The legacy of Henry Sy: Titan of hard work and compassion

Liza Reyes, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 19 2019 04:58 PM | Updated as of Jan 21 2019 05:37 PM

MANILA - His name spelled his future. 

Born in October 1924 in Jinjiang, Fujian, China, the birth name of the country's richest man, Sy Chi Sieng, meant "attainment of ultimate success."

Mall tycoon Henry Sy Sr’s name would resonate as a titan of the Philippine retail industry, associated with malls, of families coming together, creating new experiences, and building businesses. 

And in his passing, Sy leaves a robust empire that may well remain a part of the Filipino's daily life for decades to come. 

Sy's journey was not smooth. It was long, difficult, and at times, painful.

Henry Sy, Sr. Photo from SM Investments Corp

BEGINNINGS

As a young boy in the 1930s, Sy ventured the rough seas alone to the Philippines seeking to reunite with his father in Calle Echague, Quiapo Manila. Henry’s father Sy Siu Tek was running two sari-sari stores then. What he saw was hardship, but it never broke young Sy’s spirit. 

Speaking very little English and Tagalog, Sy, an avid learner, braved school taking evening classes and in the morning, helping his father tend to the store. 

But then World War II broke out, forcing Sy’s father to go back to China as business was affected. The young Sy, then 19, decided to stay in Manila and traded various goods.

Window display at Shoemart Carriedo in the 1950s. Photo from SM Investments Corp

By the end of of the war in 1945, he ventured into selling American shoes imported by enterprising soldiers deployed in the Philippines. From here, he saw opportunities of opening a shoe store which he later expanded with the help of enterprising friends. He studied the market and decided to be different.

Sy juggled tending to a growing family and pursuing college studies at the Far Eastern University. While others went to the US to pursue higher education, he went on business trips to the East Coast, and came home with a lot of merchandizing concepts.

Shoemart Makati in the 1960s. Photo from SM Investments Corp

By the '60s, he decided to open Shoe Mart or “SM” – the first air-conditioned shoe store that merchandized shoes in an elegant way. 

With the success of that store, he went on to open more shoe stores, but could not get enough suppliers due to the demand. This became an opportunity rather than a limitation, and he gradually shifted to apparel and other merchandise. 

Sy kept in mind what his parents instilled in him – the value of discipline and hard work. These he had successfully passed on to his six children, who are now among those leading his various businesses.

Teresita Sy-Coson receiving the MAP Management Man of the Year award in 2016. Photo from SM Investments Corp

“My dad always constantly told me: Should you be lacking in core competence in any endeavor we undertake, we should work extra hours and work harder to speed up and catch up with our colleagues in the business world. I learned how to keep up the pace when doing business with men who have wider business exposure. I was guided constantly by my dad, my late husband, and my four brothers, who all helped me along,” Sy's daughter Teresita Sy-Coson said as she accepted the prestigious Management Man of the Year award in 2016 -- 17 years after her father took the same award in 1999.

Sy-Coson is now co-vice-chairperson at SM Investments Corp with her brother, Henry Sy Jr. 

“When we left college, we were expected to continue working in our family business full-time. During those days, my dad, who was demanding, was always driving us to work hard, and to do our best. It took us a long time to understand my dad’s drives and his teachings. We learned a lot though, amidst all the arguments, hard feelings, and complaints," she said. 

"We could not understand then why our lives and our discussion were all about business. When we thought we did something right and expected his congratulations, he would just say “not bad,” and thought that we could do better. But we now see the wisdom of his demanding character. In the past few years, my siblings and I continued to grow and enhance the business based on his guidance and principles of business leadership."

Today, SM has 72 shopping malls across the country and 7 more in China. It also owns the largest universal bank, BDO.

BUILDING TYCOONS, MAN FOR OTHERS

As Sy was building his conglomerate, he had a gift in identifying talent.

When Sy started Acme Bank, he told one of his most trusted lieutenants, Jose Sio, that it would become number one. 

After decades of gobbling up several banks, Acme would transform into BDO Unibank, the country's largest lender, and one of the pillars of Sy's empire, which includes SM Supermalls and real estate development.

SM Investments Chairman Jose Sio with SM founder Henry Sy Sr. Courtesy of SM Investments.

"He does not stop thinking. He looks at the long term. He was number one in retail but he was telling me, watch me, (this) bank will be number one. His drive in life, his vision. I said to myself, this (man) will be big," said Sio, SM Investments Chair, in a May 2017 interview with ABS-CBN News.

Sy’s business acumen extended to mentoring future tycoons. He even offered fatherly advice in some occasions. 

DMCI Holdings Chairman and CEO Isidro Consunji

“When I first met him, we were negotiating the Megamall contract, he said to me, 'good to have a good disposition in business,' he advises. Then when we were about to finish the Ritz Towers, we had a work done (floor topping) that our people missed out in our estimates. The owner’s representative refused us payment. I insisted that we be paid our direct cost without any margin. Mr. Sy immediately accepted the compromise,” recalled Isidro Consunji, Chairman and CEO of DMCI Holdings.

“One time he saw me drinking in a hotel lobby. He called me over and said ‘slowdown. I have the whole future ahead of me.’ Twenty plus years later, I saw Mr Sy receiving an award at a luncheon event. He called me over and whispered 'Are you still drinking heavily?' The man looks at people individually and cares truly. He will be missed deeply,” added Consunji.

Century Properties Group Chairman and CEO Jose E.B. Antonio, meanwhile, shared how Sy extended help to see the fruition of one of their first condominium projects.

“I have known him since the early days of Banco De Oro in Cubao when they started as a savings bank. In those days, Mr. Sy personally supported us and our endeavors, even personally visiting our projects. His and his family’s support and guidance to our family is immeasurable,” he said. 

Century Properties Chairman Jose E.B. Antonio with then Senator and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Henry Sy Sr at the launch of Essensa East Forbes in the '90s

“He personally took the construction service lift to inspect the construction of our then project, Essensa. He was so hands on especially for a man of his stature. He then invited me several times for lunch in Tagaytay Highlands to share his vision for that place. They were humbling experiences for me. When I last visited him in his home, I asked him what else does he want to accomplish, and he just said with a smile: 'what’s the next deal?'” added Antonio.

Sy also saw potential in Megawide, now one of the biggest construction companies in the country.

Megawide Chairman and CEO Edgar Saavedra with SM founder Henry Sy Sr. Photo: Edgar Saavedra

“To say that Tatang (Sy) was a great influence on Megawide is an understatement. He and the Sy family gave us our big break in construction when they awarded us our very first SMDC projects. I remember being very nervous about meeting him. He was the hero of young entrepreneurs everywhere, and you know what they say about meeting your heroes," said Edgar Saavedra, Megawide chairman and CEO, referring to Sy by the term of endearment those close to him call him by. 

"But Tatang was everything and nothing at all like I expected. He was clever, gracious, and paternal. We spoke about his family, and our dreams for Megawide. In the years that followed, the Sys became like family to us, and we will always be grateful for their guidance and generosity,” he said.