John L. Gokongwei, Jr.'s Thoughts on Business, Life, Work, Economy and Values

Updated on May 1, 2018

“Entrepreneurship is not for the weak of heart. There is no easy path to success. You will need to work harder than your employees, to keep your mind sharp, and to face your inner fears. In the end, entrepreneurship is not only finding opportunities to create value in the business sense, but also finding the opportunities to be your best self” (Khanser, 2007).

These words of success and entrepreneurial wisdom come from a man of prowess; from a man of no ordinary abilities who started off from scratch, and later become one of the nation's and the world’s leading business leaders, industrialists and philanthropists.

He is John L. Gokongwei, Jr.—or Mr. John, as close friends and colleagues call him—the renowned founder and chairman emeritus of JG Summit Holdings, Inc., one of the Philippines’ leading conglomerates with significant business interests in food manufacturing (Universal Robina Corporation); hotels, shopping malls, real estate and property development (Robinsons Land Corporation); air transportation (Cebu Air, Inc.); banking (Robinsons Bank); petrochemicals (JG Summit Petrochemicals Corporation); foreign investments (United Industrial Corporation Ltd.); telecommunications (PLDT); and just recently, power (MERALCO).

Gokongwei’s success carries with it an inevitable tale that can inspire every aspiring and start- up entrepreneurs to follow his course and examples. Behind his formidable group of companies, which brought him an astounding net worth of $3.2 billion (Forbes, 2013), is a tough rags-to-riches account.

Mr. John's Story

John L. Gokongwei, Jr. grew up in Cebu and lived a grand life for his first thirteen years. His father, John Sr., owned a chain of movie houses in Cebu and was quite successful in the venture. They lived in an exclusive residential area in the city and he used to attend San Carlos University, one of the country’s premier institutions for learning even up to the present. He had a lot of friends at that time, whom he usually invited to watch films in their movie houses for free. However, things turned sour for John Jr. and his family when his father died suddenly due to some complications. The luxury that he enjoyed suddenly vanished when the companies that his father was indebted to for the financing of his businesses expropriated their properties as payments on the loans that his father made, leaving them with almost nothing. As a consequence, John Jr., as the eldest child, and his mother decided to send off his five siblings to China where the cost of living is far lower. At the age of fifteen, he started to engage in business by selling commodities in the nearby towns of Cebu using a bicycle. His early start in the field of entrepreneurship with the ultimate aim of survival and his battles thereafter has helped him become what and who he is today: a very successful taipan employing thousands of Filipinos and a grateful philanthropist endowing hefty amounts to education through the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation, Inc.

Generous Tycoon

Compared to other business tycoons, Gokongwei is one who can be considered as the most generous in the sense that he is very open to share his regimen and stratagems both in life and business for public consumption, a condition which is favorable to every Filipino who wants to alleviate his economic condition by means of entrepreneurship and likewise, in the process of doing so, help in building the country’s economy. If one wants to become successful in life, especially in business, he has to live the values and wisdom that entrepreneurs like Mr. John lived. Guided by the Confucian values, John L. Gokongwei, in his more than half a century of engaging into entrepreneurial activities, has grown to be wise. Hence, he has become a philosopher himself who does not fail to share his broad experiences and wisdom to the younger generation in the immense hope that they would follow his path. Here are the words of wisdom that he constantly shares in his speeches and in interviews conducted by professionals and media practitioners:

On Self-Reliance

  • “When I wanted something, the best person to depend on was myself’’ (Gokongwei, 2008).


On Starting Off Small

  • (Overwhelmed by the big buildings in Manila during his visit with his grandfather) “… I told my maternal grandpa: Gua-kong all these big buildings, they’re so astonishing! I recall he answered me: ‘All of them started small. They didn’t just became big’’’ (Flores, 2012).

On Dealing With Life’s Challenges

  • “The important thing to know is that life will always deal us a few bad cards. But we have to play those cards the best we can. And we can play to win” (Gokongwei, 2008)!

On Moving Business Operations From the Country to the Metropolis

  • “Why? Well, that’s where the action is, Manila” (Flores, 2012).
  • “… How can you get very big in Cebu? Even the Aboitizes had to leave Cebu too” (Flores, 2012).


On Spotting Opportunities and Business Ideas

  • “A true entrepreneur can find opportunities everywhere” (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).
  • “I see an opportunity and go in. If that is an opportunist then I am an opportunist. But before we go into anything, we really make of what… that’s why we have been… 90% successful in our ventures” (Tan in, 2009).
  • “I travel a lot. I read a lot. Ask me… about… very big entrepreneurs or business people in the West or Japan, or even [in] Asia. What they do. I spend 2-3 hours reading every night” (Tan in, 2009).
  • “Is there a market? That’s very important. When you find out that there’s a market then you say, “Who are your competitors? Do you have a chance against those guys if you put up your own factory or your own business? The third question, obviously, is do you have a capital? And the most important, the fourth thing is: do you know the business? If you don’t know what you’re into, can you get people to help you’’ (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011)?


On Attitudes Toward Work and Business

  • “Integrity is the most important. Dedication to his work is next” (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).
  • “You have to love your work. You have to save money instead of spending all of it. Look for areas you can compete in. Work damn hard. Most importantly, you have to love it” (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).
  • “Especially when you start, you have nothing in your pocket; you’ve got to be frugal. If you want to make one peso and you spent two, you’ll never make it. You must be very stupid if you don’t know what you should save on. Sure you have to eat three meals a day and wear a pair of pants and a shirt. But when you have no money and you go karaoke or disco, I would call that stupid’’ (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).
  • “I was working while my peers were all playing, but I always thought I was having twice their fun” (Khanser, 2007).

On Competition

  • “We have changed the marketplace. In the end, it is all about making life better for the consumer [sic] by giving them choices’’ (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “It’s not that we did not fear the giants. We knew we could have been crushed at the word go. So we just made sure we came prepared with great products and great strategies. We ended up changing the rules of the game instead’’ (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “We must create Filipino brands for the global marketplace ‘’ (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “Competition is good for the business and every human endeavor. It improves the product, and improves the person. Without competition, you don’t improve yourself. As long as you’re making money, you think you’re okay. When you’re open to competition—especially around the world—you get to be very good” (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).
  • “I am competitive by nature. Competition is good for the soul” (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).

On Ventures That Doesn’t Work

  • “…We had an ice cream project that we had for 20 years. We decided to close it. Anything that doesn’t give us the return, we just close it” (Tan in, 2009).

On Encouraging Filipinos Become Entrepreneurial and Globally Competitive

  • “I have always wondered, like many of us, why we Filipinos have not lived up to our potential. To be a truly great nation, we must also excel as entrepreneurs before the world…” (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “Why serve 86 million [Filipinos] when you can sell to four billion Asians? And that’s just to start you off. Because there is still the world beyond Asia” (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “When you go back to your offices, think of the ways to sell and market your products and services to the world” (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “Create world- class brands. You can if you really tried. I did” (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “As a young boy, I sold peanuts from my backyard. Today, I sell snacks to the world. I want to see other Filipinos do the same” (Gokongwei, 2008).
  • “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” (Enriquez, 2012).

On Risks in Business

  • “Everything involves risk. No risk, no reward” (Enriquez, 2012).
  • “First of all, I have four rules. First, we make a study whether we can do it. Secondly, do you have the capital or deep pockets needed? Third, do you have the people and can you compete? The fourth is can you sleep at night” (Tan in, 2009).

On Needing the Help of Others

  • “You can’t do everything by yourself” (Enriquez, 2012).
  • “To be frank about it, you’ve got to hire outsiders, otherwise you run out of relatives. We’ve hired a lot of good, young people” (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).

On Staying Humble

  • “I don’t want to be on the Forbes list. What’s the use of being famous?” (Enriquez, 2012)

On the Philippine economy

  • “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” (Enriquez, 2012).

On comparing the times when putting up a business

  • “I think it was easier in the ‘40s and ‘50s. We just came out of war and everything was feat. You need more capital now. After that war, the country was devastated…. Nowadays, you need a lot of brainpower” (Entrepreneur Philippines, 2011).

On Feng Shui

  • "I don’t rely on feng shui. I believe hard work brings us good luck and success” (Flores, n.d).

On Being a Philanthropist

  • “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 goes to education” (Enriquez, 2012).

On Retirement

  • “I announced my retirement and handed the reins to my youngest brother James and only son Lance. But my children tease me because I still go to the office every day and make myself useful. I just hired my first executive assistant and moved into a bigger and nicer office” (Gokongwei, 2008).

On Staying Fit

  • “… Every morning after breakfast, I drink thi-khan-yin tea” (Flores, 2012).

John L. Gokongwei is a man of values and substance. He is a man that every aspiring entrepreneur must follow: simple, hard- working, frugal, prudent, disciplined and bold. And we don’t need anything for proof; his life as evidenced by his words in relation to his tremendous success today is enough.

Related Videos


  • Enriquez,M.C. (2012). Inquirer Lifestyle. In Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved November 15, 2013, from
  • Flores, W.L. (n.d). Feng shui and good-luck secrets of John Gokongwei Jr., Henry Sy and Lucio Tan. In Asian Journal USA. Retrieved November 18, 2013, from
  • Get inspired: The John Gokongwei story . (2011). In Entrepreneur Philippines. Retrieved November 10,2013, from
  • Gokongwei, J.G. (2008). John Gokongwei’s speech at the 20th Ad Congress. In Universal Robina.Retrieved November 15, 2013, from
  • Khanser, M.A. (2007). John L. Gokongwei, Jr.: The path of entrepreneurship. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
  • Managing Asia: Christine Tan's interview with John Lim Gokongwei, Jr. . (2009). Negosyo 360. In Blogger.Retrieved November 10, 2013, from
  • The Philippines 50 richest. (2013). In Forbes. Retrieved November 15, 2013, from

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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