Behind many great success stories are tales of struggle and adversity
(The Philippine Star) - August 28, 2016 - 12:00am

Whenever Forbes magazine, Bloomberg or others come out with their wealthiest lists, most people generally lionize the success stories, focus on the fortunes and become fascinated by the perceived glamorous lifestyles of the billionaires.

In my case, since I didn’t inherit any wealth but had to earn every centavo myself, I prefer studying those “rags-to-riches” self-made men and women, their stories of overcoming often cruel odds and how they achieved their dreams. I believe that behind many self-made fortunes are inspiring tales of struggles, adversity, persons with strong character of Olympian proportions. 

A poor boy who saw his mother turned away at a grocery store

At about age 13, a boy in a tiny village personally saw how his mother got rejected for credit at a grocery shop. This acute and early realization that his family was poor was a strong motivation and driving force for him, so he left school and started working in a clothing shop to help his family. His mother was a housemaid and his father was a railway worker.

This boy eventually went into the clothing business and opened a retail shop, building up a fashion empire with the global brand name Zara. Now this former poor boy from Spain named Amancio Ortega is ranked the world’s second wealthiest person with a net worth of $67 billion. He has not changed his humble lifestyle, his work ethic, or his dreams of doing well.

A poor boy who cried when he saw his father’s difficult life as a sari-sari store owner

At age 12, a boy arrived in Manila to join his father in his sari-sari store business. The Japanese military invasion and occupation of the Philippines caused the loss of his father’s two stores — one was burned and one was looted in the war chaos. His father was so dejected by this setback he decided to go back to his hometown. The youth started a business with a business partner, but the partnership turned sour and he had to make sacrifices to start a store on his own again. This youth, who was undaunted by hardships, who had grand vision, perseverance, frugality and extraordinary work ethic, is ranked the Philippines No. 1 wealthiest, Henry Sy, Sr. of SM Group and BDO, with huge investments and philanthropic interests.

Several years ago, when Time magazine featured him on its cover and the journalist wrote that when the 12-year-old Sy first arrived in Manila, he cried upon seeing his father, I asked him why he cried. Henry Sy explained to me that he saw how difficult the life of a sari-sari store owner was, so he cried. 

The boy who lost his dad, their home and business

A boy was only 13 when his businessman father died; their family then lost their big house, their chauffered cars and moviehouse businesses to the banks. Half his friends in school dropped him when he could no longer treat them to free movies. More difficult than a “rags-to-riches” life is a “riches-to-rags-to-riches” saga, because it is not easy to adjust from a comfortable and secure life to that of adversity and struggles.

As a kid, the boy remembered their home even had a piano and his parents hired a Spanish mestiza piano teacher who’d bribe him with apples for him to practice. All those were gone. He had to quit schooling to help the family. He became a trader. This boy had bold vision, extraordinary work ethic, discipline, frugality and strategic thinking. Eventually, John Gokongwei, Jr. built up one of Southeast Asia’s top industrial conglomerates, giving away philanthropic donations to schools, and he is now ranked the second wealthiest person in the Philippines.    

A youth who endured “a lot of sufferings”

One of the country’s most accomplished business leaders and one of its most generous philanthropists once told me that he endured “a lot of sufferings” in his youth. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he is well known for his extraordinary personal discipline, hard work and determination? This business leader is Metrobank, PS Bank, AXA Life, Toyota Philippines and Metrobank Foundation taipan George S.K. Ty.

A youth who dreamt of studying science abroad, but dropped out to work

A boy who came from a poor family told me that his childhood dream was to study abroad and to become a scientist. He even researched the top schools in the west. He was a working student who studied daily at night and on Sundays, yet he still had to drop out to work full-time and later to start his small business. Today, the frugal, disciplined, persevering and workaholic Lucio Tan has become one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest taipans and owner of Asia’s first airline Philippine Airlines; he is also one of the country’s most generous philanthropists. 

Two rising tycoons who overcame the 1997 Asian financial crisis

This self-made entrepreneur was already on his way to becoming one of the Philippines’ top tycoons when the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit and many businesses collapsed across the  region. It was at this time that his creditors, executives of American finance giant J.P. Morgan called me via conference call in Tokyo and Makati to angrily complain about this entrepreneur’s not paying his company’s bonds.

Out of fairness, I called up this entrepreneur to get his side of the story. He told me his version of the impasse with his creditors, admitting that his firms faced difficulties, but it was not true he was unwilling to fulfill his obligations.

He revealed that a top blue-chip competitor in his industry almost bought his whole firm and they already agreed on the sale price, but when this competitor wanted to take advantage of his difficult situation and tried to squeeze him for a harder bargain, he balked. This hardworking and smart entrepreneur eventually survived the crisis, bounced back and has become much bigger and richer than before, he is realty billionaire Manny B. Villar.

This other self-made entrepreneur was already one of the rising stars of Philippine business when the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit, and there were rumors then spread by his detractors that his firm was in dire straits. I heard stories that a group of prominent stockbrokers even reportedly pulled the carpet under him in this time of crisis. During that regional Asian crisis, almost nobody was immune from possible catastrophe, but this self-made entrepreneur is known as a hardworking finance and business whiz; he not only overcame the worst crisis, he persevered and grew his businesses. Today, Megaworld, Emperador and Alliance Global Group founder Andrew Tan has emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s top billionaires. 

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Steve Goodier said: “Those who overcome great challenges will be changed, and often in unexpected ways. For our struggles enter our lives as unwelcome guests, but they bring valuable gifts. And once the pain subsides, the gifts remain. These gifts are life’s true treasures, bought at great price, but cannot be acquired in any other way.”

Let us not fear difficulties or whine about life being unfair. In fact, I believe adversity and struggles are what can make us better, wiser, protean, more resilient and stronger persons in the long run. Crisis can toughen our character, cleanse our soul and make our dreams imperishable!

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