Lessons from Lance

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - November 26, 2020 - 12:00am

When the late tycoon John Gokongwei Jr. decided to launch in 1996 a no-frills budget airline to enable more Filipinos to travel, he asked his only son Lance, then 30, to head it.

“He came to my office one day and said, ‘Hey Lance, I just bought four aircraft. Do you know anyone who can run an airline?’” Lance recalled in a September article in Forbes magazine.

It soon put Lance under the spotlight and, in no time, the buzz among business journalists covering the Gokongwei empire, at the time, was mostly about him. They talked about the brilliant young heir, a heart throb with that boy-next-door smile. Some star-struck reporters familiar with the Bagets era described him as the Chinese version of matinee idol Aga Muhlach.

When I met Lance for the first time in 2002 to cover the Gokongwei Group’s attempt to buy PLDT, I realized that indeed he was a breath of fresh air among a crop of aging Filipino-Chinese taipans.

But the real way to journalists’ hearts is through stories and, with Lance, ambush interviews turned out to be a challenge.

He spoke almost in a whisper, in stark contrast to Big John’s booming voice; not even the best voice recorder could capture his words.

Lance also walks so fast. One time, my colleagues and I saw him at the PICC. He was walking so fast I had to plead with him to pause.

“Sir, please stop walking fast... You know, there might be a pregnant journalist among us.” The pregnancy card always works.

He stopped for a few minutes to answer our questions and, thankfully, even with just a few quotes, an ambush with Lance often made headlines.

There in PICC, addressing pesky journalists gathered around him, he sighed with a mixture of jest, awe and frustration, “You guys create stories out of nothing.”

Ambush interviews, it seemed, weren’t his thing then. Perhaps, he didn’t see the need to share stories about the company.

At the helm

These days, however, Lance, now 54, has more than enough stories to tell as the next-generation tycoon tasked to stir the sprawling empire his father founded.

While he had taken over the reins of JG Summit Holdings Inc., together with his uncle James Go, years back, his role as president and CEO is now more pronounced because of Big John’s passing last year.

Lance is tasked to navigate JG through one of the worst crises in the company’s 30-year history.

Early on, COVID-19 showed its brutal impact on the airline industry and Lance had to manage Cebu Air’s losses. Shutting it down wasn’t an option.

“Magagalit si JG (John Gokongwei),” he told me in a phone chat during the early part of the pandemic when I raised the question.


Embracing his role fully as the next-generation leader, Lance shared his learnings during a recent forum organized by the Management Association of the Philippines.

He channeled Captain Ri, saying next-generation leaders must be “SMART,” just like the dashing North Korean soldier in the blockbuster series Crash Landing on You.

In the Netflix series, Captain Ri meets South Korean heiress Yoon Se-ri. Defying all odds, the handsome captain sees to it that Se-ri can return safely to her home in Seoul.

At MAP’s “Crash Landing on Management” conference, Gokongwei said SMART means Sustainable, Motivated beyond profits, Agile, Resilient and Transformative.

He also shared his three guiding principles — to put the interest of the business ahead of the family; to build a strong corporate culture anchored on the organization’s values; and to ensure the business has a social purpose and a social license to operate.

“Of significant importance to me is being able to build a solid reputation for the company as a socially responsible corporate citizen,” Lance said.

That, to me, is really important and something that can really set a business apart from the rest. I enjoyed his talk and told him in jest that he can now write another book, “Lessons from Lance” as a sequel to the 2016 book he wrote about his father, “Lessons from Dad, John Gokongwei, Jr.”

Making his own mark

On his birthday last Nov. 23, a colleague working in a foreign news agency greeted Lance: “Happy birthday to the country’s cutest tycoon!”

I’m sure Lance enjoyed the compliment, but in these difficult times, perhaps the last thing on his mind is whether or not he’s the cutest among the present crop of good looking second-generation tycoons.

Perhaps, the competition really is against himself — to achieve his goal of stirring his father’s empire into the future, far beyond the pandemic, and ensure that it is the socially responsible company he dreams it to be, one its employees would be proud of; one that provides customers better choices; one that goes beyond profits; one which would help address and not aggravate the stark income inequality in this country; and one which would help make the Philippines much better than when his father first saw it.

That, without doubt, will make Lance not just the country’s cutest tycoon but, like Captain Ri, the one with the biggest heart, too.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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