34 corporate leaders and the books that shaped them | Inquirer Business

34 corporate leaders and the books that shaped them

By: - Business Features Editor / @tinaarceodumlao
/ 04:07 AM December 02, 2019

Before they were corporate leaders, they were curious, adventurous readers. Before investing in the next big idea, they invested in their personal libraries.

Long before they achieved professional success, they discovered and developed the superpower of a well-informed, creative and expressive mind— one that is cultivated by exploring new worlds and concepts, one page at a time.


For the presidents, chief executives and senior managers of some of the country’s largest corporations, there are particular books that helped them become better persons, more astute visionaries and effective leaders of their organizations.

Some books have a deeper impact than others, and these 34 top company executives shared their top picks and why they chose them.


Some of the titles cited may not be the kind you’d expect on the shelf of a VIP’s corner office, but rather in a beach bum’s backpack, or under a child’s pillow.

Lance Gokongwei

1. LANCE Y. GOKONGWEI— President & CEO, JG Summit Holdings Inc.

“Encyclopedia Brown” series for children

“The one book that changed my life was the Encyclopedia Brown series for children. Encyclopedia Brown was a series of books about a child detective who used his keen intelligence and powers of observation to solve mysteries and various minor crimes in his fictional Brownsville neighborhood.

I first read Encyclopedia Brown at the Xavier School library more than 40 years ago. Encyclopedia Brown and his adventures created a lifelong fascination of reading for me—for both fiction and nonfiction. Even today, I still manage to carve out at least an hour of reading every day for my me time.”

2. ROBINA Y. GOKONGWEI-PE—President & CEO, Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc.

“The Book of Lists” by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace

The book opened my eyes to the extent of what humanity can achieve whether for good or for notoriety.

Robina Gokongwei-Pe

3. ALEXANDER GRENZ— President and CEO, Allianz PNB Life

“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway


Santiago’s story has been inspiring to me as it gives one confidence that perseverance and determination eventually pay off. It’s a beautiful story of an old fisherman being unable to catch any fish for more than 80 days. He is seen as an unlucky, almost cursed, person by others but still, he goes out every day with optimism to take his chances elsewhere.

Eventually, he succeeds catching the big marlin, though it turns into a long battle and ultimately in failure, when he cannot protect his catch from the sharks, and returns with only their skeletons.

However, he is not crushed by it but even more determined to go out and fish again, or even follow his earlier dream to see the lions in Africa.

Everyone faces challenges in life, but after ‘lows’ there will be ‘highs’ again. Don’t give up even if at times you feel unlucky or feel like failing. Don’t get crushed by failure, but learn from it and grow stronger. Follow your dreams!

4. ALEX REYES—President & CEO, Cebgo

“Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas Hofstadter

What a book should be—thought-provoking, challenging, unique, playful, difficult to unpack, and continuously works at multiple levels. You return to it, and it still allows insights to emerge even if you’ve already read the same section multiple times. Life-changing as it raises questions about consciousness, reality and how we perceive it. It is a Zen koan spread out over hundreds of pages.

5. CHARLIE YU—President, Empire East Land Holdings Inc.

“A Beautiful Mind” by John Nash

Reading the biography of a math genius who was alternately hailed and trashed for being who he was made one realize how triumph and failure come as a package for most people, some in a more pronounced manner than others.

6. ERNEST CU—President and CEO, Globe Telecom

Jack Welch books

They were a go-to in my last job. The last book I read was on Steve Jobs’ life. I have switched to reading blogs and articles on Flipboard.


“Hardy Boys” series

Looking back on how it all started, the passion for reading and adventure must go to the Hardy Boys series.

8. RENE ALMENDRAS— CEO, Manila Water Inc.

“In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters

“The Power Principle” By Blaine Lee

These opened my mind and made me understand the value of the things that I was already doing.

9. SABIN ABOITIZ—incoming CEO, Aboitiz Equity Ventures

More than a book, what helped me most was attending the boot camp in Zappos where they have a book called “Delivering Happiness.” It really helped me understand how to make our team members happier and more productive.

10. FEDERICO R. LOPEZ— Chair and CEO, First Philippine Holdings Corp.

“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

The book that continues to have a profound impact on me was never meant to be published. It was written almost 1900 years ago by Marcus Aurelius, considered one of history’s five greatest Roman emperors. He ruled over the empire as the richest most powerful man of his day.

Yet he did so with kindness, compassion and wisdom. His time on the throne was difficult, filled with wars, plague and rebellion, yet his rule was widely considered by historians to be a time of reason, fairness, equity and prosperity for the Roman people. He left his thoughts in a journal composed of 12 books. It was never meant for public consumption, never even had a title and much of what’s written look more like random unedited thoughts and rambling paragraphs. Historians later gave them the title “Meditations.”

The modern-day equivalent of this book is like finding Steve Jobs’ or Jeff Bezos’ private diaries at the time they were building up Apple and Amazon, except that this is a hundred times more significant given the scale of the Roman empire at that time.

The beauty of those thoughts is they don’t strike you as the grandiose ideas of Earth’s richest, most powerful man of the moment but more of the thoughts of an ordinary human being counseling himself through darkness, the temptations of power and wealth, as well as the emotional complexities of leading. In it you hear him constantly striving, almost agonizing, to keep himself on course for the common good.

Each time I read a passage in Meditations, I can’t help but admire the painstaking efforts shaping his thoughts and why he stayed humble, grounded and human unlike so many in the checkered history of the empire’s more than 70 rulers.

We all need similar habits that help us discover our own guide rails for life. Inviolable time for reading, introspection and writing has always been a necessary and treasured part of my own journey.

11. BENEDICT SISON— Country Manager, Sun Life Philippines

“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Winning” by Jack Welch

I have two life-changing books that taught me lessons that I carry in my mind every day.

“The Little Prince” is a companion book because its meaning to me evolved as I went through life. It started with a simple realization that what is truly essential is invisible to the eye. As I matured the book revealed new meaning and lessons, like the need to be more open-minded to people and things and to find life’s worth by living it for others.

The other book I like is Jack Welch’s “Winning,” because it is among the first books that guided me early in my career. Through “Winning,” I learned that the most important capabilities in becoming a good leader are to gain people’s trust, develop new leaders, and make right and fair decisions, unpopular as they may be.

12. JOSE E.B. ANTONIO— Chair, Century Properties Group

“The Outsiders” by William Thorndike Jr.

“The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“The Outsiders” revolves around the question of what makes a successful CEO. Some say he is a seasoned manager with deep industry expertise or he may have some celebrity CEO qualities such as charisma, communications skills, and a confident management style. I tend to believe there’s no right answer but simply that a good CEO is one who gives good returns to stockholders of the company in the long run.

“The Black Swan” is about the impact of the highly improbable that may cause massive consequences. Recent history such as Brexit and the HK turmoil are examples.

One should never be blind to the possibility of some negative or positive event. That’s when opportunities are made or empires lost.

Since I am basically a risk-averse person, I take into heart the lessons of economic history. This has been one of my guides in terms of making major decisions and timing (them well).

13. CESAR ROMERO—Chief executive, Shell Group

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie

I have read all sorts of books throughout my career, many of which had elements that have impacted me in one way or another. However, if I were forced to choose only one that has had the most impact on me, I would say it is the classic Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

I read it in my first year of working and it has served as the foundation for building rapport and relationships with people. While a number of books have nuggets of wisdom that have been helpful, this book has influenced me in almost its entirety.

Many of its messages are still relevant up to today. No wonder it is still being published and has been around for almost a century now.”

14. STEVEN TAN—COO, SM Supermalls

“The Alchemist” by Paolo Coelho

I read the “The Alchemist” by Paolo Coelho when I was still starting out in the corporate world and it struck me in a profound way. The themes are true then and are true now. Throughout my working life I related much to Santiago who set off on an adventure and learned from a wise mentor. I’d like to think that we have many parallels. I, too, am fortunate to have once gained a mentor in Mr. Henry Sy Sr. He gave me invaluable training in life. Certainly it wasn’t easy and to this day I continue to face many challenges in life. But if you persevere, focus and work hard, you will be rewarded. It may sound trite, but as in “The Alchemist,” the true treasure lies within.

15. BOBBY DY—CEO, Ayala Land Inc.

“Poor Richard’s Almanac”

It offers simple, practical advice on life and business. That is the reason why it made an impact.

16. LUCIO TAN JR.†—CEO, Tanduay Distillers Inc., PAL Holdings

“The Analects of Confucius”

My father has been a strong driving force in my life. I owe everything that I have learned from him. Growing up, we learned about Confucian values. “The Analects of Confucius” contains the teachings of the great Chinese philosopher. You do to others as if you’re the other person. Confucian teachings give you a deeper perspective of humanity, respect for others and for nature. It had guided the way I approach leadership and life.

17. JOSE T. PARDO—Chair, Philippine Seven Corp.

“The Age of Paradox” by Dr. Charles Handy

I have read many business books as I have long been a subscriber to Executive Book Summaries. Because of time constraints, I peruse book summaries. One favorite book though is “The Age of Paradox” by Dr. Charles Handy. I have long identified with his safe advice: “If it ain’t broke, fix it!” In a “VuCA” world or where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity are constants, a business leader should always challenge the status quo. While at the peak of a business cycle, it is best to disrupt and continue “fixing” one’s business while resources are plentiful. This is a principle I echoed in my book: “Just Think Positive.”

18. INJAP SIA—CEO, Double Dragon Properties

“The Blue Ocean Strategy” by Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim

It validated the idea of not just copying an existing, established business, but instead innovating and coming up with your own adjusted business model that will eventually make your specific competition irrelevant.


“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I read it in college and had to take a long walk at midnight along the river at Harvard to get over the last pages because of its emotional impact on me. The richness of the prose, the plasticity of time cross the novel, the mixture of reality and imagination, the blurring of family lines, the effects of the outside world on an isolated community, the many forms of love. It was magical in every sense of the world. Its biggest effect on me was the wonderful and powerful effect of literature on one’s sense of being, on one’s imagination and its capacity to elicit emotions you may not have recognized in you. I re-read it a couple of years ago and its effect on me has remained undiminished.

20. WINN EVERHART— CEO, Coca-Cola Philippines

“The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle

A great way to think about leading teams and how inclusion/diversity helps create an environment where “two plus two equals 10.” Why it is important to provide safe and transparent working environments which will then create an even larger impact on a team’s growth.


“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey

It says your response to events is under your control.

22. BENJAMIN O. YAO— Chair and CEO, SteelAsia Manufacturing Corp.

Peter Drucker books

More than three decades ago, I was given a book by Peter Drucker. It was so eye-opening and counter-intuitive that I took to Drucker’s books and have since read quite a few of them.

These books have had a great influence on SteelAsia’s business philosophies and strategy. Being guided by Drucker inevitably attaches the words “long-term” to almost anything we do, because of his fundamental and uncompromising stance on a business being for the entire society, which the owners, managers and employees are part of.

23. KELVIN ANG—CEO, AIA Philam Life

“Hit Refresh” by Satya Nadella

The book that has made a great impact on me is “Hit Refresh” by Microsoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella, which is about changing the culture of a great company.

In many ways, AIA Philam Life is like the old Microsoft. As a 44-year-old technology company, it encountered a lot of challenges as competition and rapid development forced it to take an inward look and rediscover its purpose.

The book inspired me to rethink AIA Philam Life’s vision, mission and purpose. It also made me reflect on my role, on becoming an empathetic leader, on providing clarity in direction, and on channeling my people’s energy so we can deliver our commitments successfully, whether it’s to our internal stakeholders or to our customers.

To summarize the most important leadership lessons that I picked up from this book (and continue to keep in mind everyday):

1. Build the team and people.

2. Unlearn and relearn.

3. Get to work on defining and shaping the organizational culture.

4. Define and live the (company’s) core values.

5. Honor the past and past leaders. But do not rely on past successes, approaches and solutions.

6. Do not live off yesterday’s successes. Every day is a fresh start.

24. RAHUL HORA—CEO, Axa Philippines

“The Power of Kabbalah” by Yehuda Berg

In this book I came across the 13 principles to overcome challenges and achieve fulfillment. Through these, I got to understand and appreciate spirituality more and also learned some principles which stuck with me and now form the guiding principles of my actions and attitude toward life. Some of the top learnings are:

Never—and that means never—lay blame on other people or external events

Learn to resist one’s reactive impulses

Obstacles are opportunities. The greater the obstacle, the greater the opportunity to evolve spiritually.

Only by changing oneself can one see a change in others.

25. AFTAB AHMED—CEO, Citi Philippines

“Play to Win!” by Larry and Hersch Wilson

In terms of an impactful read, “Play to Win!” authored by Larry and Hersch Wilson stands out.

The insights shared by the authors permanently etched in my mind the pronounced distinction between playing to win versus playing not to lose. The book in digestible and actionable terms reinforced the need to step out of one’s comfort zone, and be open to new ideas, perspectives and challenges. It highlighted that self-preservation should not be a key motivation.

The positive outcomes of becoming a greater practitioner of playing to win further enhanced my positivity. These three simple words became a permanent part of my personal, professional and mentoring vocabulary. The book was a thought stimulant and has contributed toward enriching my career. It led me to pursue new opportunities involving multiple overseas assignments with greater confidence and to look at challenges as opportunities. Making this philosophy an integral part of my DNA and modus operandi has made a huge difference to me both personally and professionally.

26. BERNIE LIU—CEO, Golden ABC Corp.

“Good to Great” and “Great by Choice” by Jim Collins

Jim Collins is one of my favorites. His books are not only enjoyable; they are also well researched and evidence-based. I’ve read all of them, but my top picks are “Good to Great,” which I read in 2001, and “Great by Choice” published 10 years later. These books give very good and practical insights about issues all CEOs and business owners struggle with, but what’s even better is that the learning application extends beyond the boardroom. The content is so on-point, validating our efforts and showing us what we should improve on.

I use these books to align my leaders in Golden ABC. For years now, these have been required reading for all of them, and manager trainees go through a book review session with me before they are promoted. I think it is important to understand that the concept of greatness is neither abstract nor unattainable. It is a mindset that one should have, which is why the call to greatness is embedded in our daily work. Our company purpose, launched last March, encapsulates who we are, and what we do as an organization, and that is “we fashion experiences that inspire greatness.”

27. BRIAN CU—CEO, Grab Philippines

“Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh

This book tells how important customer centricity is and how a culture was created with customer centricity being front and center. This book has not only impressed upon me important work values, but also influenced me to approach life with a great deal of thought and purpose, to become more deliberate and decisive with people’s satisfaction and welfare in mind. I think nowadays, we can all get too distracted with technology and innovation that we sometimes fail to recognize who should enjoy the benefits of these developments: it’s the people around us every day. It’s all about learning how to serve to lead, and lead with a bigger passion and deeper purpose.

28. HANS SICAT—CEO, ING Philippines

“Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari

Malcolm Gladwell books

Of the books I’ve read in the last two years, the best nonfiction has to be “Sapiens” by Prof. Yuval Noah Harari. His way of analyzing the history of our species, projecting potential directions, was very thoughtful. He also put together a number of threads that relate to our current geopolitical, social, academic interests, and topics. It made me think about a few issues and themes. The book was also a bit of a precursor, theme-wise, to a more recent book of his, “21 lessons for the 21st Century,” which I’m currently reading.

Separately, over the years I’ve read a few Malcolm Gladwell books. They’re also very thoughtful. I have realized that by listening to his series called “Revisionist History,” the medium of listening to a podcast is interesting and can be quite rewarding. I believe the series is very well researched. He talks about things that are “forgotten and misunderstood.” More often than not, I pause and try to process what Gladwell has uncovered. He definitely knows more than I do!

29. JUAN F. ALFONSO— President and CEO, Light Rail Manila Corp.

“True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership” by Bill George

“Jaime V. Ongpin, the Portrait of the Filipino as a Manager” by Nick Joaquin

“True North” has helped me understand myself and my purpose as a leader.

All of us have experienced different paths in our journey to leadership. Bill helps us understand that where we are today is a product of our unique life story… It is in understanding our life story that we see ourselves as who we truly are. With self-understanding comes self-acceptance and awareness of our own abilities and weaknesses.

This book talks about certain “transformational experiences” so powerful that they change the trajectory of our lives. Many of these experiences give us the passion and strength to pursue our present work and our leadership path. It also speaks about humility and being honest with ourselves to know what we are good at and what we are not. The objective of leadership is not to be the smartest person in the room, but to manage a diverse set of managers, listen to them, and make the best decisions whether or not they came from you.

The paradox of leadership is that, the more we rely on our team and allow them to develop their own strengths, the more successful we become as leaders. Leave your ego at the door. The team’s success, the organization’s success is greater than you.

Recently I read the 2018 version of “Jaime V. Ongpin, the Portrait of the Filipino as a Manager” by Nick Joaquin. JVO’s leadership story and ultimate sacrifice for all of us is one we should not forget. JVO and many in his generation sacrificed so much personally for us to have the freedom we enjoy today. He was also the architect of many structural reforms that put our country back on the path to growth. JVO lived a life pursuing what he wanted, and to be defined by his true service to all Filipinos.

30. RICHARD BATES— President & CEO, Manulife Philippines

“Pragmatic Imagination” by Ann Pendleton-Jullian

The book is the last segment of a larger body of work and has input from the incredible mind of John Seely Brown (a researcher who specializes in organizational studies). It is about how you harness your imagination in a practical way to respond quickly to an ever-changing business environment.

31. FE PEREZ-AGUDO— President and CEO, Hyundai Asia Resources Inc.

“Start with Why” by Simon Sinek

I like it because he goes down to the basics of one’s sense of purpose in life and in work. Knowing one’s why separates great leaders and organizations from others who simply stay at what they do. “Why” always reminds me of the big picture and keeps me on track every time I must make a decision as a company president, as a woman, and as a mother.

32. FREDERICK GO—President, Robinsons Land Corp.

“Made in America” by Sam Walton

It is very inspirational and shows the importance of frugality, focus, drive, and always putting the customer first.

33. EMMANUEL V. RUBIO— Incoming president and CEO, Aboitiz Power Corp.

“The One Thing” by Gary Keller

It’s a simple, easy read book on how to achieve results. It has helped me become more focused by first knowing that one, most important thing. If you know what that is and you’re able to successfully deliver, then the rest will follow. It’s like a domino. If you can topple the first one, the succeeding ones will fall into place, even if these are progressively increasing in size. The book has taught me the value of getting that “One Thing” right to reach the end goal.

34. ARIEL LACSAMANA— Managing director, 3M Philippines

“Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey

Given to me by the Globe CEO in 1994 and to this day is still one of my go-to (material on self-improvement) principles.

I have an annual reminder in my calendar to review my progress or change (sometimes it goes the other way and regresses) in each habit and reflect how I should change my actions going forward. For example, “Sharpen the Saw” is the last habit and I reflect on how I have managed to improve my health and income-generating abilities, and then decide on one action I need to take going forward that will help me improve in that aspect.

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