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Obituaries

John Gokongwei, Chinese-Filipino founder of JG Summit, dies at 93

Demise of tycoon highlights generational shift in pan-Asian business

Lance Gokongwei, left, president and CEO of Cebu Pacific Air, walks with his father, John, on the tarmac at Ninoy Aquino International airport in Manila in September 2013.   © Reuters

MANILA -- John Gokongwei Jr., the Filipino businessman who built an empire centered on consumer products, with operations spanning Southeast Asia, China, Australia and New Zealand, died late Saturday at the age of 93.

His son, Lance, said his father died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones, according to Esquire Philippines, a media franchise owned by the Gokongwei family.

Gokongwei's death follows that of fellow ethnic-Chinese tycoons Henry Sy, the Philippines' richest man and founder of mall-to-banking conglomerate SM Investments, who died in January, aged 94, and George Ty, founder of the GT Capital Holdings group, who died in November last year at 86. Their demise heralds a generational shift at the top of the sprawling business groups.

Gokongwei was the founder of JG Summit Holdings, the Philippines' third-largest conglomerate, with a market capitalization of $13.1 billion and one of the widest footprints in the region.

JG Summit's businesses range from snacks and beverages (Universal Robina), to airlines (Cebu Air), real estate (Robinsons Land), petrochemicals (JG Summit Petrochemical) and banking (Robinsons Bank). It also has stakes in Manila Electric, the Philippine capital's power distribution monopoly, telecom leader PLDT, and Singapore-based real estate developer United Industrial.

The Gokongwei family also owns Robinsons Retail Holdings and digital publisher Summit Media. Early this year, the group set up a $50 million fund to make a foray into tech startup investing.

Gokongwei is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and his children: Robina, Lance, Lisa, Faith and Hope and Marcia, all of whom occupy senior management positions in the group.

Gokongwei set up a succession plan when he retired almost two decades ago." When dad died at age 34, he did not leave a succession plan," John Gokongwei said in 2007. "From that I learned that one must teach people to take over a business at any time."

Last year, his brother James ceded the CEO role at JG Summit to Lance in accordance with Gokongwei's succession plan. James remains as chairman.

Gokongwei's roots trace to Xiamen in the southern Chinese province of Fujian. He migrated to the central Philippine island of Cebu before World War II. He was just 13 when his businessman father died and creditors seized the family's assets, forcing him to peddle soap, candles and thread from the back of his bicycle to make ends meet.

From Cebu he made his way to Manila, where he sold rubber ties in Manila during the war. "Ironically, I look back at the war with the fondest of memories. It was the great equalizer," Gokongwei said in 2011.

After obtaining a 500,000 peso bank loan, Gokongwei built a cornstarch factory in 1957. That business would spawn others, including snack and coffee ventures.

Backed by his strength in food processing, Gokongwei attempted to shake up other industries with entrenched players. He launched a budget airline that offered 1 peso promotional fares, taking on flag carrier Philippine Airlines. He also attempted to break into telecommunications with Digital Telecommunications Philippines, which offered unlimited voice calls and text. The business was later merged with PLDT.

In recent years Universal Robina opened snack factories overseas and bought companies in Australia and New Zealand, while Cebu Air expanded its Asia-Pacific routes.

Salvador Panelo, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, hailed Gokongwei as a Filipino and as a businessman.

"We will miss the foresight and corporate expertise of Mr. Gokongwei, who successfully charted unfamiliar territories in business to launch new ventures and create an empire that [made] substantial contributions to the country's growth and development," Panelo said in a statement.

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