"We were able to be really objective with our views — no BS. We dared to say to each other what others would not or could not say to us upfront," Tony Go shares in his eulogy for John Gokongwei.
Culture Spotlight

Tony Go on his BFF John Gokongwei’s philanthropy, love for wife, and weakness for ice cream

Businessman Tony Go spent practically every Saturday of the last 20 years with John Gokongwei, his best friend, “Boss,” and soulmate. The two were so close that Mr John’s wife Bia jokingly calls him her husband’s concubine.
ANCX Staff | Nov 17 2019

Antonio “Tony” Go is the long time buddy of industrialist John Gokongwei Jr. They are best of friends and Go would even go as far as calling Mr. John his soulmate — even though he fondly calls the recently departed business titan “Boss.” Go is the chairman of the Equicom group which includes the health insurance outfit Maxicare under its ventures. He is also a member of the board of directors for the Gokongwei group of businesses which includes JG Summit, Cebu Pacific and Robinson Retail Holdings, Inc. Last week, Go delivered one of the eulogies for his best friend John, in which he talked about the old man’s simplicity, his love for food — especially the best-priced ones and especially ice cream — and Mrs. Gokongwei, “his anchor and the love of his life,” who passed away Saturday, the day after John Gokongwei was laid to final rest. 

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Here is Tony Go’s full eulogy:

I considered Big John, whom I fondly called “Boss,” my best friend and mentor. While our families have known each other for generations, we got reacquainted decades ago when my brothers and I were in charge of finding a venue for the birthday party of our late father, Go Kim Pah.

We were not good planners and had a hard time finding a place that would fit 50 tables on short notice. At the time, Boss owned Manila Midtown Hotel, and very kindly saved the day for us. In true Big John fashion, nothing is impossible. The space did indeed fit all the tables, but he forgot to mention that some tables would be located at the hallway. But the event was well-attended, and everyone had a good time — all is well that ends well.

Many years later, we worked together on the Equitable PCI deal, and developed a deep friendship over the last 20 years. We bonded over the shared love of good food, travel, discussion of business trends, and the sheer enjoyment of making money rather than spending.

"More than money, he wanted to impart a sense of purpose — the need to grow the business to benefit the employees, shareholders, community, country and the world." 

Boss was a simple man, not pretentious at all. We enjoyed each other’s company. We talked freely with each other, and had free form discussions without any sugar coating. We bounced ideas off one another, and offered an outsider’s view and advice on whatever business challenge the other was facing. Since we never went into business together, we were able to be really objective with our views — no BS. We dared to say to each other what others would not or could not say to us upfront. We were on the same wavelength, knew each other’s quirks and habits so that we could communicate even without saying much. We spent practically every Saturday together for the last 20 years. His wife Bia jokingly calls me John’s concubine. But I think Soulmates is a better word to describe our relationship.

Boss enjoyed good food, but not necessarily fancy food. During our many travels, he liked to try local delicacies. He liked Chinese food, steak, seafood — any food! There was an important caveat — only if the cost is reasonable. One time we were having Snow Crab, and he asked how much it was. I mentioned a price that was half of what it really was, and Boss still said it was too expensive! From then on, I made a mental note to use a higher discount rate the next time he asked about price.

His wife Bia jokingly calls me John’s concubine. But I think Soulmates is a better word to describe our relationship.

Boss loved his family dearly. Bia was his anchor and the love of his life. She took great care of Mr. John. Unfortunately, it was Bia’s job to ensure that Big John followed the diet prescribed by his doctor. Mr. John tried to comply to make Bia happy. But every so often, John and I went for meals on our own so that John could splurge and really enjoy his food without any restrictions. 

One of the Boss’ few frustrations in life is the failure to achieve his weight targets despite the calorie-counting. Perhaps Bia knew that losing weight was not a realistic target so she purposely turned a blind eye. Big John had a weakness for ice cream. He even personally tasted the ice cream before approving the ice cream machine for the Crowne Plaza.

He loved and cared for his family — his siblings, children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces — he was proud of what they had accomplished working together in the family companies. Robina, Lance, Lisa, Faith, Hope, and Marcia: your father was pleased with how you turned out—down-to-earth, not spoiled, kind, hard-working, and productive members of society.

More than money, he wanted to impart to them a sense of purpose — the need to grow the business to benefit the employees, shareholders, community, country and the world.

"Boss was a well-known philanthropist. It is well documented that he gave away half of his fortune to charity with a particular focus on education. But beyond money, he had a generous spirit."

Boss loved his work. To him, his work was his hobby. Even after retirement he continued to stay active. He read many newspapers every day, investing in the stock market, spotting trends and opportunities. During our travels, he liked to buy land and had the intuition to sense which properties would be valuable 5 to 10 years down the road. Even on his hospital bed, he was eager to stay on top of his companies P&L. His conglomerate was the first regional powerhouse to come out of the Philippines and today has operations in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Australia.

John is a trader through and through, part of his DNA. When we were at the Olympics in Australia, he had so many tickets to different events from the private bankers. Since he was not a sports fan, we stood on the street as he scalped those tickets. He was so proud of himself, that he treated us to a good meal afterwards.

Boss was down to earth and simple. He could never resist a bargain. At our last trip to San Francisco, we went to Nordstrom Rack, an outlet for bargain hunters that sells items from the previous season. Big John bought 3 pairs of shoes for less than US$100. I bought 2 shirts for $40, but his sister Lily convinced me to get an additional shirt so I ended up spending $60.

Since he was not a sports fan, we stood on the street as he scalped those tickets. He was so proud of himself, that he treated us to a good meal afterwards.

Boss was a well-known philanthropist. It is well documented that he gave away half of his fortune to charity with a particular focus on education. But beyond money, he had a generous spirit.

He was very thoughtful when it comes to the people around him. He watched out for them, and had their best interest at heart. For example, Boss felt that his previous bodyguard was overqualified and so he arranged for him to move into an office job, then later gave his blessings to this former bodyguard to migrate abroad in search of a better future.

Around three years ago, we travelled to Korea. He gave away most of the spending money to his nurse and bodyguard. Towards the end of the trip, he commented that he had not bought anything and that luckily he kept enough pocket money to buy an ice cream. His nurse tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant. He got his way and bought ice cream and candy to the consternation of his nurse. One of my fondest memories of Mr. John is him looking so content eating his ice cream cone while sitting on a park bench. When we got back to our bus, we had to think of a way to distract him to take the candy away. This was not hard as he loved to read newspapers, so we encouraged him to read the Wall Street Journal on his iPad.

"He was very thoughtful when it comes to the people around him. He watched out for them, and had their best interest at heart."

He treated me and my family as his extended family. We saw each other every weekend at family gatherings, birthdays, holidays, family vacations, Lunar New Year, and Mooncake Festivals. Every year, when Boss’ mango plantation had a harvest, I felt honored to receive the basket of mangoes, the same as his brothers.

Today, as I stand before his family and friends, I wish to express my heartfelt sympathies for your great loss, as it is a great loss for me, too. I have lost my best friend, big brother, mentor and soulmate. But I want to assure you — I will be here to support all of you, just as I have during John’s life. You can always count on Uncle Tony.

Boss, thank you for the privilege of sharing this life journey with you. Our lives are enriched by having known you. We will miss you a lot. I trust that you are in a better place now. Farewell, Soulmate. Your memory will always live on in my heart.