Money & Power

Life Lessons From John Gokongwei, Jr.

John Gokongwei, Jr., once sold soap at the public market; now he is one of the Philippines' wealthiest individuals.
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John Gokongwei, Jr. is a force to reckon with. In his 90s, he is still a top player in the Philippine economy, and has consistently retained a spot on Forbes' annual Billionaires List. His net worth is $4.4 billion.

Gokongwei, Jr. is the founder of JG Summit, a conglomerate that has stakes in various industries, including Cebu Pacific, Robinsons Land, Universal Robina, Robinsons Bank, PLDT, and Meralco.

He was only 13 when his father died and he had to work to help his family get out of debt. He started selling roasted peanuts to his classmates in Cebu. He later sold soap, thread, and candles in the town market. With the profits he made there, he went back and forth to Manila to sell his products in a bigger market. He went into trading, and then manufacturing. Today, Gokongwei, Jr.'s conglomerate has diversified businesses around the world.

Gokongwei, Jr.'s only son Lance has a lot to say about his father’s wisdom. In the privately published book Lessons from Dad, written with Yvette Fernandez, Lance outlines what he has learned from a lifetime of lessons his father taught him and his five sisters. Here are some of them.

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Work hard. If you don't work, you don't eat. 

John Gokongwei worked hard for his success, setting a good example for his children

Let your children find their passion, and be the best they can be in the field they choose.  And then make them work hard at it. When they were young, Gokongwei, Jr.'s children were not given cash gifts at birthday or Christmas. They had very small allowances. They spent their summer vacations working in the stockroom or putting prices on groceries. They had to work hard for their money.

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The dinner table is a place for ideas.

The Gokongwei family at one of their family gatherings in the 1980s. Top row: John, Elizabeth, and daughter Robina. Middle row: John's mother Ana Juanita, son Lance, and daughters Lisa and Hope. Front row: Daughters Faith and Marcia


Make time for your family and show up for dinner, as Gokongwei, Jr. did when his children were growing up. Turn off all gadgets so there is room for conversation, which is just as important as healthy food on the table. Tell stories about your day and learn lessons from each other. Dinner is a great time to exchange ideas and opinions.

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Ask for advice.

John Gokongwei, Jr. at work with his son, Lance, and his brother, James.

You can never stop learning from others. Even when you are the boss or manager, you will benefit from the ideas of your colleagues. If you must, hire consultants and join industry groups that discuss problems in your field. No matter what challenges arise, make sure to find the solution, even if it doesn't come from yourself.

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Women are just as smart and as strong as men are, maybe even more.

John's daughter Marcia Gokongwei, an executive at Universal Robina Corporation

Gokongwei, Jr. has five daughters who are doing what their mother did: They go to work every day. Women are just as capable of running projects and businesses as men are and should be given the same opportunities.

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Thank the people who helped you along the way, and give back.

Universal Robina, one of the biggest companies in the Philippines, also gives back.

Helping others is a circle. Friends and family assist you in hard times, and when you are able enough, you should do the same for other people. Never forget the people who helped you. And pay it forward. Get involved in an advocacy. Make a difference where you can.

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Live simply, but spend on experiences.

Gokongwei, Jr.  traveling with his family

The Gokongweis dress simply and remain humble. They don't spend on designer brands or flashy cars. They spend on travel and books, their means to expand the mind. This is how they constantly come up with new ideas. 

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Deciding on the one you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make.

John and Elizabeth Gokongwei on their wedding day; the couple with daughters Faith and Hope

Marry a good person. Your spouse should be an ally in happiness and not a source of misery. The challenge is to find someone who shares the same beliefs and principles and can be your partner in parenthood and all aspects of your life. For women: The right man will work hard to win your heart.

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Kwyn Kenaz Aquino
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