The Philippines’ richest man – Henry Sy Sr. – is rarely seen these days.
Turning 94 in late October, he certainly deserves some well-earned rest after decades of building a conglomerate that has made him Forbes’ richest Filipino for 10 years in a row. This year, he clocked in with US$19.2 billion, bagging the 52nd wealthiest mogul-on-earth slot. (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in top position is just 51 paces away.)
But BoardRoom Watch is sure that if we were to have lunch with him at either of his known favorite restaurants, Banana Leaf at The Podium or Summer Palace of EDSA Shangri-La, Sy would vehemently oppose any talk of retirement. This soft-spoken billionaire has never stopped working…has never considered failure…has never not thought of being number one…has never stopped dreaming.
Being the commercial titan that he is – his shopping malls, tower blocks, hotels and resorts as well as banking facilities inform our conscious hours – Sy has always steadfastly maintained links to his modest business roots. From sari-sari store all-around dogsbody to an immigrant father to canny entrepreneur, who spotted a rich opportunity after the devastation of war when people needed basic necessities, including shoes, Sy stepped onto the platform that launched his journey to legend.
Foot in the door
But of all the vaulting ambitions he has made reality, the one closest to his heart, we dare say, would be his success at “selling shoes to every Filipino.” He remains that quintessential shoe salesman, friends and colleagues unanimously agree.
Veteran journalist Wilson Lee Flores, who boasts of unprecedented access to a number of taipans, recalls a first meeting with Sy at his Makati Stock Exchange office. “He kept staring at my feet.” Then, a student contributor to The Manila Chronicle’s business section, Lee Flores was dressed casually in the standard T-shirt, maong (blue jeans) and rubber shoes. “My lesson from that morning: Wear good shoes when you are interviewing a shoe person, which Henry Sy is.”
Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox, Jr., who has worked on some 16 projects for Sy and morphed into a travel and dining buddy, adds: “He would always look down at the ladies’ feet. He wasn’t being bastos [rude]– he just wanted to check the shoes they were wearing.
“He could be a witty judge of taste, saying: ‘The first time (for someone to choose the wrong pair of shoes) is understandable; the second time is hard to understand; and the third time is stupid!” Here, Palafox breaks into a guffaw at that remembered moment.
Popular couturier Cesar Gaupo, whom Sy’s daughter Tessie Sy-Coson inveigled into helping popularize ready-to-wear (RTW) dressing, attests to Sy’s comprehensive knowledge about his best-selling product. “Besides designing for their RTW line, I was asked to put in two days a week in the old SM Echague [now Carlos Palanca Street]office to choose merchandise for the shoe department. It was Mr. Sy, Tessie and I, who looked at what the suppliers brought in and decided if these would sell.”
Gaupo, who later worked for Hong Kong’s renowned Shanghai Tang brand, observed his boss’ attention to detail. “He knew what materials and shoe structure worked or didn’t work. He knew what customers would like or wouldn’t like.
“He learned all this from his long experience in selling shoes. He was a master at merchandizing. He pioneered this, remember?”
Interviewed for the 50th Anniversary issue of Investor, meant for SM stockholders, Sy confirmed his intimate understanding of our foot’s best friend. He told the editorial team: “I acquired a deep knowledge of shoes. Show me a pair of shoes and I can tell right away what’s wrong with it.
“I had to know very well the shoes I was selling because fashion changes very fast. I had to master the different designs, colors and styles. I researched on shoes. I read advertisements and articles in newspapers and magazines and looked at what kinds of shoes people were wearing.”
Along the way, Sy discerned that footwear provided a window into the soul of the user. “Shoes could change someone’s personality. Make someone wear casual shoes and somehow, she will act in a casual manner. But let a man wear formal dress shoes or a woman put on heels, there would be a change in their gait. They will surely walk with more bearing.
“I love shoes. That’s why I got into the shoe business.”
Focusing on Sy
By now, Sy and his hardscrabble generation of entrepreneurs – John Gokongwei and Lucio Tan included – have been the subject of numerous academic papers and case studies, including the doctoral dissertation on Sy written in 1992 by Dr. Lydia B. Echauz, former president and chief operating officer of Far Eastern University (FEU).
She explains: “I had just been appointed to run the De La Salle University Graduate School of Business then, and I felt I had to have the expected academic degree.” Originally, she planned to write about six Filipino taipans, but was convinced by her British advisers to focus on just one.
Echauz chose that fascinating topic because “the taipans were the business leaders who gave the country hope in the face of destabilization efforts, followed by the problematic power supply in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”
Through Dr. Paulino Tan, younger brother of Sy’s wife Felicidad and a university colleague, Echauz was introduced to Tessie Sy-Coson, who helped secure her father’s approval for the project. On their first meeting, the educator says, laughing: “I told him that I had chosen my subject with great care. To which he said that he too had carefully chosen his writer – he got me there!”
Matters moved swiftly after rapport between the subject and interviewer was established. “Tessie authorized the dissemination and collection of the survey questionnaire for all executives. Things went fast and efficiently, SM-style.”
The paper remains one of the most intimate and comprehensive studies on the mind, character and work ethos of Henry Sy. Echauz eventually gifted the family with her work. “After all, it was about their Dad’s life.”
Much of the material formed the basis of the handsome coffee table book, I Dream, prepared by Sy’s second daughter Elizabeth and her team on SM’s 50th Anniversary. The brown colored tome, filled with evocative photographs of a younger and debonaire Sy, sporting a very obvious widow’s peak, his bedimpled bride Felicidad, nicknamed “Molly,” and their winsome brood was distributed to a select audience of family members and close associates. A copy is on view at the Henry Sy Foundation archives, cozily housed in a Makati office building.
Perhaps, Sy’s well-known passion for attaining the ultimate in all his aspirations could very well be traced to his Chinese name, Shì Zhìchéng, also Si Chì-sêng, meaning “to attain ultimate success.” And it has never been a secret that despite a mild-mannered mien, he possesses a ferocious will to reach any summit first, land the biggest deal, secure the best bargain and, of course, make the most bucks.
Says columnist Wilson Lee Flores: “He told me: ‘I always want to be number one in anything I do.” The two would converse for hours in Hokkien – the prevailing dialect of southern China where both hailed from – which explains their camaraderie, transferring from one dining outlet to another in his malls to continue the conversation.
One of the few phrases in English, Lee Flores recalls Sy using, was: “I am no pushover,” referring to some tactic that a rival had reportedly employed in order to outsmart him. “That stuck in my mind as it showed his determination to win in the end.
“He may not have graduated with a college degree, but what makes him really smart for me,” Lee Flores continues, “is that he is not insecure and is willing to hire people, who are smarter than he is, or have more learning to run the business.”
Learning to mentoring
What Sy has, by way of formal education, is a certificate to show for the two years he spent at FEU, enrolled in the Commercial Science Program. He eventually had to drop out due to his flourishing business. To make sure Filipinos could avail of opportunities he missed, SM has invested in a number of schools, among them National University, Sy’s “alma mater” FEU and the Asia-Pacific College. It has also endowed several schools and universities.
Receiving in 1999 an honorary degree from De La Salle University, where he sent his sons, Sy told the graduating students that they were fortunate to have so much at the start of their career, “much more than I ever had.”
One correspondent, who wrote for a respected regional business journal (now defunct) and spoke to Sy in the 1980s, describes him as “focused and straightforward.” He adds: “I’ll never forget when he said: ‘I’m going to ring Manila with shopping malls. Then, there was no SM City North Edsa or SM Mall of Asia. And he only talked about Manila, not about expanding to the provinces.”
It’s Sy’s grit and gumption to dream large that has inspired generations of entrepreneurs. Among them Johnlu Koa, founder and CEO of the popular The French Baker chain, operating in all SM Malls. Says Koa: “Henry Sy, Sr. is ‘Tatang’ to me. He is the one, who can make things happen in SM.
“He is the person of last resort when we needed to do things differently. Being my mentor, I look up to him like a father because of his wisdom and long years of retail experience.
“He would personally come around my store to give comments and suggestions every so often, which I appreciated very much. Also, he’s just a year older than my own late father. They knew each other quite well.”
Such concern and generosity has also been well remembered by another promising professional. On a visit to Dubai in 1977, Sy heard from expats at the Hotel InterContinental where he was billeted, about a young architect, recruited by the Municipality and Emirate of Dubai as a senior urban planner.
Says Palafox: “I was only 27 then, and he sought me out. He came to my home and after we talked, he told me there was a job waiting for me in the Philippines if I wanted one.
“When I joined him, he made every effort to match, if not improve on the salary I was making in Dubai. I remember his daughter Tessie teasing me about SM never having paid someone that amount till I came along,” he chuckles. “I called him ‘Henry’ in Dubai, but when he became my boss, I called him ‘Mr. Sy.’” But the two kept up the closeness with scores of discussion and debates on the image of the new-generation SM Malls during midnight meetings and over congee dinners. “When he was congratulated during the opening of SM Southmall and the new look, he said: ‘Of course, I had to do it. I am an innovator.’” Obviously, Sy also picked up a thing or two from his protégé.
Palafox considers his former boss nothing short of being “a genius.”
He says: “He knew exactly how he wanted his malls to look like…even the distance between some facilities, he had it figured out. He combined aesthetics with good business sense like locating the toilets far from the retail area which would encourage patrons to window shop to and from the facilities. Or putting the more expensive details like nice tiles in the more customer frequented areas than in less frequented ones.
“Now how can you argue with his kind of success?”
Edgar “Injap” Sia 2nd, often touted as a “a junior Henry Sy” because of his astute business sense and industry admits that he finally met his “idol” when Sy had stepped back a bit running SM. “I came up close to Mr. Henry Sy, Sr for the first time in 2010 during the inauguration of the 300th Mang Inasal store located inside Mall of Asia. There, I told him that I named my son, John Henry, in honor of him and Mr. John Gokongwei.
“He has inspired me since I was a young boy to dream big and work hard.”
In 2005, when industrialist Joey Concepcion launched Go Negosyo – the seminal initiative to encourage local enterprise – the choice to receive the first Big Brother of Filipino Entrepreneurs Award was none other than Sy.
More on Henry Sy, Sr. by family and friends, and some stories that just won’t go away in next week’s BoardRoom Watch
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The Philippine’s richest tycoon is notoriously a man of few words, but when he does speak, he puts his money where his mouth is. While some of these principles may not ring new or even be original, he kept them in mind to achieve even beyond his expectations.
• In good times, I do my usual work, but in bad times, I work harder.
• I could never make it big by just selling shoes, so I added value to the business by selling clothing and other accessories.
• There are countless ways to make money. Only your willingness to work, your imagination and time can limit the ways.
• I am hands-on and personalized in my management style. I do not do things on impulse.
• Remember the young boy with nothing to his name…If I can do it, you can do it too.
ILLUSTRATION BY RENE M. ELEVERA