Thank You, Mr. John: Tributes to the Man Who Never Failed to Inspire
On November 9, 2019, the nation mourned the passing of an esteemed taipan, John Gokongwei Jr. The industrialist and philanthropist has long been revered by many for his work ethic and business acumen. From selling garlic peanuts to building an empire, his rags-to-riches story has inspired many budding entrepreneurs across the country. More importantly, Gokongwei has shaped the lives of many through his kindness and generosity. Here, we compile moving tributes and messages by those who have been touched by his life:
From former employees
"FRIDAYS WITH MR. JOHN
If you fail in molding your firstborn, you will fail as a father." Thus did Mr. John remind me on many Friday afternoons when I would go to his office to have him sign off on pending matters in my shop. He was Chairman of our bank's Executive Committee and he wanted to know everything that was going on.
While my Friday afternoon trips to his dreaded office were work-related, he seemed to delight in capping our one-on-one encounters with family talk. Once, he advised me to invest in property whatever savings I had. 'You can never go wrong with property.' You can make a mistake today but that mistake gets corrected over time". I didn't completely buy that advice then but hindsight tells me now that I should have.
He was absolutely fearsome. Anyone who brought a proposal to the Executive Committee without thoroughly doing his homework risked getting incinerated. Mr. John's questions came from left field, totally unexpected by strait-laced bankers who lived by their spreadsheets and 5Cs. A loan proposal that I defended in the Executive Committee involved an unusual production process that intrigued him so much. He insisted on personally visiting the borrower's factory before approving the loan. The borrower couldn't believe that one of the country's biggest industrialists would spend a morning trying to understand the operations of a small enterprise. Towards the end of the visit, Mr. John asked the borrower what he aspired to be. When the borrower said that he wanted to follow Mr. John's footsteps, the latter self-deprecatingly countered, 'You picked the wrong role model,' and let out a big laugh.
He was hungry for information and fresh learnings. He would take almost everyone's call in the hope that the caller would bring him the latest news, useful information and actionable data. That was obviously part of his lifelong learning discipline. The way he probed sometimes made me feel that he was just testing how much I knew what I was talking about. But no, I later came to accept that his inquisitive soul would not rest until every sensible question is asked and every knowable detail is known.
While many thought that he was all business and all work, I got glimpses of his other facets as a human being. During the big earthquake in July 1990, he was on stage in a huge auditorium where I was emceeing the loyalty awards ceremony of the bank. As the whole place swayed and the large chandeliers menacingly looked fall-bound, the crowd panicked and rushed to the exits. As I walked towards the entrance to the backstage, I noticed that Mr. John was right behind me. Someone then grabbed the microphone and urged everyone to stay put and pray the Our Father. I swear I saw Mr. John stop and recite the Lord's Prayer in its entirety.
In 1996, as I waited in the hospital for my fourth son to be born, I got a frantic call from the office. One of our branches was robbed and there were three people killed including one of our security officers and two bystanders. I had to leave my wife's bedside to go to the branch. The robbers had left but there was absolute panic and hysteria among our staff. When the situation finally stabilized, I called Mr. John from the branch to let him know what just happened. His words were 'I know that is important but please go back to the hospital and look after your wife and your newborn son. That is your more important job at this time.'
Remember the oft-quoted 'Believe in your product'? Mr. John was the foremost exponent of this. On my first Christmas season after becoming part of the senior team of the bank, Mr. John's secretary called me to ask for my car keys. I excitedly sent the keys to her, wondering if it would be my lucky day when I would get a brand new car. The same car keys came back after ten minutes. I hurried down to the parking basement to check my car and I saw it filled to capacity with the branded food products manufactured by Mr. John's company. For the next twelve months, my son munched Cream-O every day [during] break time in his kindergarten school. His teachers wondered if his parents were the owners of Universal Robina Corporation.
When I left the bank in 1998, Mr. John insisted that I say goodbye in his office. We talked for a couple of hours during which we alternately teared up. He admonished me to always keep my emotions in check and gamely play any card that life deals me. There will be lopsided odds more times than not and I must survive them to ensure that I get to my lucky hands. We then hugged and as we walked out of his office, he told his secretary to give me my farewell gift. I could hear my heart pound. What could that gift be? The secretary then pulled out from her cabinet a huge sack of Max candy. 'Your kids will be the first to sample our newest product,' he proudly declared. 'Oh thank you so much, sir!' I replied, 'my kids would love this!' 'Really? In that case, give him another sack,' Mr. John told his secretary. The memory of going home with those two sacks has been my constant reminder to 'believe in my product.'
Farewell, Mr. John. You have asked every sensible question that needs asking and you have surfaced every knowable detail. The ultimate holder of all answers now wants his turn to hug you. You won't be sore at me because I did my best in molding my firstborn, I invested in some property, and I have believed strongly in my advocacies."
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Grace D. Rallos
"It’s a rare opportunity for a very young HR manager, and later on vice president, to work with three of the top conglomerate Chinese-Filipino tycoons. Mr. Henry Sy Sr. and family, my first Chinese conglomerate employer; in retail. The second was Mr. John Gokongwei Jr. my second [boss] in telecoms. Mr. George S.K. Ty, in banking.
"Sy Go Ty" became my compass.
See (Sy) the opportunities to help propagate people and business welfare.
Go (Gokongwei) and multiply the people's welfare improvements for business growth.
Thank you (Ty) for the trust.
As a pioneering female leader, all three [have] allowed me and my team to break ceilings of conventional leadership.
After the three companies, I worked with other major Chinese-owned companies. In between MNC’s in pharma, hospitality, etc.
Thank you for the trust, Sirs and Ma’ams. It’s a once in a lifetime privilege of learning that made me what I am today. God bless all of us.
SyGoTy, three legends of Philippine business."
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Tata P. Albert, general manager of Vitasoy - Universal Robina Corporation
"In my first week [at] URC, I had the privilege of being shown the brand new Cebu plant. Mr. John and Ms. Elizabeth happened to visit at the same time. I sat across him at lunch, eating without utensils, passing food around with the team based in the plant. Instead of having dessert, he posed for photos with the plant folks who had stars in their eyes.
This man, who was in his wheelchair, seemed taller than anyone in the room. He was a force. His countenance alone was enough to feel so much esteem for him that you’d take a long inhale and feel so blessed to be around him.
You’ve always been known as a trailblazer, Sir. Now you’ve gone ahead, this time, to the heavens. We will certainly miss you. But most of all, we are so very grateful for you. Thank you, Big John.
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“If there's one thing, I was amazed at how Mr. John anticipated people's needs, how sensitive he was to them. But, I was more surprised by his boyish delight when receiving gifts.
I gave him a little token of appreciation on his birthday. (I like to remember the birthdays of my fave news sources.)
But what can you possibly give a tycoon worth $6 billion?
Anyway, I was nearly floored when he turned my small ribboned box over and over in his hands, judging it for weight, like a child on Christmas day. He even shook it slightly and listened to the rustling inside, though he seemed suddenly shy about opening it in my presence.
I laughed. 'It's just a small thing for your desk.'
And, he loves to talk.
What I can't forget was his confessing regret over inviting his niece to write a column for his newspaper. She wrote that one guy's family jewel was the size of a raisin. 'Of all things, a raisin! Can you imagine?' Oh, but he had a big laugh over it.
Still, one time, he complained to me, 'I don't have fun!'
If I have billions of dollars to my name, I'll have all the fun in the world, I told him.
On second thought... I can understand... I'll be everyone's property—not just my family's but my business partners', investors', thousands of workers', the public—with all my listed companies. My life won't be mine anymore. That's the ultimate price. And there can be no rest, for as long as I live... no sliding downwards... It has to be an upward climb. Always.
Now, he's gone...
It seems [like] only yesterday that I was chatting with him... he was sitting behind his desk full of paperwork, docs to sign, ringing phones, purring fax machines... I remember him bending over to pick up paper clips on the carpet, switching off lights left on in the rooms of execs in their haste to leave... waving over the trinkets in his office, asking me to choose something for my place, eager to repay me for my gift.
For me, he picked out a white porcelain vase hand-painted with red camellias. It still rests over my headboard today.
Come to think of it, he's the only taipan who managed to set foot in my home.
He visited my unit after his ocular inspection of the vacant lot in front of my building. He was scouting for a site of Robinson's Otis then.
I was dumbfounded to find him outside my door, mid-knock.
His bodyguard was panting right behind him, forehead beaded with sweat, worried eyes big as saucers.
My place was a top floor walk-up. No elevator or escalator. You climb one hundred steps on your own foot power to get there.
He was neither young nor sprightly. But not one to allow anything to stand in his way.
It was such a great privilege to have known a man like him.
I can't thank you enough, Mr. John.
Now, there'll be time enough to sleep.”
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Roby Alampay, editor-in-chief of BusinessWorld
"There's a 'Chippy' pillow tucked by his right arm, and it coaxed a smile from my lips as I paid my respects at the wake of Mr. John Gokongwei. Then as you file out of Chapel 1, you pass by a table decked out with Jack 'n Jill snacks. The classics. Such as, of course...
Helped myself to two, salamat po. I always embarrass Joy at wakes because I consider—and enjoy—the customary lamay food a little too much. I take note of the best-catered ones. (You've had that conversation, right? 'So sorry for your loss. Saan galing yung goto?') For future reference. But this one is for you, Mr. John.
There are many reasons to emulate and thank this great Filipino entrepreneur. If not for anything else though, thank him for the smells and flavors of your childhood, of growing up, of every salty, mildly spicy bite that takes you back to more innocent days."
From Malacañang Palace
"The Palace expresses its deep condolences to the family, the surviving wife Elizabeth, children Lance, Robina, Lisa, Faith, Hope and Marcia, friends and colleagues of Mr. John Gokongwei, Jr. who passed away [last] night at the age of 93.
Mr. Gokongwei, considered as one of the leading taipans, was a visionary and pillar of the Philippine economy. Our people recognize Mr. Gokongwei's amazing journey as a self-made industrialist, respected business leader, and generous philanthropist. A grateful nation respects the man for the indelible legacy he made in the fields of business, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy.
While being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the demise of his father when he was fifteen removed the family from luxury and wealth. He had to work to provide for his family. He sold soaps, candles, and threads to earn money. From thence begun his journey of hard work, discipline, creativity, perseverance, accumulating vast business knowledge and acquiring entrepreneurial acumen in the process, until he built a giant of a business empire.
A cornstarch plant he built in 1957 became the seed that grew into various business enterprises that made one of the leading pillars of the business industry. Mr. John Gokongwei Jr. founded the Gokongwei Group of Companies covering a wide range of sectors from food manufacturing (Universal Robina Corporation) to real estate (Robinsons Land), air transportation (Cebu Pacific), retail (Robinsons Retail Holdings Incorporated), banking (Robinsons Bank), and petrochemicals (JG Petrochemicals), among others. Together with his siblings, Mr. Gokongwei established the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation where he donated 20 billion pesos, considered the biggest philanthropic endowment in Philippine history, to fund student scholarships and faculty research and build definitive learning facilities such as continuing schools for young engineers, preschool buildings and children libraries.
Mr. John Gokongwei, Jr. left a legacy to the Filipino nation and the coming generation worth emulating. His favorite advice: “Never stop learning.“ He always said: “I really loved my work. I loved being an entrepreneur.“ In a speech before his alma mater San Carlos University, he gave us a glimpse of the secret of his success and exemplary character: “I always tell my children, grandchildren, colleagues: "Love your work. Work hard for it. Love your family. Love your country. Never stop learning. And always look back and be grateful where you came from."
As we pray for the eternal repose of his soul, we will remember even as we will miss the foresight and corporate expertise of Mr. Gokongwei who successfully chartered unfamiliar territories in business to successfully launch new ventures and create an empire that made substantial contributions to the country's growth and development.
Mr. Gokongwei was an exceptional and ideal Filipino. He exemplifies the traits that should endow us: industrious, disciplined, indefatigable, creative, generous, always hungry for knowledge, grateful and never forgetting his origins, and most of all, a loving person to his family and his country."
From government officials and diplomats
Vice President Leni Robredo
"Our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Mr. John Gokongwei Jr. We will remember his many contributions not only to the business community, but to helping our fellow Filipinos in need."
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Sen. Kiko Pangilinan
"His legendary zest for learning and his boldness in trying out new things and his love of work and creating, regardless of his age or his appearance, have been a guidepost for how to live.
Thank you for these and also for—regardless of the political winds—keeping on investing in the Philippines, employing thousands of Filipinos, and producing useful and affordable products and services."
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Sen. Ping Lacson
"In 1981, I instructed him not to sound intimidated while negotiating for Robina’s ransom snapped at her kidnappers, '10M? Do you know how long it’ll take me to count that much money? You can have my daughter!' I said, not too bold either Mr. John."
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U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim
"Sending deepest condolences to John Gokongwei’s family today and celebrating the life of a wonderful man, who contributed greatly to his country and its relationship with the United States."
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