The amazing Henry Sy Sr.
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2019 - 12:00am

If there’s a very real rags-to-riches story, it is that of Henry Sy Sr. It seems unbelievable. But it is true. And we are all amazed at how this came about.

Many tributes have been aired and written about him. By googling, I came across a thorough history of this amazing person written by his second daughter Elizabeth.

The biography says when Henry Sy was leaving his home in Xiamen, China in 1936 at age 11 to join his father, Xiu Shi Sy, who was running a sari-sari store in Echague, Manila, his mother, Tan O Sia, told him never to look back. “She probably did not want her son to be homesick. Maybe this advice helped Henry become who he is now, a dollar billionaire, the richest in the country.  But people know of his many kindnesses. This advice maybe helped him to carve out not just a name for himself and his family but to the country that would host him and his father.”

Henry had nothing on but a shirt on his back and ten centavos in his pocket.

During his journey, he befriended a fellow traveler who shared with him the P20 he found on the boat, saying they were spending his “lucky money.”

“The luck the man was talking about seems to fit Henry’s future. After all, his parents gave him the name Sy Chi Sieng which in Chinese means ‘to attain ultimate success.’ His first meal on the boat was a five-centavo bread stuffed with meat, his first time to eat a sandwich.

When the boat reached Manila, Henry had to spend time on Engineer Island, a processing center of the immigration bureau.

Henry saw how hard his father was working to enable him to send money to his wife, a Chinese-Filipina who was taken to Xiamen at age five. He was quick to learn the  techniques of buying and selling  cheap goods in the small shop where he and his father slept at night.

When World War II broke out, the family business was lost. The father decided to go back to Xiamen, but Henry stayed on. Elizabeth relates that her father was always preoccupied with doing business, he hardly ever rested.

During the Japanese occupation, he found out he had enough money to buy a karitela, a horse-drawn carriage, but he had the good sense to have someone operate it for him. He thought time was too precious to be wasted transporting people in the karitela.

From the little money he earned from the karitela, he was able to buy a bicycle from a Japanese.

He was biking when he saw a 16-year-old pretty girl named Felicidad Tan. She would become his wife later. When he went to China after 11 years, his parents tried to do some match-making, but the young man said no way. He was so in love with Felicidad. He returned  to Manila and married the woman of his choice. In SM malls today, there are churches and chapels named in his wife’s honor. Mrs. Sy is known for her humanitarian projects to help the impoverished, children, and empower women.

 It was not the 10 centavos her father parlayed into his first million before he turned 30, writes Elizabeth. He  told her, “There are countless ways  to make more money. Only your willingness to work, your imagination, and time can limit the ways.”

 Henry Sy’s empire did not actually begin with shoes. During Liberation, he bought cigarettes from American soldiers in Plaza Miranda, and sold them, enabling him to earn one peso a day, a fortune in those days. He also operated a drug store, and Sison Ice Drop. He had a partner named Lao Kang when he set up the Plaza Shoe store. Daughter Elizabeth told Malaya Business Insight  that until five years ago, her father would drop by the store and personally inspect the shoes himself.

He was keen about shoes because he thought if he could sell a pair each to Filipinos, he could make money. Sounding Hollywood-ish, he said, “There is no business like shoe business.” He put up his first shoe store in Carriedo in downtown Manila in 1958.

His wealth has been told over and over. He has built 46 malls around the country. He has another four in China.  According to Forbes Magazine, he had been the country’s richest man for 11 years in a row, estimating his net worth at $19 billion. The 52nd richest person in the world last year, Forbes said he beat out such tycoons like Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch and George Soros.

Sy stepped down as chairman emeritus in his holding firm in 2017, and leaving trusted allies and his children in charge of the empire.

Not following Chinese-Filipino practice, Henry Sy bequeathed management of his businesses not to his eldest son, but to the eldest child, a daughter, Teresita Sy-Coson. The rest of the children – Henry ”Big Boy,” Elizabeth, Hans, Herbert and Harley, are involved in expanding the Sy empire, each running a business on their own, and not competing with each other.

The Sy family-led SM group owns three of the most valuable companies in the country – the flagship conglomerate SM Investments Corp., SM Prime Holdings Inc. which is now a leading property developer in Southeast Asia, and BDO Unibank. 

The SM group today runs over 200 companies in the Philippines and operates close to 80 local shopping malls and another six in mainland China.

It took Henry Sy more than a dozen years before he was granted a P1 million credit line by China Bank. Little did he know that about 50 years later his family would be one of the bank’s largest stockholders.

Prior to the engagement with China Bank was Banco de Oro, a universal bank that he parlayed from a small thrift institution to become one of the country’s largest. Banco de Oro is believed to have the biggest number of branches among all banks.

Observers say Henry Sy was right in appointing Tessie to the top post. Chinese families believe that the biggest secret of Tessie’s success was how her father disciplined her five siblings to respect the decisions of their eldest sister.

Most of the decisions were Henry’s. His children, led by Tessie, are merely implementing them. Henry had the sense of erasing competition among his children. While Tessie is at the top and chair of the Banco de Oro Universal Bank, each of the rest of his five children was given a business to run. 

Tessie, a widow for many years, is friendly and hospitable. She listens to proposals for business ventures. She says yes and no when she finds them feasible or not.  She finds time to attend birthday celebrations, including those of my family and friends.  She encouraged me years back to supply SM stores with children’s painting tables and tennis panties.

Henry Sy only finished commercial science at Far Eastern University. With his growing fortune, he was able to send all his children to De la Salle University. In gratitude for their helping educate his children, he donated to DLSU the largest library among all schools in the Philippines, the project costing P1.6 billion.

He recognized the contribution of OFWs to the country’s economy with their remittances. For this, his big malls have a lounge exclusive to OFWs where they are served snacks and allowed two minute free overseas phone calls. 

He also provided golf carts that  easily-tired senior citizens can drive around the malls for free.

His greatest contribution, say observers, is his modernization of the retailing business. He might have driven out of business a few small sari-sari stores, but many of them have found stalls in SM malls.

Henry Sy passed away on Jan. 19,  2019, at age 94.

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