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5 Inspiring Lessons From John Gokongwei Jr's Success
PHOTO BY Courtesy of JG Summit Holdings, Inc
  • Most people knew John Gokongwei, Jr., or “Big John,” as he was affectionately called, as a business tycoon and the founder of JG Summit Holdings Inc. and the Gokongwei group. When he passed away in 2019 at the age of 93, many mourned the billionaire with a big heart.


    That’s because Big John’s success story is truly inspiring — he did not become wealthy overnight. He worked hard and dreamed big to grow his conglomerate to where it is now. He was proof that determination, perseverance, and grit, can take you a long way.

    Your little ones can learn a lot from the tycoon’s story, which is why Big John’s kids, Robina, Lance, Lisa, Faith, Hope and Marcia, decided to publish the children’s book Big John: The Life Story of John Gokongwei Jr.

    Written by Yvette Fernandez and illustrated by Abi Goy, the short story takes us back to the time when Big John was a young boy. At the age of 13, he became the “man of the house” after his father, John Gokongwei Sr., died, and he and his mother, Juanita, were left to care for his five siblings.

    His father’s business had fallen into debt, and Big John’s family had to sell all their possessions to start anew. Juanita had to send her younger children to China to live with their grandparents. She and Big John, with her second eldest child, Henry, worked hard to earn for the family in the Philippines.


    Lessons from Big John

    John Gokongwei, Jr.
    PHOTO BY Courtesy of JG Summit Holdings, Inc

    Apart from telling the businessman’s story, the children’s book is also filled with lessons on family, business, and the values you will need to succeed. Here are some of them.

    To become an entrepreneur, you must know your buyers

    To make ends meet, their family cooked peanuts and garlic, packing it in little bags to be sold. This was Big John’s first taste of entrepreneurship. He said that selling the products was easy because everyone loves fresh, hot peanuts.

    Big John’s first lesson: Decide who your buyers are and figure out what they want. The toughest challenge of an entrepreneur is to be better than the rest of your competitors. The products should also have a fair price because buyers always want a good deal.

    Dream big and seize every opportunity to grow your business

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    Apart from selling peanuts, Big John also sold wares in a public market in Cebu. Every day, he would wake up early and ride his trusty bicycle to sell spools of thread, bars of soap, and candles. He would earn around Php20 a day — part of the money was used to buy food for their family, while the rest was used to buy more products.

    When Big John heard that there were many more buyers in Manila, he did not hesitate to board a boat and make the long trip to sell his wares there. He even took advantage of the extended boat rides to expand his knowledge by reading books.

    Even when he almost drowned from one of the trips (their boat was destroyed after hitting a huge rock!), Big John did not give up. He even made money selling the tires that saved his life!

    As a businessman, this experience was an eyeopener, one that Big John took to heart. It was a reminder of the risks he would take, the losses he would make, and the opportunity that will come to any of the ventures he will invest in.

    Why buy when we can make?

    While buying and selling goods with his siblings (who were by then old enough to lend hm some hand), Big John eventually met the love of his life: Elizabeth. As husband and wife, they dreamed even bigger: Why not make the things that they can sell?

    This idea would eventually pave the way for the company we know today as Universal Robina Corporation (URC). From selling cornstarch in their factory — a “boring” product essential to making other “exciting” food like ice cream, medicine, and beer — Big John eventually decided to create more products with their own brand names: Blend 45, Chippy, Chiz Curls, Nips, Cloud 9, Maxx Candy, C2 Green Tea Great Taste Coffee, Payless Instant Noodles, and more.


    Give back

    Because he started working at a young age, education became Big John’s lifelong advocacy. After earning more than enough for his growing family, he and his brothers decided to build the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation, which aims to help young people to go to school and learn to be successful like him.

    One of the foundation’s projects is the GBF Technical Training Center, a campus with laboratories and training grounds “for developing skills in several specialties including chemistry, physics, computers, pneumatics, hydraulics, mechanics, electronics, instrumentation, and mechatronics.” It is a place for learning for scholars and technical workers.

    Family is the greatest happiness

    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
    PHOTO BY Summit Media/Esquire PH

    Throughout the years, Big John’s children would say that the biggest lesson they learned from their father is to always make time for your family. No matter how busy he got, Big John would always show up for dinner. And it was a great time to share stories and ideas with his wife and kids, too!


    In the book, Big John shared, “More than all my businesses, more than all the money I have, my family is my greatest happiness.

    John Gokongwei passed away on November 9, 2019. He was 93 years old. Exactly a week later, on November 16, 2019, his wife, Elizabeth also passed away at 85 years old.


    Looking for more children's books? Click here for a guide.

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