In a span of one year, from November 2018 to November 2019, we lost three titans of industry in the Philippines—George Ty, Henry Sy, Sr., and John Gokongwei, Jr. These three iconic entrepreneurs helped build not just our economy but our nation as well. When they started their businesses which later grew into some of the biggest in the country, they helped the country in wealth creation and distribution by mobilizing wealth and creating jobs.
When I was a young entrepreneur, they were my “idols.” The success they achieved was what drove me—in fact, many of us young entrepreneurs back then—to work really hard to become successful. While at this, I think one way of creating a young cadre of entrepreneurs is to encourage more entrepreneur role models. Our young idolize showbiz personalities, heroes, etc., maybe it’s time to promote successful entrepreneurs as role models. It worked for me and the other successful Filipino businessmen who continue to help in nation-building.
George Ty, for instance, experienced how difficult it was for businessmen like himself to get loans from banks so he built his own bank. He opened Metrobank in Binondo in 1962 and built it to become one of the country’s largest banks. He would also set up a local joint venture company with Toyota which would eventually become the top car brand in the Philippines.
Henry Sy was also the epitome of hard work. He worked in his father’s sari-sari store in Quiapo and then in the 1950s, ventured into the business of selling surplus boots. He eventually opened ShoeMart in 1958 along Carriedo in Manila. This grew into a gigantic chain of department stores that is spread all over the country. He would die as the richest Filipino and 52nd richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $20 billion.
I particularly remember a moment when I was still a starting entrepreneur, when Henry Sy singled me out of a group and said, “I’ll tell you this young man would become one of the most successful businessmen in the country or someday he’ll be a great president.” Well, I did not get the chance to prove my worth as president but I hope I’m doing a decent job learning the lessons from my “idol.”
John Gokongwei started working as a teenager after his father died, riding his bike to sell peanuts and knick-knacks to be able to provide for his five siblings. He would grow this enterprise into Universal Robina, producing and selling snacks, sweets, and beverages in six countries across Asia.
Gokongwei would also transform the way Filipinos travel by building the budget airline Cebu Pacific. By making travel affordable, he introduced Filipinos to other cultures and allowed us to marvel at the beauty of our own country.
Nations are built by great men and women. Sometimes they are built by revolutionaries who sacrifice their lives for the freedom of their countrymen. But more often than not, they are built by those who solve the problems of their country by starting an enterprise. They build businesses that create wealth for the nation. They build the hopes and dreams of their people.
We have lost three great captains of industry. But through the examples they showed, they have inspired a new group of entrepreneurs who would hopefully carry the torch. Ty, Sy, and Gokongwei will be remembered not by the billions of pesos they had but by the number of lives they have enriched.