Last August 11, Forbes released its most recent list of the top 50 richest people or groups in the Philippines. Unsurprisingly, 5 of the top 10 are Chinoys.
Before they became one of the richest people in the Philippines, these entrepreneurs endured hardship and struggles. They all worked hard and sacrificed a lot to be where they are today. With that being said, let’s look back at the humble beginnings of these incredible individuals and how some made it big even after coming from nothing:
1. The Sy Siblings — $12.6B
The total income of late Henry Sy Sr.’s children fell this year, but they remain the country’s wealthiest. Teresita, Henry Jr., Hans, Herbert, and Harley – the controlling shareholders of the SM Group conglomerate — have a total net worth of $12.6 billion, according to Forbes’ most recent report. Their total net worth is mostly composed of holdings in the group’s publicly listed SM Investments and SM Prime.
SM is one of the largest corporations in Southeast Asia with holdings in department stores, supermarkets, banking, hotels, real estate, and mining. While day-to-day operations are now run by outside specialists, the siblings continue to serve on the group’s boards and help shape SM’s overall strategy. But how did this all start? Let’s look back at Henry Sy Sr.’s life.
Henry Sy Sr. was born into an impoverished household in Quanzhou, China. He moved to the Philippines when he was twelve years old and began working for his father’s tiny sari-sari business in Quiapo, Manila. When the Second World War broke out, their modest business was destroyed by fire, forcing Henry Sr.’s father to return to China. Instead of accompanying his father to China, he insisted on staying in the Philippines with a clear goal to succeed.
With barely ten cents in his pocket, Henry Sr. began to empower himself by studying business, along with English and Filipino. Henry Sr. first concentrated on trading shoes, which led him to identify local suppliers and import shoes to keep up with the supply and demand chain.
He then married a fellow Chinese immigrant woman and they had six children together. Felicidad, Henry Sr.’s wife, assisted him throughout the entire business process. Felicidad is a lace vendor in Manila who inspired him to incorporate other items and products into his Shoemart.
Henry Sy Sr. did not achieve immediate success when he began selling shoes on the streets of Manila. He was even hit by shrapnel in the past and nearly died from severe bleeding. However, someone saved him and became his close friend. That person later became Henry Sr.’s business partner and is now wealthy because of him. All in all, there were numerous challenges during the startup process, but he was able to conquer them one step at a time.
Now, his children are continuing his legacy and making sure that their father’s efforts and sacrifices won’t go to waste.
2. Lance Gokongwei and Siblings — $3.1B
John Gokongwei Jr. believes that there is dignity in being hands-on with work. As such, Lisa, Faith, and Hope worked in a hot and stuffy bodega, stamping prices on canned goods. Marcia worked in the kitchen of the Manila Midtown Hotel. Her duties included scooping ice cream and preparing waffle cones at a Tivoli kiosk. Meanwhile, Robina worked as a clerk at Robinsons Department Store’s warehouse.
It was evident to many from the beginning that Lance would take over not only as leader of the family, but also as head of the business. Even his sister Lisa acknowledged this. She is proud of her brother and eager for him to forge his own path and leave his mark on the ever-changing world.
Now, after inheriting riches from their late father, Lance and his siblings, Robina, Lisa, Faith, Hope, and Marcia, have a total net worth of $3.1 billion. Their combined fortune is mostly derived from holdings in JG Summit, which has interests in airlines, telecommunications, banking, food, electricity, and real estate.
3. Tony Tan Caktiong — $2.6B
Tony Tan Caktiong is also from a Chinese immigrant family that came to the Philippines in search of a brighter future. His father worked as a chef at a Chinese temple in Binondo. As a result of his father’s culinary skills, he was able to land a job managing a restaurant in Davao. The entire family pitched in to assist each other and grow the firm.
Later on, Tony studied at University of Santo Tomas in Manila and enrolled in a chemical engineering program. Tony and his friend went to the Magnolia Ice Cream plant for a visit one day, and young Tony saw an advertisement to franchise an ice cream house for only Php 17,500 per branch. The family set aside Php 35,000 to invest in the purchase of the two franchise branches of the ice cream shop— one in Cubao and the other in Quiapo. The entire family relocated to Manila to concentrate on this new business enterprise.
As the firm grew, the family began to hire specialized workers such as managers, supervisors, and service personnel to help meet operational demands. Tony expanded after only two years, providing hamburgers and fried chicken in addition to ice cream. Not for long, chicken, hamburgers, and ice cream are selling extremely well, lines begin to form, and success is a constant concern for them. Tony opted to rename the eatery while keeping the Ice Cream House moniker. Tony proposed “bee” as a symbol of their hard labor because bees are recognized for their hard effort to create honey. He then wanted to connect it with “happy” since Filipino culture depicts joyful customers. Tony came up with the word “jolly” in replacement of the word happy to make the name “Jollibee”.
Now, Tony Tan Caktiong is the founder and chairman of one of the world’s fastest-growing Asian food chains, Jollibee Food. Jollibee has more than 3,200 restaurants in the Philippines and over 2,600 outlets worldwide. Jollibee offers Filipino, Chinese, American, and European meals in a quick-serve and low-cost manner. After reporting losses for the first nine months of 2020 due to the pandemic, Jollibee turned profitable in the fourth quarter. With partner Edgar Sia II, Caktiong also owns a stake in developer DoubleDragon Corporation.
4. Ramon Ang — $2.45B
Similar to the previous stories, Ramon Ang is the son of an impoverished Chinese couple. He graduated from Far Eastern University in Manila with a degree in mechanical engineering. His commercial career began in the late 1970s with the importing of old automobiles and engines. Around the same time, Mark Cojuangco, the eldest son of Eduardo Cojuangco, was involved in the same pastime. The two became friends, and Mark subsequently introduced Ramon to his father.
Ramon was hired as the general manager of Northern Cement, a company held by the older Cojuangco, in the early 1980s. Later, he was named a trusted executive of San Miguel Corporation, the country’s largest beer, food, and packaging firm, which was owned by Cojuangco at the time. As President and COO, he oversaw San Miguel’s diversification into unrelated businesses like petroleum, infrastructure, and power production. He invested personally in hotel and property development, cement, and a variety of other industries. All of this has contributed to the success that he has today.
5. Andrew Tan — $2.4B
Andrew Tan’s story begins in Hong Kong when his mother worked as a street seller in the market. The family moved to Hong Kong when Andrew was four years old, originating from Fujian, China. Tan’s family did not fare well in Hong Kong as competition is fierce and the cost of living is exorbitant. They just shared a unit with another family in a Hong Kong tenement to save money on rent.
When Andrew was 16, his father decided to go to the Philippines in search of a better life. His father acquired a job at a transistor radio plant where Andrew used to sit and do part-time work on modest tasks to supplement his and his father’s income. They rented a small, cramped flat in Sta. Manila Cruz, Manila. After nearly a week in Manila, his father chastised him for getting up later than 5 a.m. His father advised him that they should outperform the locals. As a newcomer to a strange place, they have a lot to work for. Andrew learned the value of diligence from that and took his father’s advice to heart.
Andrew’s father worked very hard to send him to school. However, college was never easy for him. He struggled greatly since he barely had any money in his pocket, but whenever he did, he made sure to save it. Instead of using a jeep to go home or go to school, he preferred to walk to save money.
His school lunch is always the cheapest, which is banana cue. He also saves money to buy timepieces to sell to his wealthy peers. Aside from selling stuff, he would also tutor his classmates and friends in math. After graduation, Tan became an employee of Leonardo Ty, the owner of Hitachi and Ajinomoto. His coworkers remember him as Ty’s most dedicated employee.
Now, Andrew Tan is the CEO of Alliance Global, a conglomerate with holdings in food & beverage, gambling, and real estate. Alliance Global is the parent business of Emperador, the world’s largest brandy company by sales volume. Alliance Global is showing no signs of slowing down as it has set aside $1.1 billion for the expansion of its real estate, distillery, and fast food chain operations.