Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 30 November 2019


Having been out of the country for four weeks, I have missed many landscape-changing events. One of these is the death of John Gokongwei, followed within the week by that of his wife, Elizabeth. I condole deeply with his family, but most of all, we should condole with ourselves. The country has lost a great man, one we should regard as a model for Filipinos, especially our youth.

Gokongwei entered my radar screen in the ’70s through a very good friend, now deceased, Letty Gonzales de Padua of Cebu. She regaled me with stories of John, whom she called Robinson—they were childhood friends. Letty told me of his riches-to-rags-to-riches story, through sheer grit. At least one book has been written about that, but I got the first-person story from Letty, and from then, looked at John Robinson Gokongwei with new eyes.

This is the story that most will recount to our youth. At 13, his father died, and apparently their fortune was lost. It was left to him to take care of his mother and five siblings, the youngest of whom was 9 months old.

He chose to remain in the Philippines while his siblings went back to China (cheaper life). And he worked like a dog to be able to send them money. In his own words: “I used to wake up way before dawn to ride my bicycle to the public market many kilometers away. I set up a little table at the market to sell spools of thread, bars of soap, and candles. I earned about twenty pesos a day by working longer and harder than everybody else.” (Reader, to give you an idea of what the value of P20 a day was then, I read in the American Chamber of Commerce Journal’s January 1939 issue that the average annual wages of workers of sugar planters and centrals was P80 a year.)

How many 13-year-old boys do you know, Reader, who could take the riches-to-rags experience in stride, to go from a life of luxury to being an itinerant vendor and not get traumatized and/or humiliated in the process? Or who would take on the responsibility to support a family of seven? A story worthy of retelling.

Another value we could learn from Gokongwei is the importance he placed on education. Poverty and hard work did not deter him from getting one. He graduated valedictorian of his elementary class (before his father died), and despite his tribulations, was No. 1 in his high school, which earned him a scholarship in San Carlos University, Cebu.

 Moreover, even if he was already a successful businessman, he decided to go for a master’s degree, which took him four years to finish. But he finally did so in 1977—when he was 51 years old. Then, 10 years later, he went to Harvard to take a 14-week advanced management course (and never claimed to be a Harvard alumnus, unlike others who take a four-week course and then unashamedly claim to be Harvardians).

The takeaways: One is never too old to learn; your success depends on what you know, not on who you know. His strategy seems to have worked. His businesses took off after his studies.

A third set of values that constitutes John Robinson Gokongwei’s legacy is his love for the Philippines. As shown by his sense of payback—in the form of many philanthropies, especially gifts to educational institutions as well as scholarships. As shown by the type of his business ventures—as far as I know, his first big business venture was in agro-industry, a corn mill. He also went into manufacturing, which employs surplus labor from agriculture. And in ventures which tended to break the monopolistic hold of other businesses, as in airlines, in telecommunications—all to the benefit of the Filipino people. His business practices have not gotten him into trouble with labor, in spite of the fact that he had created over 30,000 jobs.

And the best, and rarest value in his legacy: his fidelity, his faithfulness to his wife. No mistresses for him—at least none that I have heard of. A multibillionaire, he was nevertheless deeply rooted in his family, in his country. I guess this was part of his integrity. No wonder his wife couldn’t live without him, as I am sure he would have followed her just as quickly, if she had gone first.

Thank you, John and Elizabeth Gokongwei. We salute you. May you rest in peace.