Fondly called “Tatang” or father, the 94-year-old Henry Sy Sr., from the Chinese city of Xiamen, made his fortune with a Philippine shopping center conglomerate that has put up some of the largest malls in the world.
From 10 centavos to multibillion-dollar empire: The legacy of Henry Sy Sr.
( - January 19, 2019 - 4:15pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine business community on Saturday mourned the death of Henry Sy Sr., who rose from being a penniless Chinese immigrant to becoming the richest man in the Philippines for eleven years in a row. He was 94 years old.

Fondly called “Tatang” or father, Sy, from the Chinese city of Xiamen, 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.

He had a net worth of $19 billion as of Saturday, according to

"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.

'We just slept on the counter'

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.

Sy put up his first shoe store in downtown Manila in 1956, a business which later grew into a diversified empire that had weathered headwinds like political instability in the Philippines and the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

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.

Ten centavos

Twelve-year-old Sy only had 10 centavos when he traveled from China to Manila.

He finished grade school in five years instead of six.

“I came to the Philippines to follow my father who came here earlier, looking for a better life. I helped my father in our sari-sari store. I also asked him if I could go back to school so I could learn English and improve myself,” said Sy in a speech.

“I went to Quiapo Anglo School and started in Grade One again. In Grade Four, I asked my teacher if I got high grades, could she give me a promotion. She smiled and said, ‘Only if you get a grade of over 90 percent.’ I studied hard. In one year and one summer, I finished Grades Four and Five. The following year, I went to Grade Six. In five years, I completed grade school,” he added.

“Even when I was a young boy, I had a plan for my life.”

Birth of 'ShoeMart'

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

After their shop was destroyed during World War II, Sy's father returned to China but Henry chose to stay in the Philippines. He got a commerce degree from Far Eastern University in Manila and started selling shoes in a shop which would later grow into a chain named "ShoeMart."

By 1972, his shops had branched out into selling all manner of goods, prompting the name to be changed to SM Department Store. But it was in 1985 that Sy made history when he opened his first "Supermall" in Manila. 

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 country.

Branching out

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

SM Investments has interests in retail (The SM Store, SM Supermarket, SM Hypermarket, SaveMore, Walter Mart Supermarket, Inc., and Alfamart); property (SM Prime Holdings, Inc. and SM Development Corporation); and financial services (BDO Unibank, Inc. and China Banking Corporation). 

The company also has equity investments in other sectors such as premium commercial buildings (BGC Commercial Properties, Philippine Urban Living Solutions and CityMall Commercial Centers Inc.); leisure (Belle Corporation), logistics (2Go Group, Inc.) and mining (Atlas Consolidated Mining & Development Corporation).

In 2017, Sy stepped down as chairman emeritus of his holding firm and left trusted allies as well as his children in charge of his empire.

“We are truly grateful for the outpouring of sympathy on the passing of our father, Henry Sy, Sr. May we respectfully ask for privacy today to give the family time to reflect and to finalize arrangements,” the Sy family said in a statement. — Ian Nicolas Cigaral with AFP

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