You know Big John

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HIS family name is one of the more recognizable ones in the Philippines; his entrepreneurial rise, a tale often told. His businesses are among the most successful; their brands, certainly among the most familiar to us.

John Gokongwei Jr., 91, is founder and chairman emeritus of JG Summit Holdings, a conglomerate that is very much a part of our everyday lives as consumers.

Familiar brands
Hungry or thirsty? You can turn to Universal Robina Corporation and brands that include Jack N Jill snacks, C2 teas, Great Taste and Blend 45 coffee, Cream All creamer, B’lue Water, Hunts canned beans and sauces, Nissin and Payless instant noodles.

Going to work? Shopping? Or heading home? You may be off to one of the similarly-named malls, offices or residences developed by Robinsons Land or Robinsons Retail.

Traveling? Then there’s Cebu Pacific, and the Summit and Go Hotels. (By the way, if you take that Cebu Pacific flight to Singapore, you’ll likely see commercial and retail assets there that are owned by the conglomerate under their SG-listed United Industrial Corporation business).


In the hunt for inspiration or entertainment? There’s a Summit Media magazine or website that must be a fit.

Need cash? There’s Robinsons Bank.

Turning on the lights? JG Summit owns a 30 percent stake in energy producer Global Business Power, and a 29.6 percent stake in Meralco.

Using the phone? They have an 8 percent share in PLDT as well.

In many times and in many ways, we do business every day with Mr. Gokongwei.

MAP Management Man of the Year
Late last month, the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) announced the selection of John Gokongwei Jr. as its Management Man of the Year for 2017.

The prestigious award is bestowed on individuals in the business community or government for attaining unquestioned distinction in the practice of management, and for contributing to the country’s progress. Conferred following a thorough, stringent selection process, the distinction has only been given 41 times in the five-decade history of the award.

The MAP’s criteria for the award include integrity, leadership and management qualities; contribution to nation-building and values formation; and effective stewardship within the confines of the highest standard of business and management practice.

According to the association, Gokongwei was chosen for:
• his business acumen and management qualities that steered the Gokongwei Group to remarkable growth through his foresight and exceptional ability to launch new ventures and transform existing ones to better adapt to challenging times and an unpredictable future;

• his leadership role in the substantial contributions of the Group to national development, job creation and income generation through its huge investments in food manufacturing, real estate, air transportation, banking, petrochemicals, shopping malls, livestock farming, publications, power generation, power distribution and telecommunications;

• strengthening the identity of companies under the Gokongwei Group as socially responsible corporate citizens through the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation’s developmental and scholarship programs on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education;

• being an entrepreneur par excellence and an exemplar of Filipino talent in management excellence for nation-building; and for his contributions to shaping national values and inspiring others by his outstanding achievements attained from humble beginnings through hard work, perseverance, frugality and discipline.

Larger than life
Gokongwei is sometimes referred to as Big John. He physically is but his achievements are larger still, much larger.

And his familiar story is relatable in a very dramatic, Pinoy way.

Born to a rich Filipino-Chinese family in Cebu, he was living the dream as a child: big house, driver, good school, lots of friends.

Then life threw him a cruel curve ball at thirteen: his father died, they lost their wealth, and his mother opted to send his siblings to China where the cost of living was more affordable.

From that point, Big John worked and willed his way to survival—and success—building his big business on selling people what they needed.

He started supporting his family as a trader of many things and all things in his teens during World War II: in the palengke (public market), then plying a route between Cebu and Manila and eventually expanding that route to the United States.

In 1957, he seized an opportunity in the corn starch manufacturing business and started Universal Corn Products—building the base of what is now JG Summit.

The Gokongwei story though is not just about second chances and come-from-behind wins, and about sacrifice and struggle.

Quite significantly, it’s also about family: working for them, working with them, and now passing things on to the next generation.

John Gokongwei Jr. is certainly a titan of industry, known to the public for JG Summit’s products and services—and a business acumen that brought him his riches.

But Big John is also relatable to Filipinos in an endearing, old-world, telenovela sense for his devotion to family, and for having turned around their fortunes, cruel curve balls from life notwithstanding.

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