Tessie Coson-Sy: ‘I’m really a risk-taker. That’s the only way to stay young’
- Millet M. Mananquil (The Philippine Star) - November 28, 2015 - 9:00am

How does a dynamo like Tessie Sy-Coson keep moving and working like there’s no tomorrow?

“Pressure,”she smiles. “That’s what  pushes me. I like taking challenges. And when you have no choice but to take the challenge, you have to like it,” says this eldest child of Henry Sy, Sr., the king of Philippine retail who started the SM business empire in 1958 with one little shoe store in Manila. She is the vice chairperson of SM Investments Corp., one of the Philippines’ largest publicly-traded holding companies with interests in retail, banking, property and portfolio investments.

On this evening of the all-afternoon launch of SM Seaside City Cebu, Tessie looks more relaxed, smiling between bites of turkey, pizza and other dishes from the buffet counters of Radisson Blu. Yes, it is Thanksgiving Day and she shares this dinner table, made relaxing and warm with stories and laughter exchanged, with family and friends, including her sister Betty Sy, another workaholic who takes charge of SM's hotels and resorts, and Vivian Yuchengco, another power woman in business who is a formidable force in the Stock Exchange.

The Sy matriarch, Felicidad Sy, had earlier left with a friend to attend a religious concert. “She is 87, I hope that concert finishes early.” I reminded Tessie that her mother still has the energy to attend to the planning of chapels — her pet projects — that are built with every SM mall.

As for Tessie, everything she does seems to be a pet project. She is chairperson of BDO Unibank Inc., the Philippines’ largest bank, She is also adviser to the board of SM Prime Holdings which is the largest mall developer in the country, and she is also part of the three-member delegation to the ASEAN Business Advisory Council. She is listed among Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in the World, and Forbes Asia's 50 top business leaders.

Having known and watched her for four decades now, I remind her how so hands-on Tessie was with fashion merchandising for SM department store, even pushing trends such as “the sensational slide” which is the one-sided off-shoulder look, still a mainstay in mainstream fashion. Tessie also made SM the first department store to nurture Filipino designers under its wings such as Cesar Gaupo, Tonichi Nocom and Efren Ocampo who are now stalwarts in the fashion industry.

“Those were the days,” Tessie laughs. “I was just crazy then. We were the millennials of our time.When merchandising seemed second-nature to me. And where are we now? You are still writing, I am still working for the family business.”

How does Tessie, 65 but looking fit and trim, keep young and slim?

“I’m really a risk-taker. That’s the only way I can stay young,” she declares. As for keeping trim, she said that naturally happened after her husband Louis passed away. “When Louie was alive, I would sit down with him for most meals, especially dinner. Now that I am alone, I can just take bites between work and eat whenever I want to and only when I need to.”

What has she learned from her father? “When you build a mall, you must always have room for expansion for the next five years, considering population growth and responding to retail trends. Go forth and multiply — that is his rule.

“Everywhere I go, I find a learning experience. You can learn from everything and everyone, from all kinds of people, even the mataray ones. Anybody can teach you something. That is how you learn in life.”

When I told her I had to leave ahead and catch the last PAL evening  flight back to Manila, Tessie said: “You should stay and just take a flight tomorrow. C’mon, stay.” I reminded her that all flights were fully booked because of the SM Seaside City inaugural. Should I be a risk-taker and stay, take a chance on tomorrow's flights? I didn’t.          

But maybe I should have stayed. There were more stories to listen to. Talking with Tessie is always a learning experience.

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