Two of the country’s biggest business leaders recently came together to talk first paychecks, the edge of conglomerates in the startup age, and favorite snacks—like, you know, chicharon bulaklak. The business leaders are JAZA, or Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, and Lance Gokongwei, President and CEO of JG Summit Holdings Inc.
Ayala Corporation chair JAZA had Lance as guest in the latest episode of the YouTube video interview series After Six by BPI Prefers. In the program, the BPI chair interviews “key changemakers” in the country like former Grab President Brian Cu, recently appointed Presidential adviser on Covid response Vince Dizon, and the mastermind behind the data science startup Thinking Machines, Stef Sy.
Does JAZA have a future as an interviewer? you might ask. Well, considering he’s not exactly a stranger to the job (remember this?), we’d say yes. He was able to get interesting answers from Lance, like when he asked him if it’s true he goes around the family’s Robinson’s Department Stores incognito (“My Robinson's mall people I think they indulge me and they pretend they don’t recognize me,” said Lance) and if it’s true there’s a snake man in one of the store’s dressing rooms (“If there would have been a snake, my sister Robina would have caught it and converted into a handbag that she sold in Robinson’s.”).
When talk came to the special guest’s favorite snacks, Lance said he’s the perfect guy to ask. “I’m the only person I know who has a supermarket stand full of snacks in his office,” he revealed before rolling out his top choices: V Cut (“Really tangy barbecue flavor), Piattos (“favorite snack among all Filipinos”), and Nova Multigrain (“for healthier fare. It’s a great picker-upper and it’s also yummy.”). All three are, of course, from the family’s snacks brand Jack & Jill. Completing the CEO’s snacks list are nuts (“goes very well with drinks”) and, yes, chicharon bulaklak (“not as healthy but ultra delicious”).
In short, while JAZA was clearly prepared with questions, props also to Lance who didn’t forget to bring with him the Gokongwei humor—otherwise the interview would have been a dud. Lance, like his siblings, knows how to laugh at himself. It actually came up in the conversation, how the family is naturally funny.
“I think it’s probably a function of both my dad and my mom and maybe a little bit of the way, I guess from a Chinese heritage, the way parents bring up their kids,” Lance said. “Our parents would never praise us, no? But they would never criticize us also. It’s all cariño brutal. They use words like ‘Gong kia’ which basically means ‘You’re my stupid child.’ But it’s a term of endearment. So that becomes part of the chatter. And my mom was really always laughing and making fun of her forgetfulness and all this stuff. And my sister Robina is, I guess, the foremost example of [someone who’s good at] self deprecation.”
Here are the other highlights from the 15-minute interview.
On living alone abroad as a student
“You learn how to pick clothes that don’t require ironing.”
On why he studied in the US
“I just wanted to explore the world and be in a place where you can meet all sorts of people and maybe develop an identity outside the Philippines.”
On starting out
“When I was an upcoming junior, I spent the summer in the warehouse of our department store. And here I was, a high flying Wharton student, and my job was to put the price tags onto, like, underwear or jeans or the like.”
On getting his first job after graduation
“I was summa cum laude from Wharton. All my friends were going, ‘Oh, I got a job in Goldman Sachs. I got a job in Morgan Stanley, McKinsey.’ All the top jobs in the US. Wow, I got a great job working for my father in Universal Robina Corp. and I was a salesman there. I remember my first pay check it was P2,300. But my dad said, ‘I’ll treat you differently. I’m gonna give you a company car.’ And he gave me a 20 year old Datsun.”
On what he learned from his father
“If there was any underlying theme of the narrative, he wanted to be a true Filipino business where the family would always be involved…He always said, if you want to make an impact, it’s better to be first. It’s better to take some risks.”
On his company’s purpose
We’ve been able over the last 3 to 4 years to really articulate what we think our company’s purpose should be, and for us that’s really an unrelenting commitment to providing better choices for our customers, and creating shared success for all our stakeholders. And then when you think about shared success it’s really talking about looking at the bigger picture, say beyond shareholder concerns. You have to look at the community, the country, and especially the employee base whenever you make decisions.
Finding his place in the digital world
“You read about all these successful startups, really fast-moving, agile, (with) great ideas, great entrepreneurs. And we have a large conglomerate, and it almost feels like a dinosaur—how do you compete in this new world, right? But then you realize, despite being a large business, we do have a lot of substantial advantages, including our corporate reputations and our relationship with so many customers, suppliers.”
On what he can advice to young people in business
“I think things that are worthwhile will always take a long time. They don’t really come that easy…The only thing we can do if we want to be successful is really just be patient, resilient and bounce back.”
On growing up as an only boy
“We’re a very close family but, you’re right, you end up with a 5-versus-one kind of arrangement, so being the only boy teaches you a few skills. Foremost is you have to be a little humble. Second, you’d have to be a little bit of a politician to get things you want across.”
“I find that the travel I enjoy, what’s most important is who I’m traveling with. In the last years of my parents’ lives, the family would take two week trips every year and those were great. Those were great because [there was] 20 of us—from a 90-year old all the way down to a 5 year old.”
On the career he might have pursued had he not joined the family business
“When I was much younger I really enjoyed playing basketball so maybe I would have wanted to be a basketball player. Of course my skill set never was commensurate to my aspirations. But I have to say that in my older years, they always invited me to be part of the alumni school team. I was always the 12th man because they needed somebody to sponsor the team. Hahaha.”