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Philippine billionaire John Gokongwei dies


JOHN Gokongwei Jr, a Philippine billionaire who built a business empire spanning banking, retail to aviation, has died. He was 93.

Mr Gokongwei died late on Saturday evening "surrounded by his loved ones" at the Manila Doctor's Hospital, his son Lance Gokongwei said in a statement, referring to the tycoon by the nickname he's affectionately known as, "Mr John". 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, Mr 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 US$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, Mr 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 (S$9 billion) snacks, sweets and beverage business operating in six countries across Asia.

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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 ten-fold by this year to a record 23 million.

The tycoon has said he's had seven near-death experiences. He was known for drinking Chinese tea every morning and his favourite museums include the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Long before his death, the late billionaire has handed over the reins to his son Lance, who heads his key companies. BLOOMBERG

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