Filipino tycoon John Gokongwei dies at 93

A 2017 file photo shows Philippine billionaire John Gokongwei Jr, who has died aged 93.
A 2017 file photo shows Philippine billionaire John Gokongwei Jr, who has died aged 93.PHOTO: PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

MANILA - Filipino tycoon John Gokongwei, who built a sprawling business empire from a modest trading business he ran on a bicycle, has died. He was 93.

Mr Gokongwei’s JG Summit Holdings owns over 30 per cent of United Industrial Corp, parent firm of Singapore Land Limited, one of the biggest office landlords in the city-state’s central business district.

His son Lance announced in a text message that the elder Gokongwei “passed away peacefully” at 11.41pm on Saturday (Nov 9).

Forbes magazine listed Mr Gokongwei as the third-richest Filipino, with a net worth of about US$5.3 billion (S$7.2 billion).

JG Summit and Robinsons Retail Holdings are currently among the Philippines’ largest family-run conglomerates, with a market capitalisation of over US$20 billion and interests in air transportation, telecommunications, banking, food, property, retail, media and petrochemicals.

Mr Gokongwei was born in Gulangyu, Xiamen, in Fujian province in China.

He was later sent to Cebu province, in the Philippines, where his father already had a thriving business running several movie theatres.

The family business folded when his father died. Creditors swooped in, and Mr Gokongwei, at 13, suddenly found himself supporting his mum and siblings.

He bought a bicycle and began selling garlic-cooked peanuts, soap, candles and other small items he can fit in his basket in school and in the streets of Cebu during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines that began in 1942.

As the Second World War drew to a close, he broadened his inventory and used a sail-powered outrigger to trade goods in Manila and further south in Lucena province.

By the time the Americans reclaimed control of the Philippines, he already had enough money to travel to the United States to buy used shoes, clothing, newspapers and other secondhand goods that he would then sell at a small storefront he rented in Cebu.

In 1954, with his trading business bogged down by import controls, Mr Gokongwei branched out into corn starch production. 

Despite having hardly any capital to offer as security, Mr Gokongwei managed to secure a loan of 500,000 pesos (S$13,437) from a fellow Chinese immigrant, banker Albino Sycip.

He used the money to incorporate Universal Robina Corporation, which he then built into one of the country’s top food companies.

In the 1990s, he branched into retail with a chain of shopping malls and groceries, and invested in properties and petrochemicals.

His company rolled out budget airline Cebu Pacific Air in 1996.

Mr Gokongwei also invested abroad. His companies now have interests in food and beverage and property firms in nine countries.

In the past year, the Gokongwei group has taken stakes in emerging technologies and startups that are into new media, health, data and logistics.

Mr Lance Gokongwei, 51, remembers his father as a spendthrift who drilled into his children the value of hard work with the mantra, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

“(Dad) knows that in business, there are many risks. Some fail, some succeed. But as long as he knows we worked hard and did our best, then that’s fine… He will give us chance after chance after chance,” he said.

Mr Gokongwei’s rags-to-riches story is emblematic of a generation of Filipino-Chinese who were forced to migrate to the Philippines from Fujian to flee from upheavals set off by China’s communist-led revolution and the Second World War.

Through sheer tenacity, shrewdness and an unbending will never to be poor again, they built the Philippines’ largest companies.

Another Fujian native, Mr Henry Sy, who died in January, built a fortune that has made his children the Philippines’ wealthiest, with a combined net worth of over US$17 billion.