To Sy is to believe
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE - Rod Nepomuceno () - December 4, 2006 - 12:00am
What’s in a family name? Does one’s family name influence a person’s destiny? A lot of people will say that a person’s family name has no bearing whatsoever on his or her future. I am inclined to believe that. But you know what? It seems to me that there are some family names that seem to attract success more than others.

Take the family name Sy, for example. I don’t know, but it seems like there’s something magical about that family name, especially here in the Philippines. Maybe it’s good feng shui. Or maybe it’s what the name stands for. After all, Sy sounds exactly like the word "see," which means vision. And in Spanish, Sy sounds the word si, which, of course, means yes. And "yes" is a very positive word. People whose family name is Sy seem to be endowed with great vision. They seem to know where they want to go – and they go for it, despite the odds. They seem to have that "yes, I can do it" attitude.

Let’s begin with Henry Sy, the man behind the SM empire. He is arguably the richest man in the country, and one of the richest men in Asia. Then there’s Tyson Sy, a young racecar driver who is winning left and right. On a personal note, my law school classmate, Jaime "Jun" Sy, topped the bar exams a number of years ago. And then, recently, I had a chance to meet (through my fellow STAR columnist Philip Cu-Unjieng) yet another Sy achiever – Dioceldo Sy, chairman and CEO of Ever Bilena Cosmetics, Inc. (EBCI). EBCI, of course, produces the local makeup brand Ever Bilena, which is the No. 1 makeup retail brand in the country. I have always been curious about the whole Ever Bilena brand (admittedly, I am not the market, but I keep on hearing about it and seeing it everywhere). So I decided to talk to him.

At first glance, Dioceldo Sy doesn’t look at all like a man who leads a P300-million cosmetic business (that’s the annual gross sales of Ever Bilena). His everyday garb is very casual – and his gentle and humble demeanor belies the vanity and glamour of the industry that he is in. Of course, on certain occasions, he will dress up (like in his picture here). But overall, the man is really simple. When you talk to him, you can sense an almost childlike zest for life. His eyes still show a lot of excitement. He is not like other successful people who are jaded and not easily pleased. Dioceldo is not a gourmet kind of guy – he’s more of a lechon kawali and adobo dude. This, despite the fact that he is now the boss of 700 employees and an industry leader. Dioceldo Sy’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground – mainly because he knows where he came from.

"It was certainly a hard and difficult climb for me," said Sy. "It wasn’t a case of me inheriting a business or anything like that. I really started with nothing."

Sy, who is not related to Henry Sy, started out as a messenger and clerk for his grandfather’s pomade business (for the young ones out there, pomade is equivalent to today’s hair gel, but with a lot more grease). His grandfather, a Chinese immigrant, started his business before the war. Dioceldo learned a lot about trading and dealing with people from his grandfather.

"I was a working student. I was going to school (UNO High School) but was also getting my education from the school of hard knocks. But it wasn’t like I was forced to work in my grandfather’s business. I really enjoyed it – the whole business of running a business. Soon, I became more interested in business than in school. I wasn’t particularly interested in academics. After a couple of years in college (PSBA), I decided to drop out and work full-time for my grandfather."

The decision to drop out of school soon had major consequences in Dioceldo’s life. In 1980, with the economy failing, the business of Dioceldo’s grandfather went bankrupt. When it closed shop, Dioceldo found himself in the streets – with no job.

"It was a tough time for me," recalled Dioceldo. "I couldn’t get any work because I was a college dropout. I never thought that my grandfather’s business would ever close down. I literally had nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do."

Driven only by the will to survive, Dioceldo became what he calls "a freelance trader. I would buy and sell anything that was out there." From 1980, when his grandfather’s business closed, to 1983 when Ninoy Aquino was shot, he was peddling everything and anything. In his words, "Kung anu-ano ang binebenta ko." And somehow, through sheer will and determination, he managed to survive and save a little bit.

"In 1983, with the little savings I had from my buying and selling, I put up my own little cosmetic company. I started with four people. Back then, cosmetics were luxury items. The dominant brands were the foreign brands. So only the rich ladies got to wear makeup. I said to myself, ‘This is not right. Filipinas need not spend too much in order to look good and confident.’ That was my philosophy then – and it’s still my philosophy now for Ever Bilena," said Dioceldo.

At the time, a lot of people were dissuading him from putting up his own company – and with good reason. With Ninoy’s assassination, the country was in political and economic turmoil. It was absolutely the worst time to set up a business.

"A lot of my peers and colleagues were packing up and flying out of the country," said Dioceldo. "They were losing hope, and in a way, I couldn’t blame them. But me, I always believed in the country. Sure, there is always a lot that we can complain about. But if we only see the bad, nothing’s going to happen. I am ever the optimist when it comes to the country. So I stuck with my plan. And in the end, it worked well for me and my business. Because when the other companies closed or left, there was a vacuum in the cosmetic industry. So in a way, a door was opened for me. It would have been difficult for me to penetrate the market if there were a lot of players. So you can say that I found my opportunities in the midst of an economic crisis."

While Dioceldo credits hard work and perseverance as the main seeds for his success, he also credits a little bit of luck – and good timing. "It was good that I started my business in the ’80s. Back then, the labor force was still filled with skilled and intelligent people. We didn’t have the brain drain we are having now," he said. "So maraming ma-abilidad na tao.

Back then, my sales people were willing to take risks – they would rather take on a low fixed salary for as long as the commission scheme was good. They had confidence in their ability to sell – and they knew they would have the potential to earn more. Medyo gutom sila. But today’s labor force is different. They are a bit segurista. They would rather have a high salary than have a good commission scheme. And when they get what they want, they have a tendency to sit back and relax. Why? Because they can afford to. Kasi hindi gutom, eh. So if I had to set up today, it would have been very difficult."

Dioceldo credits his business philosophy to his mentor – and one of his first buyers – John Gokongwei. "I owe a lot to Mr. John. He was one of the first who believed in me. I was a trader in cosmetics then and I decided to approach him and sell him packaging for his makeup line. When his company ordered, I didn’t have enough cash to pay my supplier. He helped me secure a credit line. And with that credit line, I was able to supply him the makeup packaging he ordered. And that started things for me."

Dioceldo’s business philosophy is hinged on what John Gokonwei told him back then. "Mr. John told me, ‘If you sell to the rich, you will become poor. If you sell to the poor, you can become rich. It is easier to get one peso from a million poor people than to get one million from one rich person. And with that advice, I started Ever Bilena. And now that we’ve come this far, I want to bring the brand abroad. We are already looking at selling Ever Bilena in the Asian market. It’s time we competed abroad. I have the product – and I am confident it can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world."

Dioceldo Sy is truly a man with a vision. But not only does he have a vision. He believes in it. And he was honored for this vision by the alumni association of his high school alma mater, Uno High School, when they recently conferred him "The President’s Choice Award." Truly, in Dioceldo Sy, the phrase "to Sy is to believe" fully comes alive.
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