, children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren to work in his business. But he did not give them any privileges. He told them, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” They had to work as hard as he did. Nothing was given on a silver platter.

After graduating from Wharton, Lance worked as a management trainee, which basically meant “going out and sell Jack .n Jill snacks to supermarkets, groceries and sari-sari stores.” He was given “an old, used Datsun with a broken airconditioner.”

Robina started as a clerk in the bodega of the Robinsons Department Stores, while Marcia scooped ice cream at one of the Presto Ice Cream (now defunct) parlors.

Because of these “lowly jobs,” John’s children learned the value of perseverance, hard work and dignity of labor. It also enabled them to know the gritty-nitty of the businesses, of delivering quality work on time, all the time. It also taught them that “hindi puede ang puede na.” Excellence was not negotiable.

Working from down to up also taught them the value of teamwork, that everyone had a role to play to ensure competitiveness and success. That is why in JG Summit, “value attitude is just as much as aptitude.” It did not matter what school one graduated from. It only mattered where one wanted to go.

Final words from Lance, “Those who actually have money don’t have to flaunt it. Dad never had to prove he was rich. He didn’t feel the need to drive a flashy car or wear expensive suits.”

I met John Gokongwei Jr. 45 years ago when he was still a struggling upstart. Since then, he had become a dollar multi-billionaire but lived simply, frugally and happily till his death. Moreover, he donated generously to the advancement of education.

Until a few weeks ago, he dutifully attended board meetings of RLC and Meralco (where for transparency’s sake, I disclose that I am likewise an independent director even before him). Though already wheelchair-bound, he listened patiently to and participated in the discussions; his mind was quite agile and even appreciated my corny jokes during our side conversations.

Please join me in praying for his eternal repose. May the Lord bless and welcome him in glory into His Heavenly Kingdom of everlasting peace, love and joy. Alleluia!

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