Lifestyle Business

Henry Sy: ‘No such thing as overnight success or easy money’

- Wilson Lee Flores -
"I am grateful for all my problems. I became stronger and more able to meet those that were still to come. US retail pioneer J. C. Penney

Some regard private enterprise as if it were a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look upon it as a cow that they can milk. Only a handful see it for what it really is – the strong horse that pulls the whole cart. – Prime Minister Winston Churchill

How does one of Asia’s wealthiest billionaires assess the long-range future of the Philippines? How did a poor immigrant boy named Henry Sy (who once cried at seeing his father’s excruciating hardships as a sari-sari store owner in Echague Street in Quiapo) overcome childhood poverty and crises to reach the zenith of world-acclaimed success?

Despite the country’s murky brand of politics, our foreign debt of P4 trillion pesos, the government budget deficit and unemployment rates at record highs, and the value of our peso at a historic low, the country’s real heroes are the millions of overseas Filipino workers who pump foreign exchange into our economy, as well as the numerous small, medium and big-scale entrepreneurs who continue to persevere, have faith in, and work hard for a better Philippine economic future. The resilient private sector – despite endless harassments by bureaucrats or politicians and innumerable woes – continues to be the catalyst of Philippine economic and social development.

Rags-to-riches SM Group and Banco de Oro Universal Bank founder Henry Sy survived the loss of his father’s two sari-sari stores in downtown Manila at the close of the Japanese military occupation, struggling through decades to make himself ASEAN’s shopping mall king.

"I don’t give up easily," Sy said. "I look for solutions to problems. I want to make things happen."
Faith & Long-Term Vision – The Higher Ground
Henry Sy recently expressed strong faith in the long-term economic future of the Philippines, as he showed this writer his new bungalow residence in North Forbes Park, Makati – an elegant but very modest and humble home by the standards of the luxurious grand mansions of his neighbors such as top politicians, traditional landlord families, foreign diplomats and business moguls.

His home may not be the biggest or the most extravagant – reflecting his innate simplicity – but it stands on higher ground than the rest, because his feng shui expert friend advised him to make sure that his home has a higher and commanding elevation than the neighborhood for auspicious fortune.

On his round dining table were photo albums of his close-knit family and his new investment projects. Sy maintains a clean and orderly household. There was absolutely no clutter anywhere, as we toured his walk-in closet, the bedroom and his study. Even his dozen pairs of shoes were immaculately polished and lined neatly.

Sy smiled as he recounted that his daughter Tessie and his sons had used his personal check to buy a vacant lot, and they built him this new home so that he and his wife could lead more comfortable lives. They used to live in an old condominium. But instead of talking about his modest yet elegant new home, which he had just moved in two weeks earlier, he was evidently more excited about his investments to promote Philippine tourism like the new Taal Vista Hotel in Tagaytay which his youngest son Harley mentioned is being managed by Spain’s Barcelo Group.

When asked about his comments on the claim of cynics and pessimists that the Philippines is hopeless, Henry Sy said: "There are many reasons why the Philippines can have a great future. For example, in use of the English language, the Philippines is already much ahead of our neighbor Thailand. Throughout the year, we can plant a lot in the Philippines, so there should be no reason for mass poverty here if we have better and more productive agriculture nationwide."

The taipan added, "In tourism alone, the Philippines has much better growth potentials than Thailand. We have great natural beauty in our islands and beaches. Even the climate is better. Do you know that I can’t stand the heat in Thailand in the months of August and September? The people here in the Philippines have Asia’s best smiles, hospitality, as well as the best entertainment. We can be world leaders in services. With tourism alone, there should already be no reason for people to starve or be poor in the Philippines."

Sy refused to comment on politics or the May 10 elections, but he recommended, "The Philippines can progress fast, if we build better infrastructures, improve the peace and order situation, and reform our kind of politics. Nations cannot be absolutely free from politics, but there must be real reforms in our Philippine style of politics. Never lose hope. They say the Philippines is often seemingly chaotic and too problematic, but do not forget that even China went through the worst periods of chaos only in the recent past… Look at their amazing economic miracle now. That is because they never lost faith in their great future. The many positive advantages of the Philippines are very obvious. Do not be blinded by cynicism, look at the positive things and invest in the Philippines."
‘Time’ & ‘Forbes’ Cite Henry Sy As One Of The World’s Top Business Leaders
America’s Forbes and Time magazines had recently cited Henry Sy as one of the world’s most successful business leaders. A photo of his family was even used for the cover for the February 27 issue of Time. Tycoon Enrique Cheng of Makati’s Landmark Department Store said, "This is a great honor to be on the cover of Time magazine, Henry Sy has joined the illustrious company of Asian headline-makers as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Lee Kuan Yew and others who had graced this magazine’s cover. This is good news for a change about the Philippines."

Sy’s hardworking, frugal and disciplined family has been compared to America’s fabled Sam Walton family, which is behind retail giant Wal-Mart. The SM Group employs 38,600 people and generates US$1.7 billion in annual revenues. Sy and his family, through the SM Foundation, give scholarship grants to poor students. Sy’s Asia Pacific College has also supported many socio-civic causes.

With regard to being featured by Time, Sy said, "Maybe they saw how confident I am about the long-term future of the Philippines, that I am investing in a bank, that I had invested in San Miguel Corp., planning new malls and tourism projects. Maybe they saw my new investments and wanted to know how deep is the ocean."

reports, "Complexities have multiplied since 1936, the year Sy left Jinjiang, a town near Xiamen in China, for the Philippines to join his father, the proprietor of a tiny grocery store in Manila. Dad was dirt-poor. ‘I cried when I first saw him,’ Sy recalls. Each night, the 12-year-old boy would clear the counter so that he would have a place to sleep. In the 1950s, Sy peddled cheap American shoes in his own Manila store, whose brass cash register today sits in a corner of his office as a reminder of his earlier struggles..."

The magazine told the rest of the world Sy’s faith in the future of the country and of Asia: "Today, the empire continues to grow in size and sophistication. SM operates 17 malls in the country and expects to open two or three more each year through 2008. The company has also entered the booming China market with a mall in Xiamen, and it’s opening two more malls in the mainland over the next two years. Down the road, the Sys also want to diversify into commercial real estate and tourist resorts."

The inspiring life story of Henry Sy (whose Chinese name "Sy Chi Sieng" means "to reach for ultimate success") exemplifies the importance of old-fashioned hard work, tenacity, frugality, self-discipline, Confucian values and an undying thirst for learning.

"There is no such thing as overnight success or easy money," Henry Sy said. "If you fail, do not be discouraged; try again. When you do well, do not change your ways. Success is not just good luck: It is a combination of hard work, good credit standing, opportunity, readiness and timing. Success will not last if you do not take care of it."
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