LIFE NOTES FROM WARREN BUFFETT, The world’s third-wealthiest at $82-B net worth- the late “Big John” Gokongwei may have taken to heart in living his own life.
Warren still lives in his old 1958 house in America, drives himself to the office every day in an ordinary car and counts Big Mac and Coca Cola as his favorite meal (no advertisement intended). He spends more time giving away his wealth than earning it today. Simplicity and generosity.
“Big John” recently died (93), the second richest man in the Philippines and with the third-largest capitalized conglomerate in the country with $5.7 B in assets. As early as 10 years ago, BJ donated half of his personal wealth to a foundation centered on providing scholarships for the poor but deserving students all over the country.
Legends, anecdotes and amazing stories emerged after his recent internment- leaving behind an empire to his only son Lance and ably assisted by five sisters- as BJ was a believer in women empowerment. And in the family.
Elizabeth, his wife of 61 years, soon after joined him to his Creator one week after Bj’s death, inseparable unto death. The Gokongweis are a close-knit family- spending many dinners and travel together- discussing business with pleasure.
Imagine how simply the truly rich lived his life. Like the late taipan Henry Sy who strolled through his vast malls (without escorts) in short-sleeved plain “barong”, BJ wore ordinary clothes whose ties always had stains (overused?), hated fancy cars and “rented” a tuxedo during the wedding of daughter Robina because “ anyway, I am going to wear this only once.”
Lance recalled the family always traveled economy but BJ later transferred to business class after his wide girth could no longer fit into the economy seats. BJ worked super hard and ate, even harder, explaining his enormous size. He would often save shelled peanuts inside his pants and share these during business meetings.
Once they traveled to France, and the blue cheese kept inside his coat started to smell over the plane, embarrassing Lance. He would always take the longer- but less expensive route of airlines- just in order to “save”.
Always staying in one hotel room, Lance had to sometimes sleep in the bathroom to avoid BJ’s ear-splitting snore. Coming home from the prestigious Wharton School – Lance was paid a mere P2,000 “ a month then and given a Datsun car whose airconditioning unit malfunctioned.”
All children first started working inside the company bodegas- to know the customers’ needs and understand the needs of the staff. Robina always wore the office ID and times in and out of the Bundy clock.
But BJ can also be generous when it comes to business. One daughter just finished a masscom -related course and said she wanted to write- the next week (many years back) BJ bought the Manila Times for her.
This is a famous story. Robina was once kidnapped and kept in a motel in Malate. BJ never gave in to the demands of the kidnappers- saying they can have her if they want “anyway I have many other daughters”. Instead, he asked then Lt Col Panfilo Lacson of the PNP and group to rescue Robina and kill all the kidnappers. They did.
Interesting stories abound BJ. When the two biggest lots along EDSA were bid out- it was only Henry Sy and BJ left. They decided to toss a coin. The primer lot at the corner of Ortigas Avenue and EDSA was won by BJ- where Robinson Galleria now sits and the other went to Sy – where Megamall I and II are now located.
One of his first business ventures was a cornstarch company in Cebuwhich put many cornstarch competitors out of business. One of them was where (now taipan) Lucio Tan used to work and thus Lucio lost his job. BJ teased Lucio then that he should be thankful to him- otherwise Tan would not have become one of the biggest business stars today if he stayed employed.
BJ’s story is a richesrags- riches affair. His rich father’s business failed- and the Gokongwei’s lost everything- and “half of their friends”. BJ cried when he first walked two miles to school in Cebu (without car and driver) but was just told by her mother to “be thankful that he has shoes to wear.”
Orphaned at 13, BJ took care of the family and started earning money by roasting peanuts in their small yard and selling them to neighbors. Then he opened a small stall in the market -selling soap, candles and thread.
Even then, the little John knew what people needed and sold them- soap for everyday bath and laundry, candles as not all had electricity then and thread for clothing. He understood his customers well.
It is the same philosophy that made him decide to set up Cebu Pacific for budget airfares, C2 to have a healthy alternative to colas and soft drinks, Sun Cellular with unlimited talk and text for P250 and Sogocheap hotels- clean but without the unnecessary frills.
Now the JG Summit conglomerate is big into food, airlines, telecommunications, banking, retail, power and property development. Now, they are all over Asia.
He disciplined his children- to have able successors- never giving them money for Christmas or birthdays, never sheltered them from failures, never made them feel like COO (Children of the Owner)- but told them to be risk-takers and never give up after a failure as this will build their character.
To BJ “entrepreneurship is a lifestyle. One must work hard. If you do not work, you do not eat.” was his philosophy.
Aside from living simply, he taught his children gratitude- to those who helped them and assist when they have a chance to help others. “Never stop learning and learn to seek advice” from those who know better.
BJ traveled extensively- but only to learn more and read tons of books until his body no longer allowed him. “Marrying someone is the most important decision in one’s life”- for one can end with a lifelong journey of bliss or misery, so BJ gave one more important lesson.
If the lessons of Big John Gokongwei sound simple- it is because he had a lot of common sense on top of his love for self-education.
They must work for indeed he died as the second richest billionaire hereabouts.
For how can one explain how an orphan at 13- with zero capital- make it this huge against all odds- including the war years? Tell us, Watson.
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