Being John Gokongwei

Patricia Evangelista

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John Gokongwei Jr. doesn’t believe money is important, or at least not as important as other things

FILIPINO BILLIONAIRE. The simple life of John Gokongwei Jr. Photo by Jake Verzosa

MANILA, Philippines – John Gokongwei Jr. doesn’t believe money is important, or at least as important as other things.

He doesn’t spend as much as he could, which is very much, given that he’s the country’s 4th richest man with Forbes placing his net worth at US$3.2 billion. He is well aware he can buy a yacht, or a private plane, but he will not. Money is the measure of a businessman’s success, but it is certainly not the measure of a man.

“I’ve seen a lot of people destroy themselves and their families with money. And it’s good to set an example for the next generation.”

He is a simple man, who lives a simple life, one that has recently become much simpler after he passed on business control to his son Lance. His diversified conglomerate JG Summit has stakes in airlines, telecommunications, real estate, banking, hotels, publishing, food and power generation.

It is family that comes first to this dollar-billionaire – one of the 6 in the Philippines – who continues to sit at a small desk in a glass office he shares with his staff. He is willing to take risks in business – he once won a coin toss with Henry Sy, the country’s richest, for the building where his office stands now – but he will never take risks with his family.

The negotiation

In 1981, Gokongwei’s eldest daughter Robina was kidnapped on her way home from the University of the Philippines.

“I was directly in negotiations with the kidnappers for 9 days. I lost 12 pounds. I only ate banana during that time. That’s risk. That’s more risk than all the risks I’ve done in business. In business you can only lose money, but risking the life of your own daughter, your oldest daughter at that, that’s 9 days of horror.”

Robina was rescued by a team led by then Lt. Col. Panfilo Lacson. After the captors were shot and Robina released, her father broke down and wept.

“I was taking the brunt because I was the one answering the phone and negotiating. They wanted, I think 20 million [pesos]. I said, ‘You know, for 20 million, you’d need two trucks.’ Because at that time the highest bill was only P50 there was no thousand-peso bill. You have to have a truck! Crazy.”

The family

He is proud of his children, this large man with a ruddy tan and shock of white hair. He plays with his grandchildren on the weekends and admits conversations with his children make him feel old.

“We always have lunch on Sundays and they talk about sex and what happened and they say, ‘Oh Daddy, you’re two generations behind.’ That’s allowed now, you know.”

Times change, and he is willing to change with the times. “What can you do?”

Gokongwei says he has never had his heart broken. He has “a very good relationship” with his wife of 52 years, the woman who is boss at home.

“In the house she has the power, in business I have the power.”

They have never quarreled — “arguments but never a quarrel” – because they have the same taste for travel and theater and museums. That taste diverges when it comes to books.

“She likes to read books, but she likes to read about immortality, about God, about that, and I don’t like that.”

Gokongwei reads for at least two hours a day. He reads all the newspapers and about 20 magazines. He subscribes to Amazon, and is alerted when new books are out. He has an IPad, a PC, and 3 mobile phones, but has no intention of joining Facebook or Twitter, in spite of the fact someone already registered an account for him.

He laughs when he shakes his head.

“Too busy!”

What he believes

Gokongwei is 86 years old. He has already lost a son-in-law in a kidnapping attempt. He has lived through the Commonwealth and the Second World War. He has seen many presidents, survived a shipwreck, and realized as a sixteen year old in short pants on his way to the market that he had what it took to succeed. He has built his fortune, and has never considered political office.

“To hire 40,000 people is not easy. I’m happy with what I’m doing. Politics is good for second or third generation when the father has built a fortune. Like the Kennedys, or the Roosevelts. The father, grandfather made the money, then the children can become politicians and they don’t have to worry about earning a living. I don’t object if my children run for public office.”

He pauses, then laughs. Any of his children, except for Lance.

“I have done my job, it’s my son’s job now for the next fifty years. He’s got to worry about that. I’ve been telling him that his biggest job is to carry on.”

John Gokongwei is proud of his family first, and his business second. He believes in many things, like risks, and growth, and always being on your toes. He believes in love, and that love is more difficult than business, but only when you’re young. He believes you can maybe have sex without love, but that you can always have love without sex, definitely. He believes the rules of competition haven’t changed in the last fifty years—“You buy cheaper, you sell cheaper.”

He believes in serving guests goblets of water along with bottles of flavored tea C2 and foil-wrapped snacks made by food unit Universal Robina Corp. (URC) on white china plates. He believes in building his own, like his business, or his country. He believes that pinakbet is one of the best things in the Philippines—in fact he just had it for lunch. He believes in fairness, and will be happy to walk out of negotiations “if the other fellow isn’t negotiating in good faith.” He believes the country is doing well, but needs to do better faster because of the population. He believes he has maybe 5, maybe 10 years to live, and he will make the most out of it.

John Gokongwei Jr doesn’t believe money is important, at least not as important as other things.


This piece was written in partnership with Esquire Philippines. “What I Learned: John Gokongwei” will appear in October’s Esquire one-year anniversary issue. Photo by Jake Versoza.

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