Washington SyCip: 'My longevity secret? Too much work!'

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre () - December 11, 2011 - 12:00am

Been there, done that. That’s probably the best phrase to describeWashington Z. SyCip, the man whom everyone respects, admires and wishes to emulate. In the 1990s, I interviewed a young businessman who flew planes for a hobby. I asked him who his idol was, and he said “Wash SyCip — for his integrity, vision and, of course, the success that he has made of the most famous professional company in this country, SGV.” It was not the last time I would hear of Wash spoken of with such immeasurable esteem, almost affection. 

Since much has been said of Wash SyCip, he needs no introduction. And yet, if he were to be introduced, it would probably take an hour to enumerate all his accomplishments, including his success at encouraging many international businesses to invest in the Philippines, his involvement in many advocacies including poverty alleviation and education, and the crucial roles he has played in such venerable institutions as the Asian Institute of Management of which he was the first chairman. The man, who can be self-effacing, insists his appointment was a case of handing the job over to someone who happened to be absent when the selection was made. While it is true that he was not there when they chose him, everyone knows Wash is simplifying the whole story. I am, of course, quoting this from Butch Dalisay who wrote Wash: Only a Bookkeeper, which is insightful as well as an easy and pleasant read.      

A life devoted to work, business, family and patriotism: “Even now that I am age 90, I don’t have enough time.”

Recently, Wash (as he is called by everyone dear to him and to whom he is dear) was chosen as one of the Seagull Philippines’ Asian Leaders for Excellence, Best Values and Social Responsibility. He was awarded for his leadership in international financial management and corporate governance. Given for the first time, with the Seagull chairman and publisher Maria Rosa “Bing” Nieva Carrion spearheading the selection process, the biennial Awards also bestowed the same title on such luminaries and do-gooders as Tan Sri KT Lim of Malaysia, the Genting Group founder whose many global leisure and entertainment tourism companies, especially Star Cruises, have employed thousands of industrious, respectful, service-oriented and inherently hospitable Filipinos; Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui, the farseeing founder of the Dusit Thani Hotel Group, known as Thailand’s First Lady of Hospitality; and Rajashree Birla who promotes women’s welfare and rights, education of the youth, and empowerment of families, thus benefitting millions of people in India; and our outstanding local movers and shapers like Cynthia Villar, who was finally awarded in her own country for her social enterprise and urban river clean-up programs that had earlier reaped a harvest of medals and accolades from various parts of the world; Loren Legarda for her legislative efforts that have led to much-needed policies in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation; Butch Campos for his genius and expertise in managing his two giant food companies, Del Monte Pacific and Nutri-Asia which manufactures ketchup, vinegar, lechon sauce and other products that one finds in every Filipino home; Andrew Tan whose many high-rise developments have changed the landscape of urban Philippines, while his integrated tourism developments have given a new definition to leisure and entertainment; Say Tetangco, the world’s Central Bankers’ central banker; and Chief Justice Renato Corona, for judicial excellence and legal scholarship. Posthumous awardees are Senator Ninoy and President Cory Aquino, Asian icons of freedom and democracy.

Visiting Wash in his SGV top floor office, was a visual and chocolate lovers’ delight. Bowls of chocolate were there to tempt everyone.

While many offices are minimalist in design, Wash’s has been decorated along the lines of “he who has ‘em shows ‘em” school. It is the obvious choice since people give him gifts of art and crafts, including owls and tortoises, and the best way for Wash to show his appreciation is to display them. They also serve as conversation pieces, along with well-deserved plaques and trophies, and photos showing him with the likes of David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and assorted prime ministers, presidents, magnates, tycoons and holy men.

PHILIPPINE STAR: What traits or characteristics do you value in a person?

WASHINGTON SYCIP: In the Philippine situation, I admire someone if he has done something to reduce poverty.

When do you say a man is successful?

Depending on his goals. Some people, it’s for money. Others, it’s for accomplishment. It’s also different if one owns or manages a profit organization.

What is your advice to young people who want to succeed?

Know your goals. Some may want to become the best singers or the best movie actors. It really depends on what the objectives of a person are.

What do you look for in a young applicant who wants to work for SGV?

Whether he has the ambition to become the head of the firm. I like those who have the ambition and the drive.

Did it turn out throughout all these years that you were always right about their desire to go up in the hierarchy?

Well, at some point, some may not be willing to undergo the sacrifices needed. One may prefer to be with his wife and his girlfriend. There are different reasons.

So, who got promoted then and who gets promoted now?

We always promote people who have done good for the firm and know the ethics of the firm. They are conscious of social responsibility to the nation.

What is your advice to the younger ones who want to rise in the firm’s hierarchy?

Well, they have to be very informed not only of what is happening in the Philippine setting but in the worldwide setting, how things abroad may affect the business of their clients here. And if possible, they should be sure that the companies they deal with are socially responsible.


Did you ever consider yourself a mentor to the SGV staff and executives?

I don’t think I ever considered myself that. Some of them may consider me as a mentor but to my mind, if they like to see what I am doing, fine, but that’s up to them.

Did you have favorites?

No, once you have favorites, you should not be the head of a firm.

Did you consider anyone your mentor?

No, I guess I knew the values of my father. He was not involved in the firm at all.

Of the SGV people who became officials in the government, who are you proudest of?

Well, if I think of one person, it is Cesar Virata who has maintained his integrity and his devotion to the country for so many years. Even during the Marcos years, no one had a bad word about Cesar Virata.

Is there someone you can mention who brought shame to the firm? Like someone who did not live up to your expectations?

I would not want his name out, but I did, on one occasion, fire one partner. Because he was not keeping his appointments on time and I found out he was seeing a second girlfriend.

Washington with his wife Anna and children George, Vicky and Robert: “My only responsibility is that my children get a good education. From that point on, they are on their own.”

Of those who became government officials, was there someone who disappointed you?

Well, when they join the government, I don’t try to find out what they are doing. But at least, I am not aware of anyone who joined the government who was corrupt or who was involved in any such corruption, so, that part, I am rather happy about.

What advice did you give them before they left SGV to move on to these positions?

I never gave them advice. They know what my values are and they know what their values are.

So, how was your relationship with the likes of Cesar Virata, Bobby Ongpin and others when they were in government and very powerful?

I tried to avoid seeing them because I did not want people to think at that time that I was abusing my friendships with them.


Of the many presidents of the Philippines you worked with or supported by way of the good that you were doing, which one would you consider the best?

In terms of the economic side, I admire the integrity of Cory Aquino.

How would you assess her administration?

She herself said when she came back from the States that her only desire was to get Marcos out. But I think some of the people she chose to work with her in the government, she later had to dismiss. She was not aware of them because of the fact that she had been away for so many years.

How would you have wanted the country run after the EDSA Revolution? Or for the last 25 years?

I have always stated that for an emerging market, a Western type of democracy may not be the best. The key should be how to solve poverty. And to solve poverty, to my mind, the key is education.

Would you suggest a certain level of authoritarianism?

It’s clear that in the Philippine setting, many of the things that need to be done takes too long.

If you were president today, what would you do?

I would see to what extent economic matters could be left more to technocrats rather than politicians. You see the success of many countries where technocrats are involved without political interference, and they have moved ahead of us.


What about Philippine Commerce and Industry? Are we heading in the right direction in terms of investments and vision?

I think we will be able to see much better results in 2012 when many of the projects which need to be carefully planned become realities.

Do you have any project in mind? 

I think one is the transport system. The transport situation needs to be improved. Many of these projects on the transport system should not only be in the urban areas. Movement from one province to another should also be addressed.

When do you think these concerns will be addressed?

When they start announcing all these public private partnership projects, more will be involved in more efficient transport.

To what extent should the private sector depend on the government?

I don’t think they should depend on the government. I think the government should delegate to the private sector to carry out many of these projects.

Do we have sufficient incentives from the government right now?

The incentive is to improve the nation. I think the desire to help the country should be the incentive.

Sir, if you look back from the time you were a college student, when were the best years of the Philippines?

I am not quite sure I can answer that question, because it might mean going back to the days of President Quezon. I don’t know how to say it, to compare now the different presidents and their administrations.


How about our leaders in the private sector? Who are on the top of your list of the best executives in this country? Aside from yourself…

No, no, I would not be one of the best executives. I am running a professional firm. (Laughs)

Who do you have in mind?

Ambassador Albert Del Rosario would be one of the top people. He was a patriot. He served the country. When he found out that there was too much corruption in the government, he resigned as ambassador to Germany. Of course, talking of top executives, there’s Manny (Pangilinan) of the telephone company (PLDT). He’s a very professional manager. A person like Henry Sy had a vision. Someone like Jaime Augusto (Zobel) has a good selection of people to carry out his projects. Or a guy like Tony Tan Caktiong of Jollibee. He is, without a doubt, a very capable executive. You have very many good people. The Lopezes have good programs.    

What can you say about the shift in economic power from the Spaniards to the Chinese? Except perhaps for the Zobels…

If you go down to Negros, many of the sugar planters are Spanish. Of course, they are not doing too much for the economy. Whatever money they make, they use to take a vacation in Spain. On a national basis, they may not have done much, but you do have people like the Aboitizes who are of Spanish background and have done a lot also.


I have read your biography. Your children are successful. Would you attribute that to yourself more or your wife? How did you raise your children? They all went to top schools and they all made out good.

My only responsibility is that they get a good education. From that point on, they are on their own.

What has kept you and your wife together all these years? We know about some men who go astray, or at least pick up a girlfriend here and there… but in your case, what is the secret of your good relationship with your wife?

First of all, I don’t have too much time for outside… (Laughs) …So, there’s a question of time. So, even now that I am age 90, I don’t have enough time. You see my backlog of work on my desk.

I understand Mrs. SyCip has Alzheimer’s. How are you coping?

Well, we are fortunate to be in the Philippines where you can have people to help you.

How did you convince Mrs. SyCip you were the right person for her when you courted her, and then proposed marriage?

I think we convinced each other.


So, how was it like being the son of Don Albino?

That was a great help to me. I did not have to prove myself. When they said I am the son of Albino SyCip, they equated it with integrity and love of the Philippines. I didn’t have to prove myself because he himself had a good record. The conclusion was that the son is like the father. That was a great advantage to me.

What was his advice when you decided to put up your own firm?

He was the one who said I should not join the China Bank of which he was one of the incorporators. He said that if I did well and he promoted me, people would say that is nepotism, and that if I did not do well, it would embarrass him.

Your mother died early. What do you remember best of your mother?

She was also socially conscious. She was a leader of the ethnic Chinese community. She had a good education in America. She was a good mother.

How was your relationship with your stepmother? I understand she was your tutor, too.

She was teaching us Chinese every day after we came back from school.

Was it an easy relationship? You know what we read about stepmothers and stepchildren…

Oh, no, it was a very easy and smooth relationship. We knew her. She was devoted to my father so there was no problem.

Did the family’s interest in music come from her?

My mother studied music in America. By chance she and my stepmother were both pianists.

Was that why Paz Yuchengco became a pianist?

She is the only one among us who followed the interest of my mother in music. She was the youngest and she was the first to get married. (Smiles)

Whom did you admire as a child? Did you have heroes?

Well, I guess my father was the one.

Do you consider Ninoy Aquino a hero?

Of course, in the political sense. He was very dedicated to the country.

What would it take to be a hero today, if you were to advise young people?

Right now, people seem to feel that if they are shot, they become a hero. (Laughs) But one can be a hero in the arts, in the cultural scene, in education. In that sense, I would consider many as heroes and heroines.


Is there anything you want this Christmas? Something for yourself, like another building…?

No, no. What I want to see is zero dropout rate. That is my all-time Christmas wish. That would help solve the poverty problem. Right now, as I see it, the key thing is being carried out by Dr. Nene Guevarra, which is how to reduce illiteracy. Because if a person is illiterate, he is sure to be poor. Education is the key to solving the poverty problem.

What is your vision for yourself for the coming years?

I am very much involved in the movement that can help the bottom group. One thing I spend my time on because I respect the leadership there is the Synergia… Nene Guevarra. I spend a lot of time on microfinance. Aris Alip of CARD is very successful and very imaginative.

Do you still have some business concerns that you need to address, especially in the coming year 2012?

Right now, yes, because of the European crisis and the American crisis. I’ve been meeting with the many boards of companies to advise them that things abroad are not looking good and that we must prepare all the companies here.

How do you think we should prepare for that?

It depends on what each company is doing. Are they exposed to some of the European banks that are in trouble now?

What is your vision for Philippine business? How would you like it to be in the coming years?

I would like to see the Philippines assume its leadership position in Southeast Asia. At one time, we were ahead. Now, we are behind. I would like to see us go back to the time when we are ahead.

How can we go back to that, Sir?

First is education. And probably… even more education.

Do you have any advice for the heads of states of Asia, considering that we are supposed to be in a boom now?

I always say that the key is to reduce poverty.

What is your advice to President Noynoy? Considering the problems of this country…

I think the key is he must continuously have the respect of the people... that he is fighting corruption. Right now, we see that he leads by example. And for him to continue to do so.

What is your advice to the average Filipino?

Do what you can for the country.


What can you say about population education and family planning? Does the country need it?

Definitely. I hope to see the day when the Catholic Church will accept family planning.

To what extent do you think the church should involve itself in public affairs? Is that okay with you? Like they give their opinions on certain issues?

I think in the Philippine setting, the involvement of the Church after Cardinal Sin has been a negative factor. Cardinal Sin fought for what is right. But the Church should be more understanding of our population problem. The church should not be opposing every electric power project, together with Greenpeace, without substitution. We need electric power. As I have seen, they object to too many things without offering alternatives.


Sir, let’s shift to a lighter mood. Let’s talk about your all-time favorites. What’s your favorite music?

I guess classical music. Waltzes, too. The problem is I don’t have time to listen.

What is your preference when it comes to movies?

I see movies only when I am in the home of my son-in-law. He has a big screen and we see whatever movies he has.

Don’t you have any favorite movie?

Well, The Sound of Music is a good movie because the music is good. Or Mamma Mia!

Do you have any favorite musician or singer, or tenor, or an orchestra?

I am not discerning and I am not an expert but many of the philharmonic orchestras are outstanding.

What about fashion? Do you have a favorite brand? Do you believe in a particular dictum pertaining to grooming?

As a matter of fact, I was at this big affair recently — the Tatler Ball — and I saw the women with fancy gowns. In the invitation, it said “black tie for men,” and there is only one black tie for men and therefore that does not give business to the fashion industry because you can have only one black tie and that’s it! In the case of the barong, one should wear a different color of barong every day to give more business to the industry. I wish that the men would be more colorful, even in these big affairs, instead of just wearing black tie.

How come you have all these colorful barong Tagalog?

Well, you know, these are from Silk Cocoon of Frances Lim and Jean Goulbourn. I introduce many newcomers to the Philippines to them so they can wear many colors of the barong — red, green…

Do you dance?

Not now. I tell you, when I was 18 and graduating from college, I was told by the dean that being the summa cum laude and the head of the class, I was to open the dance at the Fiesta Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. I told him I didn’t know how to dance, so he called two girls and told them to teach me how to dance.

Do you have a favorite car?

Right now, I like the Lexus.

What is your favorite color?

Symbol of wisdom: The first owl that Washington SyCip received as a gift

Red. Look at the cushions. (Points to cushions in his office)

Any favorite novel or literary character?

I have no time to read. But I admire what Frank Sionil Jose is doing and what he has done for Philippine literature.


You have all these works of art. Are you a serious collector? How do you choose the ones you buy?

I do not go around collecting but if I see something that I like to see, I try to get it. I don’t buy something because the painter is well known; I buy something because I live with it every day, whether in the house or in the office.

Do you have favorites among the artists?

Of the current artists, Anita Magsaysay-Ho. Many years ago, when our office was in San Luis, now TM Kalaw, there was a gallery there and I picked up a Manansala painting for P600. I still have it at home. I didn’t know who Manansala was, but because I saw it and I liked the painting, I bought it.

Of the owls that you collect, which is your favorite?

I have an ivory owl that’s in front of me on my table. That was my first owl. It was because I suggested to Panasonic the location of a plant for a compressor. It became very successful so Panasonic had a senior managing director come to visit me and give me this owl.

Why an owl?

I guess an owl is known for wisdom.

So, are you happy with the Washington SyCip Park? Would you like something installed there?

We are trying to see whether they can put some music, not the jumpy kind of music, but maybe some classical music. It will be for people who may want to listen to music while they are there.


What is your longevity secret?

I have too much work.

Any physical regimen?

Walking up and down airports.

Any food restrictions?

No restrictions. Now, I like chicken inasal very much.

Wow, that would be the best ad for restaurants serving chicken inasal.

I really like it. I have no time to go to restaurants, so I asked the cook to learn how to cook it so that if I have guests, he can serve it. I also like to eat Chinese food.

How about all these chocolates? I noticed you always have bowls of chocolates in your office.

That’s for you. (Laughs)


What are your travel habits? What are your preferences?

On a short trip, it doesn’t matter, as long as you have a seat. But on the long trips, where you have to sleep, I’d like a seat that enables me to sleep. 

What airlines do you take?

Because of my trips to the US and China, my two major destinations, I take Philippine Air Lines.

How often are you out of the country?

It’s about one third of the year. So, that is 120 days. Like this Dec. 8, I will be going to Hong Kong for just one morning, and coming back the next morning. That’s just to attend a board meeting.

How many board directorships do you have now?

Many, too many.

What is your favorite city in the world?

I still prefer Makati. I have all the conveniences here. I have a driver. I don’t have to prepare my own breakfast. If I am abroad, I may have to prepare my own coffee.

Do you have a favorite hotel?

Usually, I try to find a comfortable hotel. And I guess Shangri-La is the one I know best.

What are your significant involvements abroad today? Has it more to do with business or is it more with civic matters?

Abroad? It is business and to know what is going on in this world that affects the Philippines and other emerging markets. Right now, it is what is happening in Europe and the US because it is going to affect companies here so I have to know what is going on.


What truly makes you happy, Sir? As a father, to start with.

When I see that the children are happy, I am happy. When I see them worried, I get worried also. When I see that they are happy and relaxed, I know there is no problem for me.

As a grandfather, what makes you happy?

I am now a great-grandfather, and that makes me very happy. My daughter has a son, Miguel, who, in turn, has a baby.

Ahh, that’s your grandson who’s interested in cars.

Yes, very much. And I have to buy his shoes in the States because his size is not easily found here.

As the SGV Founder, what makes you happy?

As long as I see that the firm is still doing well and is carrying out its objectives, maintaining its integrity, and these bright people becoming partners. They do not have to pay anything to get into the firm. Yet they already have the goodwill of the firm. I want that to be a continuous example.

As a Filipino, what makes you happy?

When the country’s income level goes up. The reduction of poverty is my goal.

As a global citizen, what makes you happy?

As a global citizen, of course, you don’t want to see war, you want to see peace. And you want to see that the people are not killing each other.

What is your ultimate happiness?

Different people have different ideas of happiness. I mean, some of them are happy with rock ‘n’ roll. I am happy when I see improvements in schools, improvements in a family, and improvements in the country. Then, I feel good. I am unhappy when I see undernourished children, children who are so poor that they are illiterate.


Sir, what’s wrong and what’s right with this country? First, what is wrong?

I see the evidence that the system is not working in the sense that our neighboring countries’ per capita incomes are surpassing us.

So, when you analyze the problem, it is excessive democracy, and maybe a rather narrow Church leadership. Just two days ago, I was in Quezon Province, four hours ride from here. And you see a group of school children that are all underweight and you feel really bad. And you say, look, instead of having such large families that they cannot afford to feed… The feeding program was a Jollibee undertaking. When a lump of rice was put in front of these skinny boys, each, how they ate so fast. It shows that they are hungry. Then you think of how much food is wasted by us in the city.

So, what’s good about this country?

The people. We are a good people.

* * *

Should you agree or disagree, praise or damn, e-mail me at cyber.proust@yahoo.com.

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