Gokongwei’s best legacy | Inquirer Business

Gokongwei’s best legacy

/ 05:10 AM November 14, 2019

The late John Gokongwei Jr. was “the builder of a multinational consumer conglomerate [Universal Robina Corp.] across the Asia-Pacific region … a game changer in Philippine telecommunication and airline sectors [through Sun Cellular and Cebu Pacific, respectively], and a philanthropist who gave away half of his fortune to charity [through the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation],” says Inquirer writing editor Doris Dumlao-Abadilla.

Gokongwei was diligent and thrifty. At 13, he hawked wares by bicycle and on boat in Cebu. Half a century later, he still flew economy class and rented tuxedos for his children’s weddings.


He was a bold visionary. The family ventured into aviation, petrochemicals, textiles, electronics and various other fields. Some businesses succeeded, others did not.

In his book “Lessons From Dad,” son Lance quotes sister Marcia who remembers what their father said: “To be successful, you have to be willing to try out many ideas. Some of them will succeed, some won’t. Do five or 1o things and one of them will work.”


Education was a valued advocacy. Business majors at the Ateneo de Manila University call John Gokongwei School of Management Building home. The Gokongwei College of Engineering stands tall at De La Salle University in Manila; the John Gokongwei Jr. Innovation Center has a pride of place in the school’s Laguna campus.

Gokongwei was a remarkable figure. But as I texted his eldest daughter, Robina, on Sunday, what was most remarkable was the way he and his wife of more than three decades, Elizabeth, raised their six children.

John Gokongwei Jr. was a great father; his children, his lasting legacy.

In family businesses where succession is a perennial issue, the family chose son Lance early on, and trained him well not just to maintain the business, but to grow it judiciously. Even after he graduated summa cum laude from Wharton, in applied science and finance, he started as a management trainee.

“I had to go out and sell Jack n’ Jill snacks to supermarkets. I was paid P2,000 a month. Since I had to go around the city, Dad let me use an old car with a broken air conditioner. I may have been the son of the boss, but I worked harder than anybody else to prove that I wasn’t just the son of the boss.”

Gokongwei was a voracious reader, a role model for his kids. Robina wrote a national column, and Lisa founded Summit Publishing. (See “UP Maroons’ Godmother,” Dec. 7 and 14, 2018.)

I do not readily agree to interviews, but when Lisa, a few batches younger than me at the Ateneo, asked if she could feature me for a glossy, I assented. Years later, I consented to being in Cosmo, again upon Lisa’s request, because I trusted that the write-ups would be thought-provoking rather than sensationalistic.


Unlike siblings in other businesses, who lead separate lives, Lance and his sisters are close.

In the early years, during weekends and summer breaks, the children slept on mattresses on the floor while their parents slept on the bed—all in the same room. “No matter how busy we all were during the day, we always saw each other at night. We became really close because we would talk till we fell asleep.”

Many patriarchs claim they are too busy to spend time with family. Some bargain for their children’s love with material privileges. They become frustrated when their children turn out entitled, grasping, addicted to pleasures of one sort or the other, not qualified to run the enterprise.

Gokongwei was loving— and instilled discipline. When Faith and Hope broke an agreed-upon curfew, their father grounded them for a month. The twins stayed home and studied, and their grades soared.

In the age of social media and one-upmanship, the Gokongweis remain refreshingly grounded.

“Work hard … focus on the business, not your share price,” the patriarch once told the family. “Do things for the long term.  You don’t need to follow the crowd.”

“Don’t compare yourself to others, because someone will always be smarter than you,” the matriarch said. “Someone will always be better-looking or richer. So just go out there and be yourselves.”

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at www.lazada.com.ph or call National’s Jennie Garcia at 0915-421-2276. Contact the author at [email protected]

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TAGS: Cebu Pacific, John Gokongwei Jr., Sun cellular, Universal Robina Corp.
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