“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." — John Gokongwei, Jr.
With a net worth of US $5.3 billion making him the third richest man in the Philippines in 2019, John Gokongwei Jr. has really come a long way from the young boy who sold soap, thread and other basic needs in post-war Cebu. His inspiring story from riches to rags to riches is something that we can learn from.
As a boy, Gokongwei was raised in an affluent family. His father then owned a chain of movie houses in Cebu. Life was good for the family until his father suddenly passed on due to health complications. The lenders whom his father was indebted for the upkeep of his businesses expropriated their assets, leaving the family with almost nothing. Young John lost his grip on the luxury he used to enjoy.
John, as the eldest child, and his mother decided to send off his five siblings to China where the cost of living was way lower. At the age of fifteen, he began to enter the world of entrepreneurship by selling basic commodities in the nearby towns of Cebu using a bicycle. With sheer hard work, determination and great business acumen, the rest was history when it comes to his success now.
From a young boy forced by circumstances to stop his schooling and focus on making a living, John Gokongwei is now one of the driving forces in Philippine industries from food, telecom, aviation, banking, and properties to power distribution. All these companies in his conglomerate are contained in JG Summit, his holding company.
Let's take a glimpse at how this taipan thinks and what his aspirations are. We have compiled quotes of his, based on his speeches, interviews of him, and materials written about him.
“When I wanted something, the best person to depend on was myself.’’
"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.’’
Moving Operations to Manila
- “That’s where the action is, Manila.”
- "How can you get very big in Cebu? Even the Aboitizes had to leave Cebu too.”
- “A true entrepreneur can find opportunities everywhere.”
- “I see an opportunity and go in. If that is an opportunist then I am an opportunist."
- “I travel a lot. I read a lot. I spend 2-3 hours reading every night."
- “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."
Attitude towards Work and Business
- “Integrity is the most important. Dedication to his work is next."
- “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."
- “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."
- “I was working while my peers were all playing, but I always thought I was having twice their fun."
- "I don’t rely on feng shui. I believe hard work brings us good luck and success."
- “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."
- "Love your work, your career, love your family. Love your country, never stop caring and always look back and be grateful to where you came from."
“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."
- “We have changed the marketplace. In the end, it is all about making life better for the consumers by giving them choices."
- “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."
- “We must create Filipino brands for the global marketplace."
- “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."
- “I am competitive by nature. Competition is good for the soul."
Becoming 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.”
- “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."
- “When you go back to your offices, think of the ways to sell and market your products and services to the world."
- “Create world-class brands. You can if you really tried. I did."
- “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."
Taking Risk and Letting Go
- “Everything involves risk. No risk, no reward."
- “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?"
- "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."
- “You can’t do everything by yourself."
- “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."
Being on the Forbes List
“I don’t want to be on the Forbes list. What’s the use of being famous?”
Starting a Business Then vs. Now
“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."
Constant Quest for Knowledge and Investing in Education
- "Through the years, I've stayed an entrepreneur, working hard and always learning from the school of life. Today, I'm 92 years old. I still know what has been going on in my company and I study and learn and always read books and now stories in this new digital age."
- “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."
John Gokongwei Jr. is indeed an expert in overcoming adversities in life. More so, he has perfected the art of spotting opportunities, letting go, strategic planning, and winning big time in the world of business. May we learn so much from his words and life story.
© 2013 Nik Abueva