In November, retail legend John Gokongwei,
has left the world. Known in the retailing world
for his spanning Robinsons Malls and
Supermarkets, Mr. Gokongwei, may be gone
among us, but has left memorable lessons and
inspiration from his life.
He was named as the Champion of the Retail
Entrepreneurship by the Philippine Retailers
Association in its Outstanding Filipino Retailers
(OFR) Awards in 2009, for his amazing
entrepreneurial spirit, rising from rock bottom
to being one of the richest men in the country.
Here is an excerpt from the Legends, Lives and
Legacies coffee table book, published by the
PRA in 2017, which recounts the story of how
John Gokongwei rose above adversities in life:
His story reads like fiction and seems every bit
like an urban legend, straight out of a
movie—there is a chauffer who drove him to
school in Cebu, there are friends who watched
for free in their family's chain of air-conditioned
movie houses, there is a sprawling house in an
upscale gated village, and lots and lots of
But all that would change one fateful day. His
father, a Chinese immigrant from Fujian, China,
would die of complications due to typhoid.
The story changes in an instant.
Gone were the chauffeurs, the sleek cars, and
the big house.
But this isn't a script from a movie or some
fictional plot, it's the story of John Gokongwei,
Jr., who was only 13 years old then when his
"Everything I enjoyed vanished instantly. My
father's empire was built on credit. When he
died, we lost everything—our big house, our cars,
our business—to the banks. I felt angry at the
world for taking away my father, and for taking
away all that I enjoyed before. When the free
movie disappeared, I also lost half my friends,
"he recalls in a speech delivered in 2007.
Suddenly, Gokongwei had to walk two miles to
"I cried to my mother, a widow at 32. But she
said: ''You should feel lucky. Some people have
no shoes to walk to school. What can you do?
Your father died with 10 centavos in his pocket.'
So, what can I do? I worked," Gokongwei
To survive, mother and son opened a small stall
in the market, selling a wide array of goods,
candles, thread, and some peanuts.
In 1943, when he was able to earn enough to
expand, he traded goods between Cebu and
Manila. "From Cebu, I would transport tires on a
small boat called a 'batel'. After travelling for five
days to Lucena, I would load them into a truck
for a six-hour trip to Manila. I would then
purchase other goods from the earnings I made
from the tires, to sell in Cebu," he recalls.
When World War II ended, he put up Amasia
Trading, which imported onions, flour, used
clothing, old newspapers and magazines, and
fruits from the United States.
In 1957, at age 31, he ventured into cornstarch
"But I was going to compete with Ludo and
Luym, the richest group in Cebu and the biggest
cornstarch manufacturers. I borrowed money to
finance the project. The first bank I approached
made me wait for two hours, only to refuse my
loan. The second one, China Bank, approved a
P500,000 clean loan for me. Years later, the
banker who extended that loan, Dr. Albino
Sycip, said that he saw something special in me.
Today, I still wonder what that was, but I still
thank Dr. Sycip to this day." Gokongwei says.
Today, there are two conglomerates—JG Summit
Holdings Inc, which has business interest in
food & beverage manufacturing, airline,
property, banking and petrochemicals, and
Robinsons Retail Holdings, Inc., one of the
largest multi-format retailers in the country.
Its subsidiaries include JG Summit
Petrochemical Corp.; Cebu Pacific; Universal
Robina Corporation; Robinsons Land
Corporation; and Robinsons Bank Corporation.
Its branded food business, both factories and
marketing offices, are in China, Singapore,
Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar,
Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. It also has
a property development in China and a core
investment with a property development
company in Singapore.
He is proud of how his story has evolved. It
wasn't easy but no doubt much better than the
way it was before when he was that young boy
of 13. He cannot wish for anything more but for
his countrymen to enjoy the same success.
"As a boy, I sold peanuts from my backyard.
Today, I sell snacks to the world. I want to see
other Filipinos do the same," Gokongwei says.
From the PRA Board of Directors and Executive
Secretariat, good bye and thank you for the
inspiration that is your life.
As a boy, I sold peanuts
from my backyard. Today, I
sell snacks to the world. I
want to see other Filipinos
do the same