“Everything involves a risk. No risk, no reward,” so declared John Gokongwei Jr., chairman emeritus of the conglomerate, JG Summit Holdings.
Risk-taking—the lifeblood of an entrepreneur—has enabled Gokongwei to lift himself from peddler to billionaire-philanthropist. During the war, he sold soap and other essentials to survive. In the mid-20th century, after putting up a trading company, he ventured into manufacturing and other fields.
“I just wanted to be one of the top people. I was in food business then,” said Gokongwei.
“Today we are in eight areas—real estate, food, banking, airline, telecom, retail, publishing and petrochemicals. When I started trading in Cebu, I was the delivery boy, buyer, accountant, treasurer. I had one warehouse man. Now I have over 50,000 working with me.”
He said his biggest learning experience was: “You can’t do everything by yourself.”
He brushes off being ranked by Forbes Asia as the third richest man in the country. “I don’t want to be on the Forbes list. What’s the use of being famous?”
The taipan recently graced the opening of Robinsons Magnolia on Hemady Street and Aurora Boulevard, Quezon City.
At 86, he was fit and jolly, his voice still booming and his mind as sharp as a tack.
Asked why it took five years for Robinsons Land Corp. (RLC), JG’s real-estate company, to build another mall in Metro Manila, Gokongwei said they had to find a huge piece of land in a perfect location. The company bought the property from San Miguel Corp.
Baby-boomers will recall that it was once the site of the Magnolia Ice Cream House. Today, it is being transformed into a mixed-use development, the Magnolia Town Center, which has one of the country’s prettiest malls as the anchor.
RLC’s 32nd mall has impressed both tenants and customers with its sleek architecture and cool mix of shops and restaurants. As homage to the former Magnolia House, an ice-cream parlor stands behind the mall.
The multi-tower, 1,400 unit-Magnolia Residences is part of this development. The mixed-use center is Robinsons Lands’ answer to providing a classy and secure environment in Quezon City.
Johnlu Koa, CEO of French Baker Inc., a flagship mall tenant, recalled Gokongwei as saying in a talk that, while making the first billion was difficult, it’s easy progress after that.
“That’s because you start with nothing,” said Gokongwei. “But if you have a billion, it’s the same as having a hundred million. You can live in a mud house and eat steak and caviar.”
His secret to being fit for his age? “I look at pretty legs,” he said with characteristic humor. “Just look. What else can you do? Try being 86.”
His most recent accomplishment as chair of the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation was to give a P250 million-endowment to the De La Salle Gokongwei School of Engineering. In 2002, he earmarked P200 million for Ateneo for the John Gokongwei School of Management. These are arguably the biggest education endowments in the nation’s history.
“Companies today are more efficient. You learn more because of communication and electronics. The world is changing. If we don’t change, we might not be able to compete. That’s why most of the money from our foundation goes to education.”
“When I was giving back then, the peso to the dollar was P56,” he continued. “Now it’s P40. If the exchange rate falls below P40, many exporters will close shop. But for us, it’s good because our ingredients are imported.”
Universal Robina Corp. remains one of the biggest contributors to the JG Summit Holdings bottom line. This year, it raked in P53 billion in sales, many of which come from branded consumer goods such as Jack & Jill, Great Taste coffee mix, and C2, which dominates the beverage market.
Gokongwei started the ready-to-drink tea trend on a visit to China. He observed that the locals drank their tea in flasks and put it in their pockets.
“I said, that would be good for Filipinos. It’s not like cola where you have to finish the contents of the bottle.”
Koa told Gokongwei that, now, he would see C2 stores in Hanoi and Jack & Jill snacks in Hong Kong. These and other Universal Robina products are sold in Asean countries.
Gokongwei pointed out that the Philippines needs more entrepreneurs. “Managers will work for a salary. Entrepreneurs create new businesses. Many people have capital, but instead of making money for business they build houses for rent. It’s easy money to collect rental.”
Koa, an economist, called it “static money” because there is no multiplier effect.
Gokongwei said he hopes to see the Philippines become one of the top three Asean countries in his lifetime. “Right now, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are on top. Our economy is good but the President has been sitting for only two years. You don’t achieve miracles in that short time. If Europe descends into deep recession, America follows and China also declines, we will be affected because we export to these countries. Our OFWs will not be able to find jobs.”
Gokongwei’s only son Lance, 45, is vice chair and deputy CEO of JG Summit Holdings. The proud father said Lance took a double major at Wharton and graduated summa cum laude. At 30 years old, he was then appointed president of Cebu Pacific.
“I thought there was a gap. Many areas were not covered by the airlines,” said Gokongwei.
Cebu Pacific pioneered low-cost, no-frills airline service. “People who used to travel by boat take the plane. It saves money and time. The airline is 99 percent Lance’s achievement. I just gave him the idea. Now we hold 50 percent of the domestic airline business.”
Likewise, his brother James Go, chair and CEO of JG Summit Holdings, always puts his son Frederick Go, president and COO, in front.
“Frederick is a good manager,” said Gokongwei of his nephew.
Every Sunday, the Gokongweis meet and talk shop. “They are very smart. They learn by looking. You don’t have to preach to them because they are very smart,” he said of the younger generation.
The eldest of Gokongwei’s six children, Robina Gokongwei-Pe, is president and COO of Robinsons Retail Group, a P60-billion business. The patriarch is proud as well of Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng, who asked for the lowest startup capital (about P1 million) to set up Summit Media. The publishing group now has 22 titles.
Marcia is business unit general manager for Nissin URC and Hunts URC. Hope Gokongwei-Tang is the general manager for Robinsons Appliances, and her twin, Faith Gokongwei-Lim, is vice present for marketing and merchandising of Ministop.
Gokongwei recalled that Ministop’s foreign principals sought them out as local partners. “It’s a good project, but it takes 10 years and 300 stores to make money. We now have 330 Ministops.”
In many interviews, Gokongwei has always cited honesty, simplicity and dedication as his core values. Leading by example, he still reports to work from Monday to Friday. The executive committee still defers to him for major decisions.
Six months of the year, he travels around the world watching musicals and visiting landmarks and his favorite museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Louvre.
Asked about his travel essentials, Gokongwei answered: “My wife.”
He has been married to Elizabeth for 54 years and attributes their harmony to their like-mindedness. “We share interests like reading. And, when I get mad, she keeps quiet.”
A voracious reader, Gokongwei surrounds his bed with books. He is reading the latest book on hedge funds which he ordered from Amazon. If he were to give books as presents, he favors biographies of Genghis Khan (“the first Oriental who conquered the West”), Napoleon (“from sergeant, he became an emperor and did a lot for France”) and Deng Xiao Ping (“he modernized the Chinese economy”).
At this stage, the taipan can’t ask for anything more. His life is like a river, he said: “It’s been going smoothly. In the end, it has to flow to the sea.”