From Riches to Rags to Riches Again: Behind the Success Story of JOHN GOKONGWEI

Most of us have dreams of becoming a millionaire one day. Some to be able to get away from the choking cloud of debt, while others are to be able to give a better life for their families. It’s no ordinary feat be able to climb to the top with the other billionaires, but it sure is possible. The story of John Gokongwei, one of the top billionaires in the Philippines will prove to you that hard work and determination will truly pay off in the end.

John Gokongwei, born on a Chinese-Filipino family, shared his story beginning when he was a child. He lived a lavish life as his father owned a chain of movie houses, including the first air-conditioned movies house outside of Manila. He is the eldest of six children and lived in Cebu where John would be driven by a chauffeur to school every day, and he topped his classes, and he would have lots of friends and bring them to the movies for free.



But then at 13-years old, his father died because of complications to typhoid. According to John, “Everything I enjoyed vanished instantly.

My father’s empire was built on credit. When he died, we lost everything – our big house, our cars our business – to the banks. I felt angry at the world for taking away my father, and for taking away all that I enjoyed before. When the free movies disappeared, I also lost half my friends.”



It was devastating to him and his family, but John did not give up. When he asked his mother who was 32-years old and widowed, what they can do, his mother said, “You should feel lucky. Some people have no shoes to walk to school. What can you do? Your father died with ten centavos in his pocket.” Despite their circumstances, John did not give up, he and his mother worked in Cebu while they sent his siblings to China.

His mother sold all her jewelry, and after that, they sold peanuts to a market away from the city. John Gokongwei shared, “I woke up at five o’clock every morning for the long bicycle ride to the palengke with my basket of goods.

There, I set up a table about three feet by two feet in size. I laid out my goods – soap, candles, and thread – and kept selling until everything was bought.

Why these goods? Because these were hard times and this was a poor village, so people wanted and needed the basics; soap to keep them clean, candles to light the night and thread to sew their clothes.”

Even though there were a lot of vendors in the palengke who was more experienced with the ways of the market, the only advantage John has was his youth. He can move more quickly and tire less easily than the other old vendors around him.



But even at 15, he could earn 20 pesos in profit which was more than enough to feed his siblings who were studying in China. He would keep the extra money to invest in the business he has today. With this experience, he thought to himself, “If I can compete with people so much older than me, if I can support my whole family at 15, I can do anything.”

He began thinking that if his father hadn’t died, would he be what he is now? He learned that even if life gives us bad cards, he has to play it the best he can and play to win. It became his guiding principle in life. He began trading goods from Cebu to Manila in 1943.

When he was 20 years old, together with his brother, he put up Amasia Trading and imports various goods from the United States like used clothing, onions, old newspapers and magazines, fruits and flour.

They were able to get back his siblings from China in 1948 who also helped in the business. Their home was then converted to an office and warehouse. When he was 31 years old, he started corn-starch manufacturing where he competed with huge companies at that time in Cebu. But to be able to do this, he had to borrow money to finance his business.

According to him, “The first bank I approached made me wait for two hours, only to refuse my loan. The second one, China Bank, approved a ₱500,000 peso clean loan for me. Years later, the banker who extended that loan, Dr. Albino Sycip said that he saw something special in me. Today, I still wonder what that was, but I still thank Dr. Sycip to this day.”



The cornstarch that they started before was the foundation of JG Summit Holdings now stands. The funny thing was when the battle for the lowest price started, the third cornstarch company was forced to close down, and one of their chemists was Lucio Tan. According to Gokongwei, “Lucio Tan, who always kids me that I caused him to lose his job. I always reply that if it were not for me, he would not be one of the richest men in the Philippines today.”

John Gokongwei learned that when his father died, he did not leave a succession plan, so he started training his family and teach them what he knows. He then gave the reins of the company to his young brother James and his only son, Lance. He also shared that there were a lot of challenges building the business, but he always fights back, even though it doesn’t assure him he wins every time. At 50 years old he tried partnering with the coffee called Blend 45 which was under the Robina Farms brand. He called it as his defining moment because when he lost, he learned a lot too.

He then bought shares of San Miguel that he was able to sit on its board. One headline ran, “Who is Gokongwei and why is he doing all those terrible things to San Miguel?” A battle ensued between why he should be able to sit on the board of San Miguel. He explained that he and his brother James prepared a debate that day. However, they lost due to the court ruling.

The ironic thing is he was invited to be a part of Anscor and San Miguel HongKong 5 years later because he was able to prove that he is a serious player in the business world. He also shared his challenges in life when he was facing the Goliaths in the industry.

1. The first one was the airline company.

The famous Airline at that time was Philippine Airline, and with its high price, not every Filipino could fly. So together with his son, Lance, they envisioned a budget-friendly airline. So they decided to remove the unnecessary things a regular airline offers and finally they were able to make that vision come true. They continue to develop using their philosophy, “low cost, great value.” And as they continue to offer low fares, by 2012, they aim to fly more than 1 out of 12 Filipinos in a year.



2. Their battle in the telecom business.

They started to establish Digitel Mobile Philippines, Inc. in 2003 and they established a network called, “Sun Cellular”. But before this, they were already on the move to buy PLDT shares. At first, it was hard for them since they were a new player in the telecom industry and have been eight years late. But according to Gokongwei, “But being a late player had its advantages. We could now build our platform from a broader perspective. We worked with more advanced technologies and intelligent systems not available ten years ago. Being a johnny-come-lately allowed us to create and launch more innovative products more quickly.”

Their concept was to offer unlimited calls and text for a fixed amount but only if they call or text a fellow Sun Cellular user. In no time, they have over 4 million subscribers and over 2000 cell sites. Gokongwei said, “In the end, it is all about making life better for the consumer by giving them choices.”

3. Their entry into the beverage industry.

According to Gokongwei, “It all began when I was in China in 2003 and noticed the immense popularity of bottled iced tea. I thought this product would have huge potential here. We knew that the Philippines was not a traditional tea-drinking country since more familiar consumers were colas in returnable glass bottles. But precisely, this made the market ready for a different kind of beverage. One that refreshes yet gives health benefits of green tea. We positioned it as “spa” in a bottle. A drink that cools and cleans – thus C2 was born.”

The C2 beverage drink was a huge success as now a lot of Filipinos drink iced tea. Together with Cebu Pacific, Sun Cellular and C2, they were empire Gokongwei started and under JG Summit’s control. But this did not stop Gokongwei to envision Filipino products. He now expresses his thoughts on making the nation excel globally by promoting Filipino products most of all.



It has been great challenges for Gokongwei, but he did not stop there. He also ventured outside of the Philippines, wherein they became the number one potato chips manufacturer in Malaysia and Singapore. In Gokongwei’s words, “We are the leading biscuit manufacturer in Thailand and a significant player in the candy market in Indonesia. Out Aces Cereal brand is a market leader in many parts of China. C2 is now doing very well in Vietnam, selling over 3 million bottles a month there, after only six months in the market. Soon we will launch C2 in other South East Asian markets.”

After all his achievements in the business world, he never forgot how he started. According to him, “I am 81 today, but I do not forget the little boy that I was in the palengke in Cebu. I still believe in family. I still want to make good. I still don’t mind going up against those older and better than me. I still believe hard work will not fail me. And I still believe people willing to think the same way. Through the years, the marketplace has expanded: between cities, between countries. I want to urge you all here to think bigger.” He also wants others as well to aim high and venture their businesses outside of the Philippines. He said, “When you go back to your offices, think of ways to sell and market your products and services to the world. Create world-class brands. You can if you tried. I did.”

He continued, “As a boy, I sold peanuts from my backyard. Today I sell snacks to the world. I want to see other Filipinos do the same.” John Gokongwei owns Cebu Pacific Airlines, Robinsons Mall, Robinsons Bank and Universal Robina Corporation.

He may have climbed up the ladder most people dream of; now he urges everyone to do the same. He is truly an inspiration to everyone playing in the business industry. Everyone starts with failure.







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