Remembering Mr. John Gokongwei Jr.

A few days ago, I read Lance Gokongwei’s post about his dad, who would have been 97 years old last August 11, 2023.

I consider myself fortunate to have worked with the late Mr. John Gokongwei Jr., industrialist and philanthropist. While my interaction with him started in 2007 when I was recruited to lead Robinsons Land Corp. ‘s Office Buildings Division, it was between 2014 and 2016 that I worked closely and extensively with him during my assignment in China.

Mr. John, as he was fondly called, was JG Summit Holdings Inc.’s Chairman Emeritus; he asked me if I could manage his real estate companies in China. 

While I was truly elated by his gesture of trust and confidence, I hesitated in accepting it and asked for time to decide.  Eventually, after a month of convincing and thinking, I succumbed to his proposal. Two weeks after celebrating the 2014 Chinese New Year, I packed my bags and flew to Shanghai.

During that time, the then 87 years old Mr. John was tireless; he frequently visited China, at least once a month while I was new in my post. The quarterly board meetings were regularly held in China, although we got to visit the Philippines late every year to present and seek approval for our proposed annual budget.

Mr. John was unselfish in his guidance, knowledge, support and constant assurances during those repeated trips; in addition to the weekly phone calls. My work gave me a close-up view of how he thinks and views the world, and resolved matters that required his decisions.

The author with the late John Gokongwei Jr. Photo was taken in 2016, during one of Robinsons Land’s board meetings.

Part of our regular interactions included providing him with updates of what had happened the previous week and what issues and concerns might surface the coming week.  However, our meetings would usually start from his own prepared agenda, written on a bond paper, normally folded and placed in his suit or shirt’s pocket. Indeed, he was very organized. He listened attentively, and diligently made sure each item was thoroughly discussed.

Despite his age, he was still very hands-on, and required us to submit daily reports of our finances and monthly reports of our operations. I knew he read our reports because on one occasion, he showed me a report with a typo error encircled.

Visits to distant places where the real estate business could expand were also scheduled whenever he would fly in. 

Those trips were extra special because it gave me the opportunity to directly hear numerous stories behind the development of many of his ventures and companies, see how he applied his entrepreneurial acumen, and encounter his personal side.

On one occasion, I fell ill during one of our out-of-town business trips.  I had to skip a meeting mid-afternoon to take a rest. Early the next morning, he called me and asked if my condition had improved. He even suggested some remedies so I can recover faster.  I was genuinely surprised and I cherished his thoughtfulness. I deeply appreciated his fatherly affection and felt like being part of his family.

Indeed, I always looked forward to those trips and exchanges, as it provided me rare access to first-hand insights and interactions with the Robinsons Land founder, as well as with company directors, officials and their families. 

Being with him and others allowed me to understand in greater detail how plans and issues should be properly discussed, assessed and decided upon.  It was an invaluable experience, as it was priceless.

Mr. John, happy birthday in heaven.

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Henry L. Yap is an architect, Fellow in Environmental Planning and Real Estate Management, and one of the Undersecretaries of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development.