In the past two days, there has been a flurry of activity at The Heritage Park in Taguig for the wakes of two recognizable names in Philippine society. On one side, the family and friends of Lucio “Bong” Tan, Jr. who died Monday. On the other is John Gokongwei, Jr’s clan, colleagues, and employees. The once-plucky teenage fried peanut vendor turned business icon who left us over the weekend.
Cars that carried powerful men and women parked alongside mausoleums and graves due to the overflow of guests. Ushers kept everything organized, particularly the long queue to view the remains of the 93-year-old founder of beloved Filipino brands—one of which accompanied him in his casket, in the form of a red Chippy pillow. His son Lance says it was one of the pillows he rested his arms on while in the hospital. (A similar Cheez Curls pillow wasn’t able to make it inside because of space constraints.)
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The entire Gokongwei family was on hand to receive expressions of condolences. Several eulogies were prepared for different nights of the wake to recall the life and times of the titan. While the public largely knew the name Gokongwei as a singular force, the speakers painted a more personal picture. The memories they shared were equal parts touching, impressive, and even humorous, describing a man who spoke loudly with his voice as well as the kindness of his heart.
No longer about money
Last night, Patrick Go, the son of Gokongwei’s brother Henry, spoke on behalf of his cousins. He talked about the relationship of his uncle and his dad, the latter being the former’s “first business partner and employee.” Go recalled a particular moment where he overheard a conversation between the two men in one of their “afternoon councils,” which led to him having a fuller understanding of his uncle’s legacy. Here is Patrick’s eulogy in full:
Lance earlier asked for a senior member of the cousins to say a few words about Mr. John tonight and I would like to thank him for inviting me to do it. I told my sisters earlier today that I would be doing so, and all they could say was Atsi Bina had a beautiful eulogy last night and I better not disappoint them, so here goes. Please bear with me.
As an introduction, as some of you may not know, I’m Patrick, Mr. John’s nephew. The son of Henry. A lot of people who have met the family later on, have heard of Mr. John’s other brothers, other than James, but have little or no knowledge of them or their contributions. They were Henry, Johnson, both of whom have passed away, and Eddie. Being Henry’s son, I believe it only appropriate that I let my other cousins share stories on their fathers’ behalf, and myself, focus on what I learned about Mr. John through my father and later on, on my own.
My father was roughly a year and half younger than Mr. John, and as I understood the stories, after the passing of our Angkong, he, together with Mr. John and my Amah, were left behind to provide for the rest of the family. Mr. John was 12, my father was about 10.
My father had several stories that he shared on how Mr. John would think up of ways to make and save money. But one that stood out the most to me was how they would line up with the boys that went to the US troops camps to ask for candy and chocolate bars that the GI’s would hand over as dole outs. How they would line up and scramble again and again for it. I thought to myself, sure, kids and candy, who wouldn’t do it, right? But I believe the twist here is that they would not eat it, Mr. John would tell my father to go with him into the city and sell the goodies and they used that for capital for other items they would trade later on.
My father would continue to share how Mr. John would think up of more ways to invest and turn a profit. It has been said often enough that Mr. John was already a visionary at such an early age. My dad would be either working to procure what was needed or to collect the proceeds of their sales. He even introduced me one time to a professional Bisaya boxer who the brothers hired to protect them from some of their more stubborn customers who refused to pay. Those were very interesting times and I can proudly say that, technically, my Dad was Mr. John’s first business partner and employee.
My father passed away almost 20 years ago, and for those who remember him, they would know that he had a late afternoon council. It sounds formal, but basically, he invited anyone who was still in the office past 5 P.M. for a round of whiskey in his room where he had a private bar. When I started working 28 years ago, I made it a habit to stop by his room for a drink before going home for dinner, to hear the latest tsismis and stories from suppliers and customers who would pass by. On one of those late afternoon councils, I was surprised to see Mr. John in the office together with my dad, talking loudly. (Let me emphasize though, that in our family, talking loudly doesn’t necessarily mean you’re mad. Those who are close to Mr. John would know.)
They were talking in a mix of Bisaya, Chinese, and English since it was just the two of them in the room. From what I can pick up, Mr. John, ever the visionary, was telling my dad about the new business that he had planned moving forward. I guess it was a force of habit for him to run ideas through my dad, since they did it ever since they were kids. They were investments in telecoms, airlines, and petrochemicals.
I distinctly remember this discussion because my father was, loudly, trying to convince Mr. John not to do it anymore. That there was more than enough money and that they should rest already was his argument. The discussion ended with that, no resolution, just an exchange of positions and shortly after Mr. John left the room. My father sat down with me, had a few more glasses of whiskey and told me that I have to remember that at one point, it would no longer be about the money. He wasn’t mad or frustrated, he was merely stating a fact. At that moment, I was not quite sure what he meant and I would like to get back to this later on.
My earliest recollection of Mr. John would be about 45 years ago when, as kids, we would run and hide from him whenever we would visit their house in Makati. This was because he had this thing about pinching our cheeks and talking loudly, and as kids, believe me, were very scary things to go through. This was how we knew him growing up, my dad’s older, bigger, louder brother who was trying to be nice but was scary in the process. Fast forward several years later, I find myself working for the group, working with the textiles division at first, and being invited into the petrochemicals group eight years after. My father passed away shortly after that transfer and it was a troubling period for myself finding suddenly the need to mature. We all know that that’s a hell of a thing to do, and in misfortune, I would like to share that it was when I discovered the other Mr. John.
I had seriously considered leaving the group some time after this point, due to the lack of guidance and direction on what to do next. I then received a call that Mr. John would like to see me. We had a chat and he told me that he would like for me to report to him and that he would handle petrochemicals directly. Little did I know at that time how that would change the direction of my professional career. He met me two times a week, not to mention calling almost every other day and was voracious on his demand for information.
One of our guests last night found out that I was handling petrochemicals and told me this was Mr. John’s baby and he was very proud of it. I couldn’t have said it any better. Working with him on this project gave me a glimpse of what the man was all about. His taking me in and assuming control was a great example of leadership in a patriarchal fashion, his decisions on what to do next were inclusive. I learned a lot on how he processes information and the manner in which we talked about executing on his vision cannot be learned in any business school. It was an honor and privilege to have been part of this part of his vision and achievement. To be honest, my impressions of him had gone a long way from when we used to run away from him.
Having said that, let me get back to my father’s comments on this not being about money anymore. Fast forward again a few more years after working on this project and a day or two after Mr. John’s passing. Of course, it was a sad moment and there was a flood of messages coming in condoling us on the loss. But one in particular made me pause and reflect. A business partner of ours from Indonesia asked about the wake details and interment and told me he wanted to fly in to visit. I told him he didn’t need to and that his expression of sympathy was already much appreciated by the family. His response took me aback. He told me it was the least he can do for someone who has done so much for the Philippines.
It was at this moment that I realized that we had lost more than an uncle and a boss. Sometimes we are just too close to the situation that we don’t see the forest for the trees. My father’s words suddenly made things clear, this was not about the money anymore. We, not just the family, but the Philippines, has just lost a great man.
I don’t think I should go over his achievements anymore. They have been published often enough. The achievements are real and tangible and as things go, these will slowly be the stuff of business legend lore. Personally, I believe, outside of his business achievements, his greatest legacy will be his children and extended family. May we share his values, intelligence, discipline and wisdom through out the generations to come.
If you don’t work, you don’t eat
On the first night of the wake, Gokongwei’s eldest daughter Robina addressed family, friends, and colleagues of JG Summit and Robinsons Retail. Her take was poignant, heartfelt, and funny, touching on the time she worked at the bodega of their department store, as well as her kidnapping and subsequent rescue when she was in college.
Robina remembers her dad being a hardworking man who kept postponing his retirement, as someone who didn’t like wasting time. “He had been lying in bed for six weeks, unable to speak well because of a tube in his mouth,” she shares. “Other patients would ask for food. He kept asking for company financial reports.” Here is Robina’s eulogy in full.
Thank you very much for coming tonight.
A week before dad passed away, he was giving advice to my son, Justin, who's 24, and his advice was: “You have to play around!”
That was my dad, John Gokongwei, Jr. He was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’ll hear.
A lot of people know my dad as a businessman, and boy, was he a businessman. He had been lying in bed for six weeks, unable to speak well because of a tube in his mouth. Other patients would ask for food. He kept asking for company financial reports.
When I was little, his warning to me was: If you don’t work, you don’t eat. I made sure I had my food.
A lot of people would ask me, "Why is your dad so fat?" That’s because he worked so hard. As he said, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.
My dad was ahead of his time as a mentor father. He said if you don’t start at the bottom, you’ll never know who your customer is, and you’ll never know the issues of your staff. He was right. If he didn’t throw me into our Robinsons Department Store bodega when I was right out of college, I don’t think I would be able to manage our business. He even made sure I started in the bodega, the only place where there is no air-conditioning, and he told the HR head that I had to time in and time out.
The thing is, when Lance was on summer vacation, he also put Lance in the Robinsons Department Store bodega, where he learned how to tag bras and where he learned how to read the alphabet in bra sizes, which came in handy later in life—according to my brother-in-law, Berck Cheng.
His other advice was to never give up. When I was in U.P., I joined the varsity swimming team. But even after practicing two hours a day in a swimming pool full of moss, I still ended up as the supreme bangko of the team. One day I came home crying. I told my parents why was life so unfair, why did I become a bangko, and my dad said that what I experienced was only the start, and it will make me become a stronger person. He said that I should be happy that I even qualified for the team. He also said that he lost his father when he was 13—what could be worse than that?
In 1981, I was in my senior year in U.P., I got kidnapped along with my cousin Celina Chua. I did not know that the Lt. Colonel, and now senator Ping Lacson, was helping my dad negotiate with the kidnappers. After five days, and still getting no money, the sidekick of the leader of the gang came to me with a worried and angry face. He said, “Anim pala kayong magkakapatid! Akala ko nag-iisa ka. Sabi ng tatay mo, pwede ka na ipamigay kasi mayroon pa siyang limang anak. Ano ba ‘yan!”
I was so sad to learn that my dad was giving me away. Little did I know that it was the advice of Senator Ping to my dad. To prolong the conversation, so they can find us. After seven days, they found us. That was how good Senator Ping was, and to think there were no mobile phones then. By the way, I did not realize that the good senator had already disclosed this in his Twitter account.
When my dad turned 60, he held a party and announced his retirement. Of course, we all know he never retired at 60, nor did he retire at 70, or 80. He retired at 90. Henry Sy Sr. was a guest and Mr. Sy told him: “John, you are going to face three problems when you retire. One is what you are going to do after working for 50 years. Two is who is going to succeed you. Three is the worst problem of all—how to deal with five sons-in-law.”
In his speech in 2017, when he received the Management Man of the Year Award from the Management Association of the Philippines, he said, “I would say that the best sign of my management skills has been to manage my sons-in-law, most of whom are businessmen working with their own family businesses, and a lawyer. Guess who is the most difficult to manage?
My dad was always known to be a sloppy dresser and cheap when it comes to dressing up. His tie always had a stain from ice cream or coffee. When I got married in Hong Kong in 1993, he did not even bring with him a new suit. But my wedding ninong, the late Geny Lopez Jr. said that he was wearing a tuxedo. My dad got kind of embarrassed and said he had to upgrade his outfit. He also would like to wear a tuxedo. He did not even think of buying a tuxedo, he decided to rent one! And he was so happy that the rental company had his size—double XL shirt and size 44 pants.
My dad was a man always in a hurry. He can finish a meal in five minutes, and if you notice that his children do the same thing, you know where our genes came from. He was always in a hurry that at the age of 60, he was asking why I was not yet married, as the children of his friends were already all married.
Finally, when my dad turned 67, I decided to get married. He was so excited that during the wedding ceremony, he walked ahead of me and my mom got mad at him and said, “Please wait for the bride!”
As I became more involved in the business, he continued to encourage me not to be afraid of making mistakes. By this time, I already had so much to eat because I was working a lot. I liked his words of encouragement, congratulating me for simple wins. But this year, he had other reasons for congratulating me. He had forgotten about the business and was now congratulating me for the UP men’s basketball team entering the Final Four for the second year in a row. He knew what his daughter really loved the most. That’s why I loved him for that.
(I hope the beloved priests from Ateneo officiating the mass tonight will pray for UP’s win on Wednesday.)
Get some rest, dad. We will look at the financial statements for you.
By the way, we did not rent his outfit for today. Somewhere along the way, he decided to buy himself an expensive suit, and we made sure that the tie did not have a stain.
Before I end my talk, I would like to thank a few people who took care of my dad all these years until his last days: Uncle Antonio Go, bodyguards Macoy and Bong, nurses Jeny and Delphin. Thank you very much for staying with dad.