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Cover Story
Stepping Up to the Big Time

By Mio de la Cruz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:06:00 01/11/2009

Filed Under: People, Retail

A SMALL corner shoe store on Carriedo, a busy street in the populous district of Quiapo, seemed enough to fit the bill for ?a business that would draw a steady income for my family.?

So reveals Henry Sy of the store he named Shoemart, never imagining that 50 years later, the venture would turn into the huge business empire that it is today. That empire would make him the country?s richest man and land him on Forbes Magazine?s list as one of the world?s wealthiest with over $3.1 billion in net worth.

By yearend of 2008, Henry Sy, fondly called ?Tatang? by neighbors in Forbes Park, had built more than 30 giant malls all over the country, four of them listed among the world?s 10 biggest.

?SM North EDSA is considered the third largest, but it is actually number 2 now because the South China Mall, reputedly the world?s largest, had already closed shop,? explains Hans Sy, Henry?s son and president of SM Prime, the company?s flagship company. While the old man continues to relish memories of his past and achievements, his children continue to nurture his vision to provide employment for Filipinos and offer affordable products and services to their customers.

Despite his age and a debilitating muscle condition in his lower limbs that has confined him to a wheelchair, the senior Sy still manages daily mall visits and attends weekly board meetings. ?His presence during board meetings is particularly crucial when the directors cannot decide unanimously on a certain issue,? says daughter Teresita Sy-Coson, currently SM President. ?He is there to share his insights and break the impasse.?

While it is now the next generation that actively manages the SM conglomerate, it is still Tatang who scans the future for new possibilities, including the company?s ventures into tourism projects. ?He continues to weave new projects and demands that we implement them,? shares Sy-Coson, who also chairs SM-owned Banco de Oro. ?But that?s how he raised us?we are continuously bombarded by challenges and we have to rise to the occasion each time.?

The country?s richest tycoon is not known to require elaborate feasibility studies to back a new project. Early in his career, Tatang was famous for starting projects, using a mere table napkin for financial calculations. ?Until now, he still demands brevity and requires that business proposals be summarized into one or two pages.?

However, Tatang is not one to demand something that he himself is not capable of or inclined to do, his children add.

At the age of 12, the young Sy traveled from Fujian province in China to help out his father, who owned a small store in Manila then. ?Life was hard in China and I imagined that life in the Philippines was better because my father was able to steadily send us money,? he recalls. ?I was surprised to find that my father was operating just a small sari-sari store along Carriedo, and I helped him out as best as I could.? In China, he explains, children are encouraged to strike out on their own at the age of 12, so it was not difficult for him to get his Filipino mother?s permission to join his father in Manila.

His father?s frugality, hard work, and devotion to family inspired the young migrant to do the same, as he studied and worked at the same time. Sy completed his secondary education in a school that has since closed down, ?perhaps what is now known as Chiang Kai Shek College,? Sy-Coson surmises. After high school, he took up a business course at the Far Eastern University, but later gave up formal schooling to start a family and set up his own business.

?After the war, business opportunities were limited because of the devastation, with goods in great shortage,? Sy recalls. ?Our family lost almost everything, with one of our sari-sari stores burned down and another looted. Everyone was into buy and sell, so I decided to do the same by putting up a shoe business because I thought everyone would need a pair of shoes.?

He opened three shoe stores, which he named Plaza (1946), Paris (1947), and Park Avenue (1948), all of them in Carriedo, which was then known for its heavy pedestrian traffic. In 1958, he established Shoemart for easier recall. ?I did not want to have to think of a new name each time I would open a new store,? he muses. ?I thought it would be better to just call it Shoemart Cubao if I open a store in Cubao, or Shoemart Makati if I open one in Makati.?

As he was building up his business, Tatang continued to follow the frugal lifestyle of his father, spending only the salary his gave himself and plowing back into the business whatever profits it earned. ?It was like that before and it is like that until now, although we are presently drawing a higher salary and have more perks,? Sy-Coson adds, smiling.

Before SM became a publicly listed corporation in 1995, Tatang made it a policy to avoid borrowing his equity. ?Our capital is internally generated and this helps ease the pressure in the worst of times,? he says, his old voice quivering and occasionally fading into a whisper, although remaining firm and strong from a seat fitted with a cushion to support his lower back.

Sy-Coson says her 83-year-old father has a muscle problem in his lower limbs and needs help moving around the house and going to the malls he visits everyday.

His limbs may be weak, but Sy says he continues to find strength in his dreams. ?I dream a lot and like to make things happen,? he says, eyes shining.

When Tatang opened the first Shoemart store in 1958, he thought that if he could sell a pair of shoes to every Filipino, he would be a successful man. Today, he sells not just shoes, but an entirely new lifestyle anchored on four core businesses - retailing, banking, real estate, and tourism development. ?We try to respond to the ever changing needs of our customers,? he says. ?Our company has grown with our customers, and many of our customers and their families have grown with us.?

Asked how he has managed to survive the Philippines? notorious boom-bust economic cycle, Sy replies: ?In good times, I continue to work; in bad, I work harder. It is important to be optimistic. Many of our milestones occurred during difficult times. During martial law in 1972, at the height of heavy capital flight, I decided to build my first department store in Quiapo. After the Aquino assassination in 1983, I started SM City North EDSA. During the coup attempts from 1987 to 1989, I started to build SM Megamall. Then, in the midst of the Asian crisis in 1997, I embarked on the greatest project of my life?the SM Mall of Asia. There are always opportunities in crisis situations.?

Henry believes in the opposite of Newton?s Law of Gravity?what comes down, must go up. When the economy is down, he says, one should learn to coast along, but never stop whatever it is one is doing. ?We have to plan, be focused, and have passion in what we do. It is also important to have integrity.?

While he and his family take pleasure in his being named the richest man in the country, nothing pleases Sy more than watching from afar the happy faces of Filipino families enjoying shopping, or even just walking, in his malls.

?Filipinos are very family-oriented. They work and buy for their families. They spend much time shopping, dining out, watching movies, and having fun with them.?

More than the wealth he has accumulated and the accolade he has amassed from over 50 years of building his business empire, Sy says he enjoys most the company of his family and the sight of his productive employees at work. He readily gives in to requests for souvenir shots whenever an employee requests for one.

On one of his regular mall visits, Sy chanced upon a number of students who are all scholars of SM Foundation, the socio-civic arm of the SM Group of Companies. The SM scholars quickly gathered around their benefactor and gleefully hoisted him on their shoulders, like a hero and champion. Touched by the gesture, Henry, a devout Catholic, keeps a framed copy of the photograph in his living room like a prized trophy.

?He teaches by example,? reveals Sy-Coson. ?He always reminds us that real wealth is not measured by the money one can amass, but the number of lives one touches and helps to improve.?



Copyright 2014 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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