Manila: John Gokongwei Jr., a Philippine billionaire whose business empire spanned banking, retail and aviation, has died, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, citing his son Lance. He was 93.
He died on Saturday evening “surrounded by his loved ones” at the Manila Doctor’s Hospital, the newspaper said. He’s survived by his wife, six children and at least 12 grandchildren.
Born in Fujian, China, and raised in Cebu province in the Philippines, Gokongwei started working in his early teenage years after his father died, riding his bike to sell peanuts and knick knacks in neighbouring towns across the island to provide for his five siblings.
That laid the foundation for a business acumen that helped build a $3.4 billion fortune, making him one of the country’s wealthiest people, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
He eventually set his sights farther, travelling two weeks by sea and six hours by land each time to peddle rubber tires in Manila.
With the money he saved, Gokongwei went into cornstarch production, predicting nascent industries like food, paper and textiles would need raw materials. The corn mill become the foundation of Universal Robina Corp. — today a 333.9 billion peso ($6.6 billion) snacks, sweets and beverage business operating in six countries across Asia.
Aside from building a line-up of homegrown products like Jack N’ Jill chips and C2 tea drinks, Universal Robina has also gone offshore to acquire Consolidated Snacks Pty, which owns Snack Brands Australia, and New Zealand-based biscuits maker Griffin’s Foods Ltd.
His holding firm JG Summit Holdings Inc. also has interests in petrochemicals, property and banking.
One of the tycoon’s most recent successes was the steady ascent of Cebu Air Inc., a carrier he founded in 1996 with only four aircraft. It endured a difficult start with a plane crash that killed 104 people and struggled against flag carrier Philippine Airlines.
Its low-cost model allowed it to tap burgeoning travel demand in the country and the region. Not only did it eventually surpass its rival to become the country’s largest domestic carrier, its passenger count is poised to increase tenfold by this year to a record 23 million.
The late billionaire has handed over the reins to his son Lance Gokongwei, who heads his key companies. He didn’t immediately respond to a text message.