In this file photo taken on May 16, 2013, Philippine property tycoon Henry Sy arrives for the opening of one of his shopping malls, the SM Aura, in Manila. The Philippines' wealthiest man Henry Sy, who rose from being a penniless Chinese immigrant to leading a multi-billion dollar business empire, died on January 19, 2019, his conglomerate has announced.
Ted Aljibe/AFP
Philippines' wealthiest man Henry Sy passes away at 94
( - January 19, 2019 - 10:52am

MANILA, Philippines (Update 3 4:58 p.m.) — The Philippines’ richest man Henry Sy Sr. — who rose from being a penniless Chinese immigrant to leading a multi-billion dollar business empire — has died Saturday. He was 94 years old.

“With deep sadness, I would like to inform the group that our beloved Chairman Tatang, Mr. Henry Sy Sr, passed away peacefully in his sleep early Saturday morning,” SM Supermalls Chief Operating Officer Steven Tan said in a statement.

“Please pray for the eternal repose of his soul,” Tan added.

In a separate statement, the SM Group confirmed Sy’s death but said “there are no further details at the moment.”

Shoe store to super malls

Sy was born in Xiamen, China and studied there until he was 12 before moving to the Philippines. He finished grade school in five years instead of six.

According to Forbes, Sy started out by learning the ropes of the retail business alongside his father in the family's convenience store. After their shop was destroyed during World War II, his father returned to China but he chose to stay in the Philippines.

He got a commerce degree from Far Eastern University and started selling shoes in a shop which would later grow into a chain named “ShoeMart.”

Force behind Filipino mall culture

Sy opened the first ShoeMart store in 1958 and transformed it from a shoe store to a department store in the 1970s. 

By 1972, his shops had branched out into selling all manner of goods, prompting the name to be changed to SM Department Store.

In 1985, SM City North EDSA — the first SM supermall with 200 thousand square meters rental area — was built. The mall included dozens of stores, numerous cinemas, restaurants, banks and other attractions that made it a one-stop shop for millions of Filipinos. 

This was just the start, as more of Sy's mammoth malls popped up across the country, some even containing ice skating rinks, a rarity in the tropical Philippines. 

Sy helped create mall culture in the Philippines, where steamy temperatures and the regular threat of torrential downpours can make outdoor shopping uncomfortable.

Beating Soros, Musk on Forbes' richest list

Sy made his fortune with a Philippine shopping center conglomerate that has put up some of the largest malls in the world. However, his holdings also included banks, hotels and real estate in the Philippines, as well as shopping centers in China.

Sy's holding company, SM Investments Corp., opened its first mall in China in 2001 and has been expanding there since. By 2018, SM said it had 70 malls in the Philippines and seven in China as well as six hotels and eight office buildings.

The 94-year-old had a net worth of $19 billion as of Friday, according to Forbes.

Forbes said he was the 52nd richest person in the world last year, beating out bold name tycoons like Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch and George Soros.

It was a long journey for a man who came to the Philippines as a boy to work in his immigrant father's variety store.

"Our store was so small it had no back or second floor, we just slept on the counter late at night after the store was closed," he told The STAR in 2006.

The second generation of the Sy family has taken over the responsibility of developing the family business.

He stepped down as chairman of his holding firm in 2017, assuming the title of "chairman emeritus" and leaving trusted allies as well as his children in charge of his empire.

— Ian Cigaral with reports from AFP, The STAR/Lawrence Agcaoili and Iris Gonzales

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