Seares: John Gokongwei, a Cebuano, learned his values on life and business in Cebu

Pachico A. Seares

“Always look back to where you came from.”

-- John Gokongwei Jr.

John Robinson L. Gokongwei Jr. lived for 21 years in Cebu, starting as a one-year-old brought here by his parents from Fujian, south China where he was born. He spent the greater part of his life though, most of 72 years, in Manila.

Yet he always considered himself as a native of Cebu, in an unqualified embrace of the land where he grew up and was reared and taught. He reminded people whenever he had the chance that he was a Cebuano—unlike most politicians who publicly profess love for their province, city or town of origin or affinity only when they solicit votes.

Started small

Gokongwei was raised and educated in Cebu. He learned the rudiments of business, starting with a daily income of P20 from peddling rubber tires, textiles and used clothing.

He told a University of San Carlos forum in 2004, when the school honored him with a doctorate degree, that he excelled at grade school and high school and was given scholarship at USC, for which he was truly grateful. Early on, he repeatedly told himself to strive for the top. He knew he would succeed in Cebu, he later said, but he was not sure about Manila.

He made it in Manila too. When he retired in 2016 and passed the leadership to his son Lance, his business empire was at the top of the heap.

Hard work, honesty

Gokongwei died last Nov. 9 at 93 in a Manila hospital, leaving a vast fortune and a legacy of values that ruled the conduct of his personal life and business. He espoused entrepreneurship, hard work, honesty and doing what is right. Love of country was tied to his love of entrepreneurship, on the premise that “products, services and jobs become the lifeblood of the country.”

He died with the ranking of No. 3 in the 2018 Forbes list of richest Filipinos, with a net worth of $5.8 billion as of Nov. 9, 2019. JG Summit Holdings, Inc., the country’s second largest family-run conglomerate, was founded by Gokongwei in 1957, with interests that included banking and real estate, airlines, communications, power and food.

Dealing with politicians

Gokongwei dealt with politicians; most businessmen do. Yet he managed to stay out of politics by making it a rule not to talk publicly about politics. “I am a businessman, not a politician,” he once said. His company prudently stayed away from the skirmishes between then mayor Tomas Osmena and two other big business firms that transacted business with Cebu City over South Road Properties land.

The Gokongwei-led Universal Hotels and Resorts, Inc. (UHRI) was granted last September the building permit, clearing the way for the Isla de la Victoria project at Kawit Island at the South Road Properties. Then vice mayor Edgar Labella and the Barug faction in the City Council pushed for better conditions in the contract. After Labella trounced Tomas Osmena in the elections, some people thought the project was doomed.

Cebuanos’ hope

But Mayor Labella’s objection was dissipated quickly enough. Less than three months after he took over, he had a change of heart. The turnaround must be credited to the business acumen of the Gokongweis, adopted and honed by their patriarch.

From P18 billion, UHRI raised its investment in Kawit to P25 billion and, because of that, managed to keep the original term of 10 percent in the sharing of revenues. The Gokongweis would profit from the deal but Cebu would benefit too. Along the line of what John Gokongwei preached and practiced, from the time he started small in Cebu until he moved with the giants in Manila. A private business could be patriotic and still prosper.

Cebuanos may be more at rest if the father’s affinity with and affection for Cebu will also pass on to his children.