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Publishing mogul Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng’s dream: To own a tiny bookstore

Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng’s first job was as a management trainee in Robinsons Galleria where her funniest memory was when people would go to her and say, “Miss, pwede mo akong samahan kasi takot ako sa ahas.” Photo by WALTER BOLLOZOS

Publishing mogul Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng is the third among the six children of one of the wealthiest patriarchs in the country. How different is it growing up in an influential family with the pressure of making a business succeed, and how do you make yourself the boss of your own life? Here are 10 things you should know about Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng:

1. She was a part of Ateneo de Manila University’s college paper Guidon for just one year because she got booted out for never passing in an article. 

“My cousin was the editor in chief, Frederick Go, who is now the head of Robinsons Land. He kicked me out because I was assigned an article and never passed it in! I was so bad,” she says laughing. 

“I came from an all-girls’ Catholic Chinese school, very conservative, and going to Ateneo, it was co-ed, for me was an eye opener already. Especially in Comm, because you saw a lot of deviant and creative people there,” she recalls. 

On competitiveness in class: “The most diligent students were the girls. But I have to say it was the gay men who we knew would really succeed. Then we had the macho men. We had a bunch of very successful graduates in our batch. We were only 40 students, one block. We were very close,” she says of Communication Arts batch 1990. Lisa, along with award-winning editor Manet Dayrit, film and TV director Ruel Bayani, and FHM editor in chief Allan Madrilejos, all came from the same block in college at the Ateneo.

On crushes and courtship: “I remember there was always a Top Ten Cutest Guys list. I remember pa who was number 1, Martin Lichauco, because everyone had a crush on him,” she recalls. “I don’t wanna embarrass anyone but there was this one guy who sat beside me and goes, ‘You know why I like you? You’re so much more reachable than these other two girls who were like crush ng bayan.’ Is that even a compliment? How did I reject nicely? I don’t think I was nice, I didn’t na lang mind them. I definitely wasn’t the campus heartthrob! I was nerdy.”

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2. Lisa’s first job was as a management trainee in Robinsons Galleria where her funniest memory was when people would go to her and say, “Miss, pwede mo akong samahan kasi takot ako sa ahas.”

“I was trained together with the first batch of salesgirls, literally we had to clean the stockrooms, then maybe after three months I became the head of the Girls’ Department. I had to be on the floor every day in a red suit and heels, and I had this little table. I really didn’t enjoy myself, I did it out of duty,” she says of her one-year retail career. Did she feel she got special treatment? “I think I had a very good boss because she was not dyahe to order me around, in fact she gave me an average performance rating! She was not afraid to tell me I could do better.

“Then I worked with the Manila Times very briefly, but I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. I got to work with journalists like Malou Mangahas, Glenda Gloria and Chay Hofilena.” On what she learned with the closure and eventual sale of the paper: “We learned we were not the right publishers for a serious newspaper. That’s why right now I would never do a serious newspaper, we would always get caught in-between.

“Then I went to Columbia University to pursue my master’s degree in journalism. And in New York, I developed an interest in magazines kasi these were on every corner, and I subscribed to a lot. When I came back, I said, ‘You know, there is a market.’ So I started one.” That was the birth of Preview in 1995.

3. Of the Gokongwei siblings who ventured into business, Lisa’s required the least capital: P1 million.

“Yes, I believe it was about one million. But I was lucky, we survived on supplier’s credit. I think I was able to stretch the suppliers’ credit, I didn’t have to pay a long time, because of the company that backed me. My suppliers trusted that even if it took me a long time to pay, I would eventually pay.” Summit Media now has over 22 magazine titles, and they produce books, bookazines, online content, and events.

Lisa’s siblings in two adjectives:

Robina: “Funny and responsible.”

Lance: “Exceptional and... brotherly.”

Faith: “Kind and generous.”

Hope: “Independent-minded and funny.”

Marcia: “The funniest of them all. And driven.”

“Being in the middle, I am quite close to all of them,” she says.

4. On the future of glossy magazines: “I think the magazine experience is irreplaceable. But I do believe that magazines will need to change in order for them to continue to grow.”

“It is a total package you are enjoying. Having said that, for me, magazines can no longer remain as just a print product. They have to be on Zinio, Apple Newsstand, or an app to survive. And online. That’s where we are investing because that’s where it’s going.”

On if she ever had a moral dilemma when she acquired the FHM license: “You know what? No. At that time I think I was just very naive. I was looking for something that was commercially viable. It did hit my conscience around 10 years ago, when the editor at that time I felt was taking it too far, and when he put a girl that was not yet 18 years old on the cover. Even if we didn’t part ways well, I respect him because he had his own beliefs — that an artist has to push the envelope and society did not have a right to step on freedom of expression — and I totally believe that. But when we got into that I felt it was time to separate. So yes, I did feel guilty at a certain point,” she reveals. “Even with Cosmopolitan we got a lot of flak. I was getting petitions this thick (she holds her thumb and pointer finger up two inches apart) and letters to my mom telling us to close it down because we were doing the work of the devil.”

5. She attributes her getting pregnant to “the prick of a nun.”

“I’ve been married since I was 34. I’m now 45. We were trying to get pregnant for a long time. I was miscarrying, we tried to do IVF, four times, but I didn’t get pregnant. Jo Ann Maglipon (Yes! magazine editor in chief) told me, ‘Hey, you should try acupuncture.’ At that time I was 39 years old na. I was like, acupuncture? That’s kinda quack medicine? But never mind, I was so desperate,” she laughs. “A year later, after taking herbs and doing acupuncture, I got pregnant. I was almost 40. She is Sister Regina, in Panay Ave., and now her reputation has spread. I’ve sent so many friends there and half of them have gotten pregnant.” Lisa and husband Berck Cheng have two angels, Noah and Luke.

6. Lisa and Berck got married in a small, casual garden wedding in Hawaii, by a female pastor.

“Why casual? I think we were old na, and we didn’t believe in a big wedding. It was too embarrassing! Diba? Walk the aisle at 34,” Lisa says laughing. “Honestly we really just didn’t want all that attention. It was just very intimate, very nice.”

It was Lisa’s brother Lance who found a way to introduce the couple, but it was during a blunder that they first saw each other. “He belonged to a group called Anvil and they were holding a concert to raise funds for charity. So they invited guests for a press conference with Jose Mari Chan. We were all waiting, but then he’s the one who comes out and says, ‘I’m sorry but Jose Mari Chan is not coming.’ And I said, ‘Hey! This guy is not bad looking.’”

On the relationship lesson she learned from her dad John and mom Elizabeth’s 53-year marriage: “I think they get along really well because there’s that respect for each other. My mom has always been very patient with my father, and in return my father has also been very good to my mom. It’s not perfect, they still squabble and have these arguments. I think it’s such a good marriage.”

7. Lisa Gokongwei in numbers:

500-plus: Number of employees at Summit Media.

1,000: Average number of books in her personal library. “The only physical books that I buy now are children’s books and coffee table books. Most are e-books.” She reads one book a week on average.

6.5: Average number of hours of sleep she gets daily. “I sleep at 11 p.m. and I always wake up at 2 a.m. Always. I read a bit, sleep again after an hour or two, wake up at 7 or 7:30.”

400: Grade of her glasses for both eyes.

50: Number of e-mails she receives a day.

8. She admits that if you open her closet, all you will see are white button-downs, T-shirts, and jeans.

“Unfortunately, yes,” she says of her dressed-down office attire. “You know what, I do want to dress more sophisticated; I just don’t know how! 

“My family, we’re just not fashionable. You get it from your mom, right? And my mom dresses very simply. I would never say that I am simple, but I just dress simply because I don’t know how to dress in any other way. As much as I would like to dress like Pauline Juan (Preview editor in chief), I don’t have her style or her body or her taste,” she says laughing.

9. Lisa has one indulgence: “I love art and furniture.”

“I like Scandinavian-type furniture, I like Charles and Ray Eames. It’s a piece of furniture that just makes you smile,” she gushes. She does not collect works of any artist in particular but she does name Geraldine Javier, Ronald Ventura, Vermont Coronel and Elaine Navas as some of her favorites. 

On what will make her choose a piece: “Sometimes I like them because they’re so pretty. Other times I like them because they are so strange. One of my favorite pieces now is a Geraldine Javier. It’s a goat’s head with crocheted antlers, and it’s very scary. My children hate it so I put it in this corner in my house. But it appeals to me because it’s so strange. She describes her home interiors as “loft meets modern meets eclectic,” and she actually does not follow feng shui. “I believe it helps you arrange space in a way that’s comfortable for you, but I’m not sure it actually brings you luck.”

10. She does fly Cebu Pacific and pays for her tickets in full, no discounts.

On what money means to her: “I think money is a way for us to be creative, it allows you to build things. Although you can build things without money, it is a means to creativity.”

On her biggest guilty pleasure: “Business class! Unfortunately I still cannot fly first class. That’s too nakaka-guilty na for me! I have to take business na now kasi I’m old na, especially if it’s a long trip. If it’s a short trip I still take Cebu Pacific.” Does she still have to pay? “Yes, of course!” No family discount as a perk? “None eh,” she says smiling.

On her favorite cheap thrill: “Spam and egg from Pancake House. Me and my son love that, we go every Saturday for that.”

On her one unfulfilled dream: “I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore. I would’ve wanted to own a very tiny bookstore, it would just be my choice of books. But I’m just too busy.”

* * *

On the topic of her kids, I asked Lisa what her biggest worry is when it comes to them growing up in this generation. “I think the greatest worry… kasi they’re comfortable. I think it’s so difficult for families who are affluent to raise kids who are not screwed up,” she says frankly. “I think that is the big balancing act. How do you not spoil them? It’s just so difficult. Kasi you see it makes them so happy. We do try to tell them, and show them, that there is another kind of world.” If you have ever met Lisa or any of her siblings, it is likely you will be disarmed by how down to earth and approachable they are, as if they were not members of one of the most powerful families in the country. And with that kind of guidance, I am quite sure Noah and Luke, despite the circumstances and eventual pressure, will grow up fine, well, and grounded with them as examples. 

* * *

E-mail me at askiamsuperbianca@yahoo.com or message me on Twitter @iamsuperbianca.

For all Ateneo coeds, you are invited to the Homecoming to be held on campus at Sept. 7, 4 to 730 p.m. E-mail amaramag@ateneo.edu or tweet @ateneodemanilau for details.

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