The wealthiest man in the Philippines, and one of the wealthiest in the world (52nd globally, according to Forbes’ 2018 roster of billionaires), died over the weekend, and with his passing an extraordinary saga of ambition, hard work and achievement now passes into legend.
Still, even when he was alive, Henry Sy Sr. and the $20-billion fortune he had built from scant beginnings already had the aura of the legendary to them, told and retold as the quintessential story of the poor, simple Filipino who propelled himself to unimaginable heights by sheer dint of grit, perseverance, boldness and a keen innovative eye that blazed trails in its endless hunt for opportunities to be both forerunner and front-runner in the country’s evolving economy.
The SM group of companies that Sy founded now dominates property, retail and banking, a preeminent presence that has, along the way, also redefined contemporary Philippine society and culture.
That’s an entire universe away from the man’s beginnings when, at age 12, he migrated from what was once an impoverished little village in Long Hu, Jinjiang, China, to join his father Xiu Shi Sy, who operated a small grocery business in prewar Manila.
When war broke out, the family lost everything, prompting Sy’s father to return to China. Sy decided to stay in the country, initially getting into small-time trading, and eventually opening a small shoe store called Shoemart in Carriedo in 1958.
In the 1970s, he expanded and built department stores that offered more than just shoes, and eventually rebranded his retail chain as “SM” — now a household name.
He opened his first massive one-stop-shop mall SM City North Edsa in November 1985, a few months before the Edsa People Power Revolution, at a time when many businessmen were extremely cautious and saw the undertaking, the biggest of its kind then, as a foolhardy venture.
But Sy’s vision paid off; SM City North Edsa would inaugurate the country’s mall culture and become the prototype for every SM City mall that would eventually rise elsewhere. It remains one of the biggest SM malls in the country and in the world to date, attracting about half a million people on weekends.
In 1994, SM Prime Holdings Inc. was incorporated to become the vehicle for SM’s mall development operations, and went public on the same year.
Banking arm BDO Unibank, once a niche player, also conducted an initial public offering in 2002, followed by the group’s holding firm SM Investments Corp. in 2005.
One can argue that a big part of Sy’s success derived from his decision to list his crown jewels. Going public gave these companies ammunition for expansion whenever needed, and made them align to higher standards of transparency, accountability and governance.
These three SM-led companies — SM Investments, SM Prime and BDO—are now the most valuable in the stock market, respectively valued at P1.15 trillion, P1.1 trillion and P573 billion, or collectively equivalent to roughly 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Overall, the SM group owns over 200 companies in the Philippines, runs 72 local shopping malls plus another seven in mainland China, and operates over 2,200 retail shops including grocery stores.
Something that big is bound to smother space and step on other toes, and Sy’s conglomerate has seen its fair share of criticism — over how it conducts business and treats its employees, for instance, and how its malls have worsened urban congestion and traffic. But there is no question about the group’s significant contribution to local job creation.
A cornerstone of Sy’s success was his decision to put his faith in the Filipino consumer, even during times of economic and political turbulence.
“It is important to be optimistic,” he said. “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.”
And so on — SM City North Edsa after the Aquino assassination in 1983, SM Megamall during the coup years of 1987-1989, SM Mall of Asia following the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
Said Sy: “In good times, I continue to work; in bad, I work harder.”
Simple philosophy, staggering results: today, nothing less than an empire that, quite apart from being a bellwether of the local economy and a burgeoning regional powerhouse, has become an inescapable part of the Filipino way of life.
Henry Sy Sr., Mr. Optimism, bet big on the Filipino consumer; even now, as ordinary Filipinos take a breather in any one of his ubiquitous malls, that faith continues to be rewarded a thousandfold.
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