How John Gokongwei built his empire from selling peanuts

Ralf Rivas

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How John Gokongwei built his empire from selling peanuts

Alecs Ongcal

John Gokongwei Jr was born wealthy, but he had to start from scratch after his family lost what they had. Here's a look back on his journey to becoming one of the most beloved tycoons in the Philippines.

MANILA, Philippines – Born of a wealthy Filipino-Chinese clan, one would think that John Gokongwei Jr had it easy growing up and effortlessly built one of the biggest conglomerates in the Philippines.

John was indeed born with a silver spoon, but it took great lengths to have it all back. (READ: Being John Gokongwei)

Before dying at 93, he left the family with a multibillion-peso empire spanning food and real estate to banking and aviation.

Family history

John’s great-grandfather, Pedro Gotiaoco, was among the original rags-to-riches stories in the Philippines.

Gotiaoco arrived in Cebu in the 1870s from Fujian province in China. He became the richest man in Cebu in the 19th century through Gotiaoco Hermanos, which had interests in commodity trading and owned ships.

Cebu’s economy was booming then, due to the Americans developing its port. Gotiaoco traded goods with the most prominent businesses in the Philippines, Asia, and Europe for decades.

His dynasty was eventually managed by his second-born, then 27-year-old Manuel Gotianuy, who was the uncle of John.

Manuel had a shipyard and a slew of other businesses that made him the richest businessman in the Visayas.

The fall of an empire

The clan had all the wealth they could ask for, until the impact of the Great Depression in the 1920s hit the empire hard.

Even before World War II reached Cebu, the family’s debt had already ballooned. 

By the 1940s, Gotiaoco Hermanos had fallen. The rich families of Cebu had to start from scratch.

Around this time, Manuel took care of 13-year-old John when his father, Gokongwei Sr, unexpectedly died after receiving the wrong blood type during a blood transfusion.

The impoverished John was split from his 5 other siblings and mother when they moved back to China. His father, known as the Cinema King of Cebu then, apparently left the family deep in debt. John’s family had all their properties taken away from them by banks.

John’s father also did not have the rightful claim to Pedro’s empire since his father, Go Chiong Wei, forfeited his birthright.

When World War II broke in 1941, Manuel was imprisoned, then died after his release. John was all alone.

Starting from scratch

From living in a stylish home, 15-year-old John became a market vendor. He sold peanuts and just whatever he could make money out of. 

Even with little cash, he allotted some to send to his family in China.

He was eventually able to buy a bicycle which enabled him to sell goods in nearby towns. Hard work led to his capital growing.

When his brother Henry returned to Cebu, they boarded wooden canoes to sell various goods to other islands like Leyte and Bohol, and soon after, Lucena in Luzon.

Trading goods did not come easy, however, as he had to evade Japanese soldiers along the way.

At one point, the small boat John was boarding sank as they were sailing to Manila. He and his companions used the rubber tires they were supposed to sell to swim to shore.

The end of the war and the subsequent rebuilding presented opportunities to Gokongwei and his once-rich relatives.

Gokongwei focused on the post-war trade, traveling to the United States to buy materials and selling them at a high profit in Manila and the Visayas.

He and his siblings put up American-Asia Trading. The business earned them enough cash to bring the rest of the family back to the Philippines from China.

John later went on to produce cornstarch, a basic raw material for beer, noodles, and paper. San Miguel Corporation, one of the oldest and largest corporations in the Philippines, was one of Gokongwei’s biggest customers.

He founded Universal Corn Products in 1954, but eventually realized that he should produce finished goods. 

Over 3 decades, John and his siblings built Universal Robina Corporation (URC), named after his eldest daughter Robina.

Back on top

URC would become the flagship company of the Gokongwei group. The company produces some of the most popular snacks today, like Chippy, Chiz Curls, Magic Flakes, and Taquitos.

To date, its total assets amount to a whopping P151.9 billion.

Gokongwei’s empire is now managed by JG Summit Holdings, where URC is the largest subsidiary. (READ: John Gokongwei proves family-run conglomerates work)

Also under JG Summit are budget airline Cebu Pacific, Robinsons Land, JG Summit Petrochemicals, and Robinsons Bank.

JG Summit also has significant minority positions in major telecommunications player PLDT and the Philippines’ largest electricity distributor Manila Electric Company. Overseas, it holds positions in Global Business Power and property developer United Industrial.

JG Summit’s total assets so far have reached P819.3 billion. Forbes ranked Gokongwei as the Philippines’ 3rd richest, with a net worth of almost P296 billion. (READ: ‘Exceptional and ideal Filipino’: Tributes pour in for John Gokongwei)

Before his death on Saturday, November 9, John had long passed on the responsibility to manage JG Summit and other subsidiaries to his son, Lance.

Meanwhile, Robina Gokongwei Pe leads Robinsons Retail Holdings, the company engaged in the business of trading merchandise.

His loved ones and people close to him remember him as a humble man, who often left a trail of peanut shells – his favorite snack that helped him build a massive empire. –

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Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.