Washington Sycip: Learning to let go

By Caroline Howard, ANC

Posted at Aug 14 2010 03:11 PM | Updated as of Oct 24 2010 11:39 AM

Sycip with ivory owl

MANILA, Philippines - At the 14th floor of SGV Building I along Ayala Avenue in the Philippines main financial district, the founder of the country's biggest accounting firm still holds office everyday.

Washington SyCip, now 89, has been retired from SGV & Co. since 1996. He has turned over the business, one of the biggest in Southeast Asia, to his 85 partners and over 2,000 professionals. He stayed at the helm of SGV for over 5 decades, steering the firm as auditors of the country's biggest and most influential local and multinational corporations.

Numerous advisory, consultancy, and boardroom commitments now fill his days as the Who's Who in the Southeast Asia's business and government bank on his wisdom. Aside from sitting on the board as director or adviser of some 20 major companies in the country, he is part of the Board of Trustees of Synergeia, a non-government organization that advocates basic education.

"My policy was, when I retire, I won't even know if the firm (SGV) is doing well or not. They don't tell me and I don't ask them," SyCip told ABS-CBN News Channel in a recent interview.

Why would SyCip prefer to stay at a distance? "If you look over the shoulder of everybody, they would not have the initiative," the Chinese-Filipino businessman explained.

The art of letting go, however, was something he learned through trial and error.

Building a consensus

He recalled one instance involving the company headquarters at the heart of the financial district.

In the 1960's, when SGV's practice was growing leaps and bounds as it rode the Philippines' and its neighbors' economic recovery in the aftermath of the World War II, SyCip and his peers decided to move office to Makati City, which was then being positioned as the new financial hub. SGV's humble beginnings at a small office in Juan Luna, Manila, needed the upgrade. He first set up shop there with his brother's help, after turning down a good job offer to be a comptroller in a US company. As the Philippines lay in ruins after World War II, he chose to stay to help with the country's reconstruction.

"My concept of a profession is that it must contribute to the economic growth of the nation. It must of course be financially successful so it can attract the brightest people," SyCip said.

It was perhaps toward that same goal that his firm came to be known for the "Filipinization of Accounting". At a time when 3 leading British accounting firms in the country were being run by Caucasians, SyCip sought to change the status quo by having Filipino partners compete with foreign firms.

SyCip, a product of a generation that experienced hardships and serious struggle for independence, held a strong belief in the importance of investing in real estate. He assumed that he was imparting the same wisdom by compelling the SGV partners to set aside a portion of their current compensation as an investment in the company's real estate dreams.

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SyCip said the partners who invested in the building would realize profits when they retire, and sell their shares in the firm to new partners.

While the venture did pay off—the 14-storey SGV building currently sits at the heart of Makati City—what SyCip intended to be a favor or an opportunity for partners to have a bigger stake in the firm was considered a liability instead. His policy was met with grumblings.

In hindsight, SyCip admitted that he had overlooked the fact that young partners who joined the firm had needs that were more short term such as purchasing a new car or improving their homes.

At that point, he had let his partners decide by consensus whether they wanted the system to continue or to simply sell their shares. Ultimately, they decided to sell.

"I helped them solve the problem, which I created," SyCip said with a self-deprecating laugh.

"When there's a problem, you have to solve it as quickly as possible. Otherwise it would rancor in the heads of people," he added.

With the decision, not only were his partners happy to be free to decide what to do with their money, SyCip's own worries about buying out 20 partners and securing ownership of the property was eventually solved.

Former Central Bank Governor Jose "Jobo" Fernandez, a former associate and a good friend of his, stepped in. To this day, SyCip said, the SGV I building is co-owned by the heirs of Fernandez and the SyCip families in a company called Marilag Corporation.

Toeing the line

SyCip also recalled an incident involving a businessman who was a close friend.

It ended in a sour note: He was forced to fire a partner. Usually, employees climb the corporate ladder and aim to reach a partnership status, which allows them to have a share in the collective profits of the firm.

This partner, who was handling the account of SyCip's personal friend, was missing appointments due to an illicit relationship. As a result, the client decided to cancel the services of SGV.

What made matters worse was that, not only did the partner fail to update the firm on how the client relationship turned sour, it was SyCip's friend himself who eventually told him about it.

The client came back soon after the issue was resolved. But SyCip did not regret letting his partner go since he placed a premium on training and instilled discipline among them.

What he regretted, however, was the fact that he failed to realize much earlier that something was amiss.

SyCip's work ethic revolves around meritocracy. But beyond merely tapping people best fit for the job, it has to do with believing that people should take responsibility for leaving things better than they found it, and working toward the greater good.

Today, the principle that drove SyCip's work from the very beginning is what continues to drive his various advocacies.

"If you work hard, you must be willing to work hard for some objective, and you must have an interest in what you are doing. That's what you call passion. But passion doesn't mean you just think about doing something. You have to do it. So that's hard work. I wish I didn't have to be involved in so many problems of a developing nation. But if you have a conscience, you cannot help but want to try to do something to improve the lives of the less privileged."

SyCip is finding purpose in helping poor Filipinos improve their state of life through improved basic education, microfinance, and better access to health. He considers his various anti-poverty advocacies his most important rural legacy.