The elusive and intensely private taipan Lucio Tan was seen by quite a few onlookers at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center on Monday, as rumors swirled over the health of his eldest son, Lucio ‘Bong’ Tan Junior, who had collapsed during a basketball game on Saturday. Later that day the family would confirm the passing of Bong, he was 53.
Survived by his wife Julie, and two sons, Lucio Tan the Third and Kyle, Bong Tan is recognized by most in the business community as a dutiful son. He spent over two decades working in various positions in the Lucio Tan group of companies, an impressive diversified conglomerate with interests in aviation, beverage, alcohol, tobacco, real estate, banking and agriculture.
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He was recently named president of PAL Holdings, the holding company of the nation’s flag carrier, Philippine Airlines, and had appeared to be on track to assume even more responsibility in the businesses of his father. That is no small feat. The business empire of Lucio Tan Senior, who was named the 6th richest Filipino by Forbes magazine this year with a total estimated net worth of $3.3B, is certainly formidable.
Bong Tan’s sister Vivienne K. Tan confirmed his passing with a heartfelt statement: “His untimely passing leaves a big void in our hearts and our Group’s management team which would be very hard to fill. Bong was a son, husband, father, friend, and, most importantly, our elder brother whom we all relied on for advice, counsel and leadership.”
Personal accounts of employees of the Lucio Tan group of companies offer fond recollections of a down-to-earth, kind and generous Bong Tan. Some of these employees also had the privilege of playing with the guy in a sport that was one of his life long passions, basketball. Those who have played with him, or against him, knew Bong as a lights out shooter from any spot on the court. Basketball enthusiasts, including actor Derek Ramsey, and noted basketball personalities such as former PBA Commissioner Noli Eala recall his generosity in supporting the sport. He led or backed multiple pro and semi-pro basketball teams in the PBA and other leagues. He was also head coach of the University of the East’s men’s basketball team. It was a well known fact Bong Tan was a sports and basketball fan, which is why his passing after collapsing on a basketball court was even more surprising to family and friends.
This brings us back to the gravity of the loss of Lucio Tan Junior. His sudden passing following the deaths of Taipans John Gokongwei Jr, Henry Sy Sr, and George Ty has unavoidably led to some comparisons. But those business leaders were of a different generation, and had lived full lives. Bong Tan was supposed to be part of the next generation, the heir apparent to his namesake, Kapitan Lucio Tan Senior. Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman, former Ambassador Francis Chua, says it must be specially difficult for the family considering “Bong Tan has been trained by his father for quite a long time. Bong was just starting. He had yet to prove himself, and if you know him well, he will always insist that he would prove himself, that he will be somebody that his father can be proud of.”
Chua however believes Bong had a more ambitious dream. “Its just unfortunate that he did not live enough to show his father that he could really outperform his father, I think that has always been his wish.”
Felino ‘Jun’ Palafox worked as an architect and consultant for all of the Taipans, including the elder Lucio. He also laments the early demise of the heir apparent of one of the greatest business minds the Philippines has ever known. “He was given the opportunity to lead many of the companies of his father. It is just so unfortunate.”
Palafox says education, the passing on of the entrepreneurial spirit from one generation to the next, including the hardiness and discipline displayed by such pillars of business as Tan, is vital for the future of the Philippines. Tragic is one word some might use for this loss. Fathers no doubt would certainly describe it as such. Lucio Tan Senior is witnessing the succession plans of his fellow Taipans in action, ensuring the continuity of their business empires, their life’s work. Meanwhile all the work he had put into his own succession, his eldest boy, came undone Monday morning. I shudder to think how I would handle the passing of my own boy, just turned two in October.
But Kapitan built his empire through adversity, being a rags to riches man himself with a life story that can stand side by side with that of Sy and Gokongwei as ‘master classes’ in grit and fortitude. Both Chua and Palafox do not doubt Lucio Tan Senior, as well as the entire Tan Family will be able to rise above and beyond this sad loss. Chua notes Kapitan and his fellow Taipans come from a generation that boasts of a different kind of resiliency. “They lived at a time when there was war. You know how difficult it is during war time? If you are resilient enough, if you have a very strong will, you outlive war, and you learn a lot. You will build a strong character because of it.”
The extended Tan family itself is also expected to help Kapitan power through. Still, as the saying goes, no parent should have to bury their child. At the age of 85, Lucio Tan Senior had to do just that.