Hans Sy steps up to forge a legacy in education, environment and the arts
JVM Francisco (The Philippine Star) - April 8, 2018 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The 2018 Forbes list of richest individuals in the world created a lot of buzz in the Philippines not because people wanted to find out who topped the list of billionaires in the country (everyone knows that Henry Sy is the wealthiest Filipino alive), but how his wealth has increased considerably last year, enough to overtake Canadian-American billionaire Elon Musk.

From $12.8 billion in 2016, Sy’s wealth jumped to $20 billion in 2017, registering a 56 percent increase. Someone proposed an explanation for this phenomenal increase that has been propelled by the second generation of the Sy family – there are now six Henry Sy’s running the business, so there.

One of them is a simple, unassuming and humble member of the family – Hans Sy, the fourth child of Henry and Felicidad Sy after Tessie, Elizabeth and Henry Jr. His two younger brothers are Harley and Herbert. Together, they run the Sy empire which includes banking, mall operation, retail, real estate, mining, hotel, among others.

Hans Sy is photographed at the Conrad Manila’s China Blue with  Mac Valdezco’s “Flora 3” in the background. On the cover: Hans with Raffy Napay’s “Overwhelmed, overcrowded blooms,” an artwork using thread, oil, sticks, acrylic and cloth, also at the Conrad Manila. Bening Batuigas/Star

So when Hans announced in September 2016 that he would be stepping down from his position as president of SM Prime Holdings Inc., the whole business community was totally surprised and abuzz with speculations as to why he did that. SM Prime, the country’s largest property developer, is involved in the development of malls, residences, offices, hotels and convention centers. And Hans, as everyone knows, has been responsible for the remarkable expansion of the SM Malls, now numbering 68 in the country and seven in China

“I felt that after ten years with SM Prime, it was time for me to focus on something else. And this coincided with my 60th birthday. I also wanted to let the family know that we should start allowing more professionals to handle the business,” Hans confides to STARweek.

But contrary to the perception of many, Hans is not entirely out of the SM conglomerate. He still sits as chairman of the executive committee and member of the board of SM Prime. He also serves as chairman of the board of China Bank, the country’s 4th largest bank in terms of assets.

“I would not want to say it’s a retirement. That’s why I used the words ‘stepping down’ because I wanted to pursue a new endeavor. One of the advocacies of my father is education. He would always tell us, ‘Education is the greatest equalizer’,” he says.

The solar carpark at the SM Mall of Asia is one of the largest on-site solar projects in the world.

The focus of Hans’ attention these past two years has been National University, which his father acquired in 2009. “I was tasked to handle it even as I told my father I’m not an academic. But he said he believes education is really a must for all deserving students and I should just handle the business side of it. ‘Leave the academic aspect to the academe but run it like a business to really make it work’ was his advice,” he says.

Since then, National University has made great strides academically and has become a powerhouse in sports. On the business side, Hans doesn’t think small. “It’s an ambitious project but we would like to put up around 20 campuses all over the country within 10 years,” he reveals. Currently, National University already has a branch in Calamba and the ones in Fairview, Quezon City and Mall of Asia are under construction. The next branch will be built in Baliuag, Bulacan.

Hans discloses the strategy for the expansion. “As our shopping malls become more successful, we expand them so we need to build parking structures. But normally, parking structures are good up to four floors only because people don’t like to park above the fourth floor. We’re taking advantage of this by putting the school on top of the parking structure so there’s free land cost.”

Another advocacy that Hans is involved in is environmental protection and disaster risk reduction. He holds the prestigious position as the only Filipino member of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) Private Sector Alliance for Disaster Resilient Societies, also known as ARISE, the top global business leaders’ group on disaster risk reduction management (DRRM).

Opposite page: Hans Sy, Sen. Loren Legarda, former US vice president and environmental champion Al Gore, Solar Philippines’ Leandro Leviste and Hans Sy Jr. visit the solar carpark.

“I don’t know if I should call it an accidental appointment. As a matter of fact, my involvement with ARISE started when SM was being accused of chopping trees in Baguio. That very same evening I had dinner with someone, Margaret Wahlström (UN Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction), who was connected with the United Nations. I didn’t know she was with the UNISDR,” Hans reveals.

“During that dinner she asked me why I was chopping trees so I explained to her that it’s not at all about chopping trees. It was really something, as I observed, that could be a potential natural disaster. There was erosion on the hill that I felt very uncomfortable about. I wanted to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more erosion. In order to do that, we needed to uproot some trees to be able to do some concrete improvements on the area. And that was when people went up against SM, not understanding our purpose,” he explains. 

“I also told her that I’ve been doing disaster risk reduction since the ’90s. And she couldn’t believe it. She wanted to send a team from the UN to really observe and document what we have done and was thereafter surprised to find out that SM has already been involved in DRRM. Since she wanted to encourage the private sector to assist the government, she invited me to join them.”

Some of Hans’ DRRM projects for SM include lifting the buildings to ensure that they don’t get hit by flooding; the installation of big rainwater collection tanks to catch the run-off that would flood the streets; and the construction of concrete roof decks that won’t be blown off by strong typhoons.

Since the Sy family took over National University in 2009, the school has achieved great strides in academics and sports. Hans’ vision is to have 20 NU campuses all over the country within 10 years.

Hans adds, “These roof decks also provide a good space to install solar panels. We already have solar panels in eight of our malls. And we will continue to do so. Currently, I can say that we are one of the companies that have the largest solar panel capabilities in the country.”  

Another surprising passion of Hans these days is something not very many people know about – visual arts. To date, he has acquired a sizable personal collection of Philippine art by masters and mid-career artists, and has perhaps the biggest collection of artworks by Juvenal Sanso totaling 165 pieces.

“When I was 11 years old, my father introduced me to Sanso, a friend of the family. And being a kid, when I was told he was an artist, I handed him a piece of paper and pen and asked him to draw something. After about 10 years, when he came back from a sojourn in Paris, I showed him that piece of paper and he was amazed that I still had the sketch. From then on he started teaching me about visual arts and how to look at paintings. That’s when I started my interest in visual arts,” he says.

Hans’ affinity for the arts has helped boost the visual arts in many SM establishments. Conrad Manila, through his sister Elizabeth who runs the SM hotel group, has put the spotlight on its Philippine contemporary art collection. SM Aura commissioned Filipino artists for its public art project. SM Megamall has the Art Walk galleries on the 4th floor. “I’ve always believed that art should be part of the lives of people, so we have to make it accessible to the public,” he says.

So Hans has not really been idle since he “stepped down” – or one should say since he “stepped up.” Pursuing noble causes like education, environment and arts is admittedly Hans’ way of building a lasting legacy beyond what he has already achieved as the son of Henry Sy.  

HANS SY
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