[Tycoon Tales] The Gothong clan

John Sitchon

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[Tycoon Tales] The Gothong clan

SHIPPING. The Gothong Shipping's Panglao Bay 1 that carried passengers from Manila to Batangas, Cebu, Butuan, and Cagayan de Oro and back.

Carlos A Gothong Lines Inc.

Before the Gothong clan became one of Cebu’s most prominent shipping titans, there was Go Bon Tho, more popularly known as 'Don Carlos'

CEBU, Philippines – Cebu is a birthing place of wealth and fortune – an island with clans that have influenced Philippine commerce and industry since the 19th century.

From the Gokongweis and the Gotianuns to the Aboitizes and Lhuilliers, each of the families have made their mark in ventures that have contributed to the province’s economic development as well as the nation’s growth.

In 2023, Cebu was named the richest province in the country with P235.738 billion in declared assets based on the 2022 Commission on Audit (COA) Annual Financial Report. This was followed by the province of Rizal with P35.6 billion in declared assets for 2022.

But beyond the art of trade and profit, a majority of the clans’ front-runners like the late John Gokongwei Jr. attributed their success to their ancestors’ humble beginnings and the ports of Cebu.

Between 1830 to 1893, Cebu saw a huge expansion in international trade alongside a wave of Chinese immigration. These enterprising travelers grew their present-day empires from small retail stores and vessel ownership in Cebu’s “lutao” district.  

Among those clans that considered the Cebuano harbors their home were the Gothongs – one of Cebu’s biggest shipping tycoons.

Tradesman’s memories

For the Gothongs, it all started with a man called “Go Bon Tho,” or more popularly known locally as “Don Carlos A. Gothong Sr.”

Don Carlos was a Chinese immigrant from Fujian, a province located southeast of China. In 1910, he left Fujian for the Philippines with the help of his relatives who sponsored his travel.

“He took his first haven in Manila and later resettled in San Isidro, Leyte. The place was close to his heart because he was able to work immediately with Chinese residents who were always sympathetic and helpful to new arrivals,” the Gothong Southern Group website read.

During this period, Don Carlos worked as a salesman until he had amassed enough wealth to invest in abaca trading and general retail. By 1915, he was able to pursue business on his own and found home in Kawayan town, Leyte.

Don Carlos went back to China in 1924 and married Dee He Chiok, later known as Doña Rita Dee. After their marriage, the couple returned to the Philippines in 1925 and had 10 children.

Around the 1930s, Don Carlos founded Carlos A. Go Thong and bought the MV Ramses, a small vessel which he used to ship commodities and general merchandise to different islands in Visayas and Mindanao. 

While a tragic fire incident had struck their store in Leyte in 1935, Don Carlos immediately bounced back with the help of fellow Chinese businessmen and even went into baking and rice and corn milling.

When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941, Don Carlos and his family fled to Daanbantayan town in Cebu fearing the accusations against him of supporting rebel groups and plans to use his resources against the Philippine government.

Family matters

Family was an important part of Don Carlos’ undertakings, especially at the end of the Japanese occupation in the country.

In 1946, Don Carlos moved out of Daanbantayan to settle in Cebu City. At the same time, he submitted documents to the Bureau of Commerce and Industry as part of his plans for a fresh start. 

After the papers were approved, Carlos A. Gothong & Co. officially began its operations. 

With him as general manager, his brother Sulpicio as manager, and son Alfredo as treasurer, the business grew to greater heights with their immersion into copra trading and acquisition of more freight ships.

“It was in the 1960s that the company spread its sails as it embarked on foreign cargo shipping and gave birth to Universal Shipping Lines. It covered the ports of Amsterdam, France, Italy, Singapore, Hongkong, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Taiwan, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, and the Philippine Islands among others,” the Gothong Southern Group website read.

However, the success that Don Carlos gained from his business was not enough for him. This manifested in his journey into philanthropy where he spent an ample amount of time on wealth-building and contributing to schools in the Visayas and Mindanao.

Don Carlos also spent time with his grandchildren, ensuring that they learned the most valuable lessons in commerce and economics.

“I remember how he would always place a 25-centavo coin on the dining table and whoever finished first amongst almost a dozen siblings and cousins would get the coin,” Roberto Gothong, CEO of the Gothong Southern Group of Companies, told Rappler.

In March 1996, Don Carlos passed away. According to the family, more than 5,000 families, including public servants and tycoons, sent flowers, letters, and beneficence during the wake. 

Alfredo and sons

After the founder’s death, Carlos A. Gothong & Co. also met its end in 1972. Shares were divided among the brothers, Sulpicio, Lorenzo, and Camilo, and also Don Carlos’ son Alfredo.

“Alfredo and Sulpicio got 32.5% each of the company’s shares, Lorenzo got 22.5% share and Camilo got 12.5%,” the company website read.

Sulpicio and Lorenzo went on to establish their own shipping companies, while Alfredo incorporated the original company into Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Incorporated (CAGLI) on April 6, 1973. 

By 1985, Alfredo’s sons who had finished their studies abroad, took over the family business and expanded it to now enter the fields of real estate, hospitality, and transport, among others.  

Roberto “Bob” Gothong, the second eldest, graduated from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in commerce, majoring in transportation and utilities and minor in finance. In 1988, Bob founded Ottawa Freight. 

Currently, he is the head of the Gothong Southern Group of Companies, which was born five years after Gothong Southern Shipping Lines was founded and began its freight cargo and passenger operations in 2005.

Bob’s daughter, Caroline Gothong Ong, is the deputy chief executive officer of Gothong Southern Shipping. His sons, Ceferino and Carlistito, also adopted roles as board members of the Gothong Southern Group of Companies. 

“My son Ceferino Gothong is with our Treasury…my youngest son Carlostito is also the managing director of Yello Hotel, and property management head at Gothong Southern Properties,” the Gothong patriarch told Rappler.

Hundred-year legacy

As a Gothong, Roberto takes pride in the clan’s role as nation builders.

“When Typhoon Yolanda devastated Tacloban, our M/V Don Alfredo Sr. was the first vessel to enter Tacloban with relief goods donated by various charitable institutions and ourselves,” Roberto told Rappler.

It was during this time that the Gothongs brought generator sets to light up port areas in Cebu and shipped relief goods from anywhere in the Philippines straight to Tacloban. 

“When Typhoon Odette damaged Cebu in 2021, we helped transport relief goods for free from all over the country. Our organization provided free water not only for our own people, but also for the surrounding neighborhood where we hold office,” Roberto said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gothongs also helped medical front-liners by providing them with free Yellow Care Bikes. 

According to Roberto, the family has its own constitution that “speaks of establishing a 100-year-old legacy and beyond.”

To perform such a feat, Roberto said, members of the family’s 4th generation – what the Gothongs refer to as “Gen C” – must undergo a mentorship program led by Enrique Soriano III, a family business advisor and Ateneo de Manila University professor.

By 2025, the family hopes to achieve its vision of becoming a top fifth-party logistics provider with a net worth of P5 billion.

People, Person, Adult
GOTHONG. Roberto ‘Bob’ Gothong (center) sitting in a photo with family members of different generations.

“We do what we say, and we say what we do,” the Gothong’s palabra de honor (word of honor) read. –


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