Lifestyle Business

Washington SyCip on success and excellence

BULL MARKET, BULL SHEET - Wilson Lee Flores -
Who are the most respected icons in Philippine business today? Of all the international and local business leaders who have joined the monthly private dinners with the young Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs of the Anvil Business Club in recent months, among the most remarkable include John Gokongwei, Jr., Lucio Tan and SGV Group founder, Dr. Washington SyCip.

SyCip is also Asian Institute of Management (AIM) chairman, International Federation of Accountants past president, Columbia University Board of Overseers member, and adviser of multinational giants like AT&T, Chemical Bank and taipans. In a special feature called "Meet 25 People You Ought to Know," Fortune magazine in June 1989 described SyCip as "the leading legitimate fixer in the Pacific Rim."

Due to his legendary reputation for excellence and his upholding meritocracy, SyCip built SGV Group to become the biggest accounting firm in Asia, which services the majority of the country’s top 1,000 corporations. Former SGV executives have gone on to serve all the Philippine Presidents, from Prime Minister Cesar Virata, Trade Minister Roberto Ongpin, Secretary Rizalino Navarro, Secretary Gloria Tan Climaco, incumbent Bangko Sentral Governor Armando Tetangco, Jr., and Senator Manny Villar to President Gloria M. Arroyo’s former Finance Secretary and "Hyatt 10" stalwart Cesar Purisima. SyCip’s critics even described him as "the godfather of the SGV mafia," but he explains that former associates who have joined government have to totally sever ties with the SGV Group and it is not a conspiracy that the SGV Group has been a trainer of high-level executives for years.

On February 27, arriving at midnight from New York City after attending the 50th anniversary of the Asia Foundation and after conferring with the 90-year-old David Rockefeller, the 85-year-old Wash SyCip delivered a well-applauded discourse and later exchanged ideas with the Council of Regents, officers and members of the Anvil Business Club at Manila Golf & Country Club in Forbes Park, Makati City, for three hours.
Make Family Firms Last Over 150 Years
As president of Anvil, I invited Wash SyCip to join our monthly "Anvil Exchange Forum" when I had the good fortune last year to chance upon him dining privately with shipping magnate Endika Aboitiz in the latter’s kitchen. SyCip agreed and said he wanted to challenge the country’s top young Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs to build world-class family enterprises that can last over 150 years, similar to those of the Hispanic clans the Zobel-Ayalas and the Aboitizes, for the sake of Philippine economic progress and global competitiveness.

Like Gokongwei, SyCip asked the Anvil entrepreneurs why ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs are great as empire-builders and in starting businesses even from scratch, but have often failed to preserve their cultural values and business success beyond three or more generations. Gokongwei’s great-grandfather Pedro Lee Gotiaoco was Cebu’s wealthy taipan, but the fortune was wiped out in three generations. SyCip said his wife’s family was the leading Yutivo hardware clan of the pre-war era and his father-in-law, Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry founding president Yu Khe Thai, was the taipan of the post-World War II Northern Motors and Southern Motors, which are all now gone.

SyCip added that his late father, pre-war Chinese Chamber of Commerce president Dr. Albino SyCip, was chairman of the prestigious China Bank, which for decades used to be among the top three banks, once controlled by two branches of the pre-war Dee clan which had been in the lumber trade since the Spanish colonial era. He advised meritocracy in family firms and that family members who are not competent or qualified should not be allowed to work in family corporations.

The Anvil dinner was a rare standing-room-only crowd of 158 people, and young entrepreneurs took photos and asked for his autograph like he was a movie star. Earlier in the day, the indefatigable SyCip told us that he had just attended four board meetings, including one with taipan Lucio Tan of Philipine Airlines and his son, Anvil regent Michael G. Tan. SyCip said, "I retired from SGV 10 years ago but not from work and socio-civic commitments."

Educated with the highest honors at the University of Santo Tomas, Columbia University, an accounting board topnotcher and fluent in his father’s Hokkien dialect, his mother’s Shanghainese dialect, Mandarin, English and Filipino, Wash SyCip is idolized by Anvil entrepreneurs as an ideal role model for integrity and excellence in business – an ethnic Chinese who cherishes his cultural heritage and has also contributed much to Philippine socio-economic progress.

After the unforgettable dinner, the organization presented SyCip with its "Anvil Leadership Award," which it had previously given only to two other achievers in its 15-year history: John Gokongwei, Jr., for his pioneering leadership in Philippine industrialization, and Philippine STAR publisher Max Soliven for his fearless leadership in mass media.
Unimpeachable Integrity, Fearless Views, Social Justice
At the rare Anvil dinner, SyCip discussed diverse topics and raised a lot of controversial questions on good governance, social justice, politics and free-enterprise economics which he hoped the country’s future business leaders would address head-on and with moral courage. SyCip called for unimpeachable integrity in both the government and public sectors, advising President Gloria M. Arroyo to appoint honest officials to lessen corruption and suggesting that the Philippines study the Singapore system of raising the salaries of top government leaders to cut down on widespread graft.

SyCip lamented the perilous decline in the standards of Philippine public schools, the lack of world-class infrastructure to support investments, the need to alleviate the widening rich-poor gap through aggressive family planning and other progressive policies. He said he recently asked Cebu Cardinal Vidal and the Pope’s new Papal Nuncio from Rome to consider allowing the poor masses access to the modern family-planning methods that are being practiced by the rich and the elite. SyCip said that social justice is essential for the long-term future of Philippine society.

SyCip asked how come Asian-style authoritarian governance, as currently practiced in Singapore and now being emulated by China, has been so successful in economically modernizing and liberating much of Asia from mass poverty? He pointed out that Taiwan under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and his incorruptible son President Chiang Ching-Kuo, South Korea under General Park Chung-Hee, Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia under Prime Minister Mahathir and China under Deng Xiaoping and his successors seemed to have validated his belief in enlightened authoritarian governments that allow economic freedoms. He hastened to add that Hong Kong, as a British colony, was also never a democracy when it developed as a free and dynamic capitalist economy.

SyCip said that he sincerely believes developing nations, without reaching the US’s $3,000 per capita income, should not adopt American-style one-man/one-vote democracy. He even shared what former US President Jimmy Carter recently told him – that the latter had once advised China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping not to adopt American-style democracy on a national scale, because it would just be money-driven politics. Instead, Carter advised Deng to push village-level democratic elections in China because the people knew each other well in the village levels so there was no need for large-scale money politics.

Wash SyCip refused to accept the criticism that the Philippines is hopeless, but holds out hope that someday the country will produce a wise, gutsy and selfless leader like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew or China’s Zhu Rongji. SyCip said that a man who could have been a great Philippine President was the the late Rafael Salas, former Executive Secretary of President Ferdinand Marcos. Salas later became a critic of martial law in exile and a top United Nations official promoting family planning worldwide.

When asked by a young entrepreneur how he assessed the unending travails confronting President GMA, the "Hello, Garci" controversy, Cory Aquino’s resign call and the non-stop coup rumors, the wise owl of Asian business replied with a smile, "The power center of the nation is like the flame of a candle. Like a moth, I do not wish to be too far from it in order to be able to give good advice to my clients, but I believe I should also never get too close so that I won’t get burned." Then he laughed.
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Thanks for all your messages. Comments, suggestions, jokes and criticisms are heartily welcome at wilson_lee_flores@yahoo.com or wilson_lee_flores@hotmail.com.
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