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From Rags to Riches: The Success Story of John Gokongwei

Bernadette Carillo

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Meet one of Philippines’ top billionaires, John Gokongwei, a man who used to belong to the marginalized sector, his ultimate climb to the top has proven once again that nothing is impossible if you have dreams and determination.

I was born to a rich Chinese-Filipino family. I spent my childhood in Cebu where my father owned a chain of movie houses, including the first air-conditioned one outside Manila. I was the eldest of six children and lived in a big house in Cebu ‘s ForbesPark. A chauffeur drove me to school every day as I went to San Carlos University, then and still one of the country’s top schools. I topped my classes and had many friends. I would bring them to watch movies for free at my father’s movie houses.

When I was 13, my father died suddenly of complications due to typhoid. Everything I enjoyed vanished instantly. My father’s empire was built on credit. When he died, we lost everything – our big house, our cars, our business – to the banks. I felt angry at the world for taking away my father, and for taking away all that I enjoyed before. When the free movies disappeared, I also lost half my friends.

john-gokongwei

On the day I had to walk two miles to school for the very first time, I cried to my mother, a widow at 32. But she said: “You should feel lucky. Some people have no shoes to walk to school. What can you do? Your father died with 10 centavos in his pocket.” So, what can I do? I worked.

My mother sent my siblings to China where living standards were lower. She and I stayed in Cebu to work, and we sent them money regularly. My mother sold her jewelry. When that ran out, we sold roasted peanuts in the backyard of our much-smaller home. When that wasn’t enough, I opened a small stall in a palengke (market). I chose one among several palengkes a few miles outside the city because there were fewer goods available for the people there.

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I woke up at five o’clock every morning for the long bicycle ride to the palengke with my basket of goods. There, I set up a table about three feet by two feet in size. I laid out my goods — soap, candles, and thread — and kept selling until everything was bought. Why these goods? Because these were hard times and this was a poor village, so people wanted and needed the basics: soap to keep them clean, candles to light the night, and thread to sew their clothes.

I was surrounded by other vendors, all of them much older. Many of them could be my grandparents. And they knew the ways of the palengke far more than a boy of 15, especially one who had never worked before. But being young had its advantages. I did not tire as easily, and I moved more quickly. I was also more aggressive.

After each day, I would make about 20 pesos in profit! There was enough to feed my siblings and still enough to pour back into the business. The pesos I made in the palengke were the pesos that went into building the business I have today. After this experience, I told myself, “If I can compete with people so much older than me, if I can support my whole family at 15, I can do anything!”

Looking back, I wonder, what would have happened if my father had not left my family with nothing? Would I have become the man I am? Who knows? The important thing to know is that life will always deal us a few bad cards. But we have to play those cards the best we can. And WE can play to win! This was one lesson I picked up when I was a teenager. It has been my guiding principle ever since. And I have had 66 years to practice self-determination. When I wanted something, the best person to depend on was myself. And so I continued to work.

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