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Honoring a father

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Henry Sy, Sr.

Of all the titans in Philippine business, there are few, if any, who can match the legacy of SM Group of Companies founder Henry Sy, Sr., also known as the “Father of Philippine Retail”, which makes the void his death leaves behind all the more massive.

From a simple shoe store along Rizal Avenue in Manila, what is now known as Mr. Sy’s SM Investments Corporation (SMIC) has become the largest conglomerate in the Philippines, with interests across multiple industries like retail, real estate, and banking. In 2018, the company ranked 883rd in the Forbes Global 2000 list of the biggest, most powerful and most valuable companies in the world, while BDO Unibank Inc., a subsidiary of SMIC, ranked 1,072nd.

Among SMIC’s other distinguished assets are shopping mall and real estate arm SM Prime Holdings, Inc., China Banking Corp., and SM Retail Group. The company’s portfolio also holds investments in integrated resorts through Belle Corporation, copper mining through Atlas Consolidated Mining and Development Corporation, community mall chain CityMall, office towers under the NET Group, logistics firm 2GO Group, and dormitory operator MyTown.

Mr. Sy, with his wife Felicidad Tan-Sy, also established the SM Foundation, Inc., a charitable institution focused on social inclusion by nurturing and caring for underserved communities where SM is present. Its philanthropic efforts include supporting and empowering SM host communities through education, health care, shelter, disaster response, farmers’ training, environmental programs, and care for persons with special needs.

“I sincerely believe that Henry Sy, Sr. should be acknowledged as the king of retail operations in the Philippines,” Jose L. Cuisia, Jr., vice-chairman of the board & lead independent director, SM Prime Holdings, Inc., had told BusinessWorld.

“He should be recognized for his contributions to the banking, real estate development, retail operations, mall development, and tourism industries in the Philippines because of the huge number of jobs he has created, and the value added by the chain of suppliers who service the requirements of the SM Group,” Mr. Cuisia said.

All of this started when Mr. Sy had the simple dream of selling a good pair of shoes to every Filipino. For over six decades, he laid the groundwork and piloted the development and evolution of SM into how it is known today.

Born in Fujian Province, China, Mr. Sy moved to the Philippines when he was 12 years old. Showing an inherent drive for diligence and entrepreneurship, he helped his father sell rice, sardines, and other merchandise at the shop their family had set up. When the shop was destroyed in World War II, Mr. Sy’s family decided to return to China, leaving him behind as he pursued a business degree at Far Eastern University.

ShoeMart, as SM was first called, opened shop in 1958. Over the following decade, Mr. Sy gathered momentum for his future retail empire, opening another ShoeMart store in Manila, one in Makati, and another in Cubao. In 1972, the first SM Department Store opened in the downtown Quiapo district.

In growing SM, Mr. Sy never wavered in his determination to see his vision become reality. The humble shoe stores that he built one by one across Metro Manila gave him the experience in retail and management that pursue even bigger successes.

When asked to describe Mr. Sy as a businessman, Mr. Cuisia had said, “He seems to have had a vision for his group of companies early in his career. As I got to know him better over the years, I became more impressed with his calculated, risk-taking approach.”

“You have to have a dream, whether big or small. Then plan, focus, work hard, and be very determined to achieve your goals,” Mr. Sy was once quoted as saying.

“My basic strategy is to stick to my core business, and to my area of expertise. My businesses are all related — retail, shopping centers, banking, real estate, and tourism development. Together, they create synergy.”

Like King Midas from Greek mythology whose touch could turn anything into pure gold, Mr. Sy seemed to gain the ability to turn into wealth all that he touched. His magic, however, was in his core strategy, wealth of experience, determination, and hard work.

The Makati Business Club, the private nonstock, nonprofit business association composed of the largest and most dynamic corporations in the Philippines, declared Mr. Sy the ‘Richest Man of the Year’ in 1999, a title that he would be known by until his death.

SMIC, through SM Prime Holdings, now has 72 malls in and outside Metro Manila, along with seven shopping malls in China, spanning 9.5 million square meters and tens of thousands of tenants.

At his death, Mr. Sy held the position of chairman emeritus at SMIC. Currently, the company has a market capitalization of over a trillion pesos.

“He has inspired me in my own career because I have learned from him many things, such as patience in acquiring properties or shares in a company that you want to eventually control… I believe his patience, humility, and insistence on being low-key enabled him to achieve success,” Mr. Cuisia had said.

“Success is not just good luck: it is a combination of hard work, good credit standing, opportunity, readiness, and timing. Success will not last if you do not take care of it,” Mr. Sy once said.

“I started with shoes, and with hard work and discipline, the business prospered.”

Mr. Sy is survived by his wife Felicidad; six children Teresita Sy-Coson, Elizabeth Sy, Henry Sy, Jr., Hans Sy, Herbert Sy, and Harley Sy; and several grandchildren. — Bjorn Biel M. Beltran