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With Due Respect

Henry Sy Sr.: Vision and passion

I first met Henry Sy Sr. (fondly called “Tatang”) in the late 1940s after World War II. At that time, he owned the Park Avenue Shoe Store in Carriedo, the busiest shopping street in downtown Manila, while I was an impoverished grade-school boy hawking newspapers and shining shoes also in Manila.

His shop was known for selling the cheapest high-quality shoes at about P10 a pair. Nonetheless, I still haggled a few centavos less from his “last price” of P9.70. As a poor newsboy, I valued each precious centavo, as I earned only 2 centavos per newspaper I sold. (Broadsheets and bottled Coke during those bygone days sold for only 10 centavos each. One US dollar exchanged for two pesos.)

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Perhaps amused at my untiring haggling, he offered me a grand deal: If I could bring 30 of my schoolmates to his store, he would give my chosen pair for free. Of course, I accepted the dare and brought more than 30. And he happily gave me my favorite pair, even if some of my chums didn’t buy anything.

Fast forward 30 years later, he massively propelled his store, renamed it Shoemart (and later, simply SM) and set up a branch at the Makati Commercial Center. He also put up SM ACA (Appliances and Car Accessories) at the Makati Arcade near the old Rizal Theater, where the Makati Shangri-la Hotel now stands.

Baron Travel Corp., which my family owned, had a branch in that arcade. Our company brought in tourists from Hong Kong (from among other places) on back-to-back Air Manila (now defunct) charters, and they were bussed to Shoemart to shop for Philippine products. We renewed our friendship, jocosely reminiscing our shoe deal 30 years before.

Over sips of tea, he told me that Edsa, which at that time was just a four-lane road unpaved in many parts, was destined to be the artery of progress in our expanding metropolis. Along its stretch, he envisioned huge air-conditioned shopping malls. He pursued his vision with singular passion, hard work and grit, setting up, even during bad times, supermalls like SM City North Edsa, SM Megamall and SM Mall of Asia (all are counted among the world’s largest malls), and eventually malls all over the country.

Fast forward another 30 years, my wife and I joined a tour of Xiamen, China. The ladies asked the guide to assist them in shopping. And voila, they were brought to the SM Department Store, the largest in that Chinese city.

In fact, currently, SM Prime (which holds Tatang’s real estate businesses, including the SM malls) owns, here and abroad, a gross floor area of 9.3 million square meters (930 hectares), of which 5.6 million square meters (560 hectares) are leasable. That concreted leasable area, complete with polished flooring, sidings, ceilings and air-conditioning, is larger than the six posh Makati villages (Forbes Park, Dasmariñas, Urdaneta, San Lorenzo, Bel-Air and Magallanes) combined. That’s twice the area and market capitalization of its next competitor.

Though successful in his ventures, including BDO, the largest Philippine bank, he remained humble, self-effacing and family-centered. He treasured, if I may quote him, “my six children who are my teammates and friends in the office and at home, and especially my wife, Molly, who is my lifetime companion, treasurer, adviser and best friend.”

And though we have been longtime friends, he respected my independence as a jurist. He never spoke with me or intervened in any manner during my more than 11 years in the Supreme Court. However, during my retirement reception, he showed up, quietly greeted me and left as unobtrusively as when he came in.

Acclaimed the wealthiest in our country, he never forgot his roots — that he was once poor, simple, hardworking and ordinary. He tended the SM Foundation, which he described as the “heart and soul of SM,” as passionately as he did his gigantic businesses.

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Before he died, he directed his son Hans to expand the Sy-owned National University into 20 campuses with 100,000 scholars. At his wake, Hans privately rued to me that, unfortunately, he had not reached that goal, but that he would in a few years.

May Tatang’s soul rest in peace, and may his legacy of vision and passion be replicated by his admirers, scholars and wards.

Comments to [email protected]

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