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12 success secrets of America's richest self-made tycoons

(Clockwise from left) Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Nike’s Phil Knight.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Theodore Roosevelt

Victory belongs to the most persevering.  — Napoleon

I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies, for the hardest victory is victory over self. Aristotle

What are the factors behind the success of the world’s wealthiest self-made tycoons like John Gokongwei Jr. (who is marking his birthday on Aug. 11), Henry Sy, Manny Villar, Andrew Tan and others? This writer can’t forget that on a recent trip to Hong Kong upon the invitation of HSBC, where I heard DHL International cofounder Po Chung deliver a speech, he admonished undergraduate college students from all over Asia to not take a master’s in business administration (MBA) degree if they want to be entrepreneurs. But if they want to be top corporate leaders, an MBA is useful, he said.

One of the gems I recently discovered in Powerbooks, which is having a big sale up to the end of August — some books I recently bought at an 80-percent discount! — is the new book The Richest Man in Town: The Twelve Commandments of Wealth by W. Randall Jones. It shares the inside secrets of America’s self-made millionaires culled from the author’s interviews with the richest self-made tycoons of 100 different towns across the United States. None of those interviewees inherited their fortune or are CEOs of a major Fortune 500 firm.

Among the self-made tycoons interviewed and whose lives as well as ideas made up the “12 commandments” in this fascinating and well-written book include computer magnate Michael Dell of Austin, Texas; Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus of Atlanta, Georgia; billionaire Kirk Kerkorian of Los Angeles, California; Federal Express founder Frederick Smith of Memphis, Tennessee; Best Buy founder Richard Schulze of Minneapolis, Minnesota; activist billionaire Carl Icahn of New York City, New York; Nike sportswear founder Phillip Knight of Portland, Oregon; world’s richest man Bill Gates of Seattle, Washington; Oracle software giant founder Larry Ellison of Woodside, California; and many others.

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Here are the 12 success secrets (many of which apply to even non-entrepreneurs) based on the book’s extensive interviews and research:

Commandment #1 — Seek money for money’s sake and ye shall not find. This is true. It is not money only that the greatest (or the great wannabes) seek in the relentless pursuit of entrepreneurial success, because money is only a scorecard or measure of one’s progress. The most important goal is to create substantial value in terms of better or more saleable products or services.

Commandment #2 — Find your perfect pitch. The book’s research showed that America’s top self-made tycoons knew themselves and their innate strengths (plus weaknesses) very well, they knew where their passions were, and then capitalized on those to make themselves successful.

Commandment #3 — BYOB: Be your own boss. A total of 94 percent of the self-made tycoons the author interviewed for this book had founded their own companies, therefore he concludes that to be super-rich, it is ideal to either build your own business, buy your own business or somehow own your own business. The book admonishes that based on the self-made tycoons’ experiences, it is ideal to “be a benevolent dictator — share the wealth but keep the ownership.”

Commandment #4 — Get addicted to ambition. Do not get addicted to useless and dirty things like cigarettes, liquor, gambling or other vices that weaken us physically, psychologically and spiritually. The book’s research came up with a better addiction for would-be self-made tycoons — ambition addiction. Be persistent, work hard, have self-confidence because of great ambition!

Commandment #5 — Wake up early — be early. The younger we are, the more time and less risks we have to pursue business and even professional success. The book advises us to start young, if possible (but I believe it’s never too late for anyone; look at Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken who started late), show up early, and try to learn as best we can. Mal Mixon of Cleveland, Ohio said, “Don’t procrastinate, because in only two days, tomorrow will be yesterday.”

Commandment #6 — Don’t set goals — execute or get executed. Over-analysis often results in paralysis. Goals and feasibility studies are fine, debates and many ideas can be enlightening, but the bottom line is decisions must be made! Thomas Edison said: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” I agree! This idea is not only important for entrepreneurs but for all professionals and even for the next president of the Philippines in 2010!

Commandment #7 — Fail to succeed. We should never fear the risk of failure — whether as businesspeople or professionals. Mistakes or reversals are just part of the overall process of success. Failure is a great and incomparable teacher. The No. 1 most universal quality of America’s top self-made tycoons is resilience, according to this book.

I first got to know Manny Villar when he was still a congressman during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and a top US finance firm called me up from their Tokyo office asking me to attack the real estate tycoon for failing to pay his bond obligations. Out of journalistic fairness, I interviewed Villar and got also his side of the story. It is amazing how he not only recovered from that crisis; Villar is now richer than ever in real estate.

Commandment #8 — Location doesn’t matter. My friends and I often ponder whether our chances to become world-class dollar billionaires in the future would be better if we were born in Shanghai or anywhere in the land of our ancestors, China, now the world’s fastest-growing major economy with its market of 1.3 billion people. Is Bill Gates or his friend Warren Buffett better off having been born and doing business in what is still the world’s largest economy, the United States? This part of the book is a relief to me and to hopefully all others, for the author says, “It’s the size of the bottom line that matters, not the size of the town.”

The author also concluded: “You can build a billion in any town in America.” In the same way, achievers like Henry Sy of SM and BDO, Gokongwei of JG Summit, Andrew Tan of Megaworld and the Zobel Ayala clan with Ayala and BPI, have become some of the world’s wealthiest billionaires by doing their best here in the Philippines. Be the best businessperson or professional or artist in your respective town, city or province, then conquer the Philippines and the world! 

Commandment #9 — Moor yourself to morals. The book’s author said, contrary to what many may think, that integrity is still integral to the creation of vast wealth and a good reputation is one’s “greatest single asset.” In the Chinese business communities throughout the Asia-Pacific region, this is known as “shinyong,” roughly translated as “trustworthiness.” 

Commandment #10 — Say yes to sales. It is well-known that many of the most successful businesspeople are great salespeople, or people who know that “nothing happens until something is sold.” We need to improve our listening skills and our EQ, or emotional quotient, in order to sell well. Even non-entrepreneurs need to sell ideas and themselves for promotion or recognition.

Commandment #11 — Borrow from the best — and the worst. One of the reasons it is unforgettable and fun to talk to John Gokongwei Jr. is because of his having read so many biographies of business and political leaders, as well as his knowing so much about the sagas of successful people and families in history here and overseas. Whether you are an entrepreneur, professional or student, we should all seek the good ideas and advice of wise people, and always learn from their successes, as well as their mistakes.

Commandment #12 — Never retire. One of the reasons I marvel at the examples of National Book Store founder Socorro Ramos, John Gokongwei Jr., SGV Group founder Washington SyCip, SM founder Henry Sy and the great Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew is their never really retiring. The book sums up what I believe is very true for all people of whatever vocation: “Retirement is hazardous to your health and your wealth … the brain needs continual stimulation — the greatest source for that sustenance is work.” 

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Thanks for your letters, all will be answered. Comments and suggestions are welcome at or at my Facebook account.

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