A Wealth of Lessons from the Gokongweis

Before John Gokongwei passed away a few years ago, he was the third richest man in the Philippines with a net worth of almost $6 billion. That’s over 290 billion in peso equivalent.

For a more specific comparison, this amount is equal to the combined annual salary of at least 7,500 people working in Manila. According to PayScale, the average wages for employees in the country’s capital as of the last quarter of 2020 is at least 370,000 pesos.

But that’s not all. His children, who inherited his conglomerate, are also now one of the wealthiest siblings in Asia. As of 2021, the six heirs had a total net worth of $4 billion.

No doubt that the Gokongwei family belongs to the one-percenters of the world. However, contrary to what most people think, they didn’t amass this massive wealth so easily.

Here are the biggest entrepreneurial lessons one can learn from the Gokongweis:

1. Your Family’s Wealth Can Disappear

Money comes and goes, and sadly, one can go penniless. Such was the story of the late John Gokongwei. Born from one of the wealthiest Filipino-Chinese clans in Cebu, he and his family fell into hard times when the Great Depression came.

Whatever they had, they lost. His family eventually decided to move to China. His uncle Manuel, who took care of John when his father died, landed in prison during World War I and passed away after he went out.

By 15 years old, John was not only alone but also impoverished.

2. But It Pays to Have an Entrepreneurial Mindset

His story, though, is one proof that a Filipino can take something as basic as a technical-vocational livelihood track in high school and make the newfound skill into a money-making machine.

John earned his keep by selling peanuts, but he didn’t stop there. Probably trained by his entrepreneurial family, he saved and bought a bicycle later. This allowed him to sell more peanuts and other goods to other towns.

He then set his sights on other islands. Together with his brother Henry, who came back from China, they rode wooden canoes to transport their items to Bohol and even as far as Manila. This was despite the threats of the Japanese manning the land and seas.

John and his family hit jackpot when he traveled to the United States, bought imported goods, and then later sold them at a higher profit after the end of World War II.

Eventually, John manufactured cornstarch, which later became one of the raw materials for making beer by San Miguel Corporation. He then discovered he could make even more money by manufacturing finished goods, and years after, the Universal Robina Corporation was born.

3. The Kids Should Earn Their Place in the Business

business concept

John knew that at some point he would have to pass on his businesses to his children, but he didn’t want to serve them in the most glistening silver platter—they need to prove their worth. They had to develop not only the mindset but also the skill to lead.

To do this, all siblings started from the bottom. According to Lance, when he arrived from the United States after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked as a management trainee for the food division.

For a salary of 2,000 pesos a month, he hopped from one supermarket to another selling Jack ’n’ Jill snacks to the shoppers. Meanwhile, his sister Robina, from whom the corporation was named, was a receiving clerk in one of their department stores.

His other sister, Marcia, was a kitchen assistant in a hotel, while the rest spent their days in the warehouse stamping prices on canned goods.

All these experiences taught them that they could get something with hard work. Most of all, it instilled the value of service not only to their clients but also to their employees.

4. It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask for Help

One of the family’s biggest brands, Cebu-Pacific, is badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic as travels are suspended. However, the group remains undaunted because, for Lance, their father taught them well.

John reminded them that they can always get help from others. In fact, this is the primary reason the Philippines’ well-known carrier came about.

A smart entrepreneur never assumes they know everything—that they have the solutions to all problems. The best ideas may come from different sources, from which the company can benefit.

Your path may be different from the Gokongweis. You may never even reach their financial status. However, the lessons you can take from their experience and expertise can make you a wiser entrepreneur.

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