Sunday, August 6, 2006

Success secrets of John Gokongwei Jr.

The Philippine STAR 08/06/2006

Genius is seldom recognized for what it is: a great capacity for hard work.– Henry Ford Rags-to-riches billionaire John Gokongwei Jr. celebrates his 80th birthday on August 11 with a special dinner for relatives and close friends. He is unlike others who dream of retirement at age 50, 60 or 70. I almost fell off my chair when he asked me to a recent dinner at his home: "Do you think I could still work up to age 90?" I felt like a lazy bum beside this hardworking business genius, whose passion is creating new businesses and non-stop learning. I am fortunate to have known him since 1987, when I was still a student, and I have always admired him for being a positive role model for the youth, as a rugged and honorable entrepreneur, and as a good family man.
This September 4 to 6, Gokongwei will be the only Filipino speaker at the prestigious 6th Annual Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore where every attendee has to pay US$5,000 just to listen. Other VIP speakers include Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; Forbes CEO and editor Steve Forbes; DaimlerChrysler boss Rüdiger Grube; Royal Philips Electronics CEO Gerard Kleisterlee; DHL Express CEO John Mullen; Dole food giant CEO David Murdock; Hopewell Group CEO Gordon Wu; Lenovo CEO William Amelio; and Hang Lung Properties CEO Ronnie Chan.
Unknown to most people, August is not only Gokongwei’s birthday, but also the anniversary of his having quit smoking. He recalled to me: "I stopped smoking on August 21, 1983, the day Senator Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. I didn’t smoke that whole day because of the shock. I was in my house in Makati and I saw the TV news. Before, I used to smoke six cigars and one pack of cigarettes a day. The next day I told my wife I didn’t smoke the previous day; then it occurred to me that I could quit. But the bad thing about not smoking is I have since gained 30 pounds!"
How did Gokongwei overcome cruel odds to attain success both in business and in his family life? Here are some of what I believe are his success secrets:
  1. Legacy of entrepreneurship. Perhaps it is the genes and/or inspiration from his great-great-grandfather Pedro Gotiaoco (Chinese name "Go Bun Tiao"), who was a penniless and illiterate immigrant peddler from Khitang Village of Jinjiang county (now city), Fujian province, south China. In 2000, ex-Bangko Sentral Gov. Gabriel Singson and I accompanied Gokongwei to visit Khitang Village. The immigrant Gotiaoco arrived in Cebu as a teenager and worked hard to build up Gotiaoco Hermanos (Chinese name "Hiap Tin") in 28 years. Up to this day, Gotiaoco’s original brown jar, which he used to carry on his back as an oil trader, is still a prized possession in their Makati home. Though the Go fortune didn’t last beyond three generations and the fatherless Gokongwei had to build his own business from scratch, the memory of Gotiaoco’s amazing success saga surely reminded Gokongwei that, in life, nothing is impossible to those who dare dream and to those who are willing to pay the price to achieve those dreams.

  2. Studying non-stop. Gokongwei is a voracious reader of books on history and biographies of great people. He loves math and was a top student at San Carlos University. Despite having dropped out of school due to poverty and the Japanese invasion, from 1971 to 1972 he studied to obtain his MBA at De La Salle University where his professors included Prime Minister Cesar Virata, Senator Vicente Paterno and Trade Undersecretary Tordesillas. He also studied 13 weeks at Harvard Business School. Gokongwei believes in non-stop studying.

  3. Trading prowess. Ever since he was a young merchant on a bicycle or onboard batel boats, Gokongwei has excelled as a consummate trader through the decades.

  4. Risk-taking spirit. He welcomes entrepreneurial risks and minimizes the dangers by often taking calculated risks.

  5. Taking on the Big Boys. Gokongwei has been challenging San Miguel in foods, Nestlé in coffee, Philippine Airlines, SM in malls, Smart and Globe (with his innovative Sun Cellular free texts/calls lowering telecom prices for us consumers). Known for its bold low-fare strategy, Cebu Pacific Air is flying direct to Xiamen, Shanghai and Beijing starting October, and will add more international routes to further lower travel costs for us consumers.

  6. Confucian values of hard work, filial piety, discipline, perseverance, simple lifestyle, and delayed personal gratification. He values the importance of khiu khiam or being frugal and humble. His great-grandfather, the tycoon Gotiaoco, used to pick up and eat rice if it spilled on the floor, but Gokongwei said he doesn’t do that out of phay se, or embarrassment.

  7. Traveling. Starting in his 20s, he has traveled yearly to learn about other peoples and cultures, go to museums, observe consumer trends and new business opportunities. He hopes to someday visit China’s Tibet province, South Africa, Israel (not now due to the war) and Dubai.

  8. Chinese culture. Gokongwei believes that we members of the ethnic Chinese minority should preserve our cultural heritage. In fact, he and his wife recently gave me the July 3, 2006 issue of Time magazine where an article said that of 263 graduates of Britain’s elite Eton school last year, 110 are now studying Chinese language in universities. They suggested I write a column urging Philippine society to join the global trend of studying Chinese in universities.

  9. Wife. Gokongwei once said that the No. 1 greatest happiness of his life was having married a good wife in Elizabeth Limsico Yu, who has provided him with support, family stability and helped him raise good children. She shares his love for reading and also used to handle his retail business.

  10. Family. Support from family members like his siblings and now his kids as well as nephews and nieces has also been key. When he was a boy trader riding a bicycle, his late mother in the first two years of his business career had to pawn her jewelry to borrow money.

  11. Deal-making. He is talented in deal-making, saying he "negotiates from a position of strength."

  12. Timing. Gokongwei almost has a sixth sense about anticipating and quickly adapting to changes, and seeing future trends.

  13. Avoiding politics. In our society where a lot of people are not ashamed about boasting of their "connections" to earn money, Gokongwei’s preference not to rely on politics to grow business is quite unique among big business groups. When asked why, he replied that political leaders will not stay in power forever, anyway.

  14. Globalization. Going beyond the Philippines, Gokongwei has built a multinational conglomerate with diversified investments in ASEAN and China.

  15. Vision. He has long-term vision, publicly listing his firms, planning his succession by giving way to younger brother James Go and son Lance Gokongwei, and creating a foundation to control his assets and for philanthropy.