Recently, Chinese-Filipino businessman, Henry Sy, Sr. died. An immigrant from an impoverished family in Jianjiang, a town near Xiamen, China, he started as a shoe peddler and when he died two Saturdays ago at the age of 93, he owned one of the world’s biggest shopping chains and the Philippines’ largest retailing chain. In 2018, he was listed as the richest man in the Philippines by Forbes with a net asset of $18.3 billion.
“Tatang,” as he is fondly called, is one of the Chinese migrants who made it phenomenally well in the Philippines. His story is reminiscent of the Jewish peddlers throughout the 19th century who migrated out of Germany to different places, mainly, in the United States of America. Peddling is an activity that consists of walking the road, selling goods door to door and house to house. It was considered a start-up occupation, especially to a migrant, to a stable enterprise or professional engagement. It was a springboard to more comfortable and higher-paying jobs or enterprises usually reserved for the locals.
Peddling required a lot of fortitude and determination so as to overcome difficulties and barriers. Peddlers suffered the discomforts of walking the road with all the elements of dust, heat, and rain. They faced physical and emotional challenges. They carried heavy burdens of goods. They were exposed to the danger of robbery on the road.
Amidst all these trials, peddling instills character in a person that serves as the key to one’s success. A peddler is persevering, thrifty, and resourceful. He is good with people. He is able to connect with customers. He is pleasant and communicates well with customers. He is well acquainted with his customers through his knowledge of local culture. Peddling serves as an activity that socializes him into the system. A peddler is a personal and communal network builder.
Henry Sy, Sr. peddled the shoes of some enterprising G.I. Joes after World War II. His success in shoe-peddling led him to put up his own shoe store, although initially, he found it difficult to partner with a shoe manufacturer that would be able to execute his ideas.
John Gokongwei, Jr., also a top Filipino businessman, peddled basic commodities using a bicycle at aged 15. He now has holdings in the food manufacturing, petrochemical, airline, and financial services industries. Andrew Tan of the Alliance Global Group, Inc. started as a kitchen appliance salesman.
Some people look at peddling as something demeaning. Peddlers usually sell quasi-luxuries bought by people who can be challenging to talk to. It is not easy to do what they do, i.e., “cold calls” or “sales talk” to people whom you don’t know, but whom you want to convince to buy your products because you think they need it. It can be humiliating, too, especially when they’re rejected. Imagine, however, the satisfaction one gets by closing a sale and developing loyalty or repeat purchases from customers. It can be financially and personally rewarding and fulfilling.
It is unfortunate that some business graduates scorn being “in the field.” It is here where good soldiers are formed. Under the heat of the sun and the other discomforts that peddling may bring, one develops the hallmarks of successful business magnates: fortitude, perseverance, determination, market understanding, and responsiveness.
Peddlers, above all, are men who have heart. Henry Sy, Sr. was named one of the Filipino Heroes of Philanthropy in 2009 by Forbes Asia. He was responsible for several professorial chair endowments in our university, De La Salle University (DLSU). One of our buildings was named after him in recognition of his generosity. John Gokongwei Jr.’s family is also DLSU’s generous donor. Their most recent donation, the John Gokongwei Jr. Innovation Center (JGIC), located within the De La Salle University (DLSU) Laguna campus, aims to become a hub for multimedia gaming and interactive entertainment in Southeast Asia.
These successful peddlers gave back to society with the hope of making it a better one, especially through the education of future generations. May their tribe increase, and may Tatang rest in peace.
Maria Victoria P. Tibon is an associate professor in the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. She is currently enjoying her service leave.