Gokongwei: From rich to poor and again to rich



By Rose de la Cruz


Unlike most modern typans, John Gokongwei founder of Cebu Pacific, Robinsons Mall, Universal Robina Food Manufacturing and Robinsons Bank, was born to a rich Chinese family, but went dirt poor when his father died of typhoid complications when he was 13 years old. Everything he enjoyed vanished instantly.


His autobiography was posted by Elaine Hernandez on Facebook, where he narrated the rich life in a mansion in Cebu, chauffeur-driven cars taking him to San Carlos University, then and now a top school. He topped his classes and had many friends. He would bring them to movies for free at his father’s movie houses.


His father’s empire was built on credit such that when he died, they lost everything—house, cars, business to the banks. He felt angry to the world for taking away his father and his mother was widowed at 32.


He continued his studies without the luxury. He and his mom supported his siblings in China, where living standards were cheaper. He sold roasted peanuts in the palengke and branched out to another palengke outside the city where he sold soaps, candles and thread. From the P20 profit he earned, he fed his siblins and poured some back into business.


With this experience, he said “if I could feed my whole family at 15, I can do anything.” The important thing is to know that life will always deal us a few bad cards but “we have to play those cards the best we can and play to win.” This had been his guiding principle ever since.


In 1943, he expanded trading goods between Cebu and Manila. From Cebu he shipped tires in a batel hat travelled five days to Lucena and then load them in a truck for a 6-hour trip to Manila, with him sitting on top of the goods so they would not be stolen. From Manila, he bought other goods using his earnings from the tires to be sold to Cebu.


When World War II ended—he was 20 years old then—his brother Henry and him put up Amasia Trading, which imported onions, flour, used clothing, old newspapers and magazines and fruits from the United States. In 1948, he and his mother got their siblings back from China and housed them in a 2-story building that was also their office and warehouse in Cebu. The whole family got involved in the business.


He started his corn starch company in 1957, at age 31—competing with the richest group in Cebu, Ludo and Luym. He borrowed P500,00 from China Bank, then headed by Dr. Albino Sycip, who saw something special about him. Upon launching the first product, Panda, a price war ensued but his Universal Corn Product was still left standing. This founded the JG Summit Holdings.  He trained his children on hard work even while in high school.


Six years ago, he retired and handed the reins to his youngest brother James and only son, Lance. But he still goes to office every day and makes himself useful. Building a business to the size of JG Summit was not easy. Challenges met him but he fought even if sometimes he lost.


By 1976, at age 50, his business span food products anchored by a branded coffee called Blend 45 and agro- industrial products under the Robina Farms brand. That year he faced one of his biggest challenges—getting a board seat in San Miguel Corp and lost. But this his defining moment. He won in overcoming his fear.  By a twist of fate, he was made to sit in the board of Anscor and San Miguel Hong Kong 5 years later.


Since then, he became a serious player in business, but the challenges haven’t stopped coming like when he put up Cebu Pacific, Digitel Mobile Philippines Inc. and launched C2 green tea. “In all three, we set up businesses against market Goliaths in very high-capital industries: airline, telecoms, and beverage.”


From just 360,000 passengers when he started Cebu Pacific 11 years ago, today this “low cost, great value” airline flies 5 million passengers with over 120 daily flights to 20 local destinations and 12 Asian cities. Today, we are the largest in terms of domestic flights, routes and destinations. We also have the youngest fleet in the region after acquiring new Airbus 319s and 320s, he said.


When he established Digitel that developed Sun Cellular in 2003, the field was dominated by Globe and Smart. Being a late player, he could build his platform from a broader perspective with more advanced technologies and intelligent systems not available 10 years ago. Sun Cellular offered Filipinos to call and text as much as they want for a fixed monthly fee of P250. This meant savings of 2/3 their regular phone bill. Sun hit 1 million customers within one year and now has 4 million subscribers and 2,000 cell sites in the country, where 97 percent of the market is pre-paid.


In 2004, he launched C2, the green tea drink in a market what was the playground of cola companies. Iced tea was just a sugary brown drink served bottomless in restaurants. Universal Robina Corporation was the leader in snack foods but its only background in beverage was instant coffee. In 2003, he noticed that bottled iced tea was a big hit in China. He positioned it as a spa in a can—a drink that cools and cleans, which is why C2 was named thus.


C2 immediately caught on with consumers when it launched in 2004, when it sold 100,000 bottles in the first month. Three years later, Filipinos drink around 30 million bottles of C2 per month. With Cebu Pacific, Sun Cellular, and C2, the JG Summit team took control of its destiny.


Self-determination, which he staunchly practices, works for individuals, companies and nations. To be a truly great nation, we must also excel as entrepreneurs before the world. We must create Filipino brands for the global market.


His factory began 30 years ago with Jack and Jill potato chips in Hongkong. Today we are all over Asia.


At 81, he said, he can’t forget the little boy that 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. Through the years, the marketplace has expanded between cities, countries, continents.


"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," he said.


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Wednesday, 18 September 2019
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