John Gokongwei Jr., fondly called “Big John,” passed away in 2019, but his legacy and business lessons continue to inspire other entrepreneurs.
The Filipino tycoon is most known for being the founder and former chairman of JG Summit, one of the country’s largest conglomerates. Under Big John’s leadership, he launched Universal Corn Products (now Universal Robina Corporation), Consolidated Food Corporation (later CFC Corporation), JG Summit Holdings, Cebu Pacific Air, Robinson Retail Holdings, and more. When he died, Big John was the third-richest person in the Philippines, according to Forbes.
Big John’s life story is no ordinary “rags-to-riches” because he actually once came from a wealthy clan. His great-grandfather, Pedro Gotiaoco, was one of the richest men in Cebu in the 19th century. He came from Fujian province in China and owned a huge trading company, Gotiaoco Hermanos.
Life was great for the Gotiaoco family until the Great Depression came, and their family fell into debt. His father left while his mother and five siblings returned to China. Banks seized their properties, and they fell into poverty. Left with no choice but to survive, young John had to start from scratch to build a better life for himself and his family.
At the age of 14, he started selling peanuts in the streets to send money to his family in China. He soon realized he could do more if he had a bicycle. So, he saved up and was able to reach nearby towns to sell it.
At the age of 17, Big John rediscovered his family’s love for trading and expanded his business. Using a small boat, he would trade goods from Cebu to Manila and vice versa. This was very tiring, but he endured it all to send his siblings to school in China. After the war, Big John took it as a good opportunity to expand his trading business abroad. He built his first company, Amasia Trading, which sold and bought goods in the United States, Manila, and the Visayan region.
With the success of his Amasia trading, Big John reunited with his family back in the Philippines. Together, the siblings worked in their father’s family business, American-Asia Trading.
Big John found an interest in the cornstarch business but didn’t have enough funds. He tried to ask for a loan from several banks but to no avail. Fortunately, he found the light at the end of the tunnel when China Bank’s Dr. Albino Sycip gave him a P500,000 loan.
With his money, Big John founded his cornstarch manufacturing company, Universal Corn Products, in 1954. This, later on, became Universal Robina Corporation (URC) when it ventured into other finished goods.
Since then, Big John was unstoppable as he built one of the Philippines’ biggest business empires, the JG Summit. URC became one of the leading food and beverage companies in the country. Aside from their conglomerate, JG Summit also has interests in PLDT, Manila Electric Company, and other global companies like United Industrial and more.
At the age of 93, Big John died surrounded by his family at the Manila Doctors Hospital on November 9, 2019. Among the timeless business lessons we can learn from Big John is to realize the true meaning of being an entrepreneur. He said, “Choose to be an entrepreneur because then you desire a life of adventure, endless challenge, and the opportunity to be your best self.”