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Henry Sy: Life, Works & Achievements

Pietros Val Patricio

Industrialist: Henry Sy

Ethnicity: Chinese

Country: Philippines

Age: 82

Business: Retailing

Fortune: $2.1 Billion

Conglomerate: The SM Group of Companies

SM Prime Holdings

SM Investments Corp.

SM Developments Corp.

SM Shoemart, Inc.

Highlands Prime, Inc.

Charity: SM Foundation, Inc.


One night at the North Forbes Park district of Makati, there was an old man who happened to lie down on his couch alone in his living room. He was thinking about his humble past, his soaring achievements in the course of his long life as a simple individual. And he knew very well that in reality, life has never been easy for him. He knew that he wasn’t born to be the man who he is right now. Most likely, fate must have been cruel on him as a child. All he knew was that he was once just a dreamer, probably a wide dreamer in a sense of view meaning that early had he learned by heart that is not bad to dream after all. Like a rags-to-riches fairytale claiming that “a dream is a whish your heart makes”, never had he imagined to reach the very peak where he is today, the extraordinary Cinderella man who people look up to right now. As a towering magnate in society who has become an inspiration to many, he never expected his impact in a society’s economy would be so towering, a legacy that has sprouted from the pure hard work of a third world individual. He was that impoverished little boy from long ago who came from a far away land to set up his seeds of ambition and industriousness in this foreign land that has opened a lot of doors to him. Had he not done so, he wouldn’t be sitting in his comfortable wooden bungalow mansion right now. This luxury log cabin alone is worth $2 Million with its wooden materials exclusively brought over from North America. He once spent many years of his life living in a small condo unit. He knows all the hardships of life better than any thinkable merchant in the Philippines. After all, he is the world’s 355th richest man according to the 2005 census of the Forbes Magazine. At the peak of his career, there are certain things in life that have finally become clear to him. It was about time to make way for a lasting legacy, a mark that he will be leaving behind before he passes away. It was only a little more than a decade ago when he launched the opening of Asia’s longest building, his very own Megamall. Every now and then he sits at his warehouse-style office headquarters in Manila bay and glances at the old bass cash register he once used as a child, which lies in a respective corner of his office, to remind him of his earlier struggles and beginnings before he emerged to become the wealthiest entrepreneur in the Philippines.


He was born in a remote village in southern China on December 25, 1923 to an impoverished family. His original birth name Sy Chi Sieng literally meant “to attain ultimate success.” As a child, the young Sy a courageous boy who always aimed to succeed in anything he did. His father left the family, when he was still a toddler, for a country that was then a US territorial protectorate. His father was a trader seeking for good opportunities in a place where economic progress was bright and promising. Back then, the Philippines was the country that had this special distinction. Inspired by his father, he also wanted to become a businessman. He had nothing else in mind but to do business as a child. Hence, he later followed his dad and migrated to the Philippines at the tender age of twelve. It was in the year 1936 when he left his home village Ang-khue of the Dieng-oh municipality in the county of Jinjiang, now a city, which lies near Xiamen in Fujian province. When he arrived in Manila to join his father, he did not expect what he encountered back then. “I cried when I first saw him.” he recalls. “Dad was dirt-poor.” The two were reunited in a cramped space of only 30 square meters in floor area in a dirty street in the district of Quiapo, central Manila. He saw his father again in poor health conditions which moved him a lot. His father was a proprietor of a tiny grocery store on Echague Street, - now Carlos Palanca Sr. St. - just behind the city’s notorious Chinatown. Since then, the young Sy only had one goal in life: The will to strive for excellence and to overcome the harsh environment of poverty through the discipline of hard work and frugality. He has learned the value of honesty and patience in the business. This father’s hard life as a small shopkeeper was eased when his son assisted him. He went everyday to the Divisoria flea market, the city’s crowded wholesale retail bargaining drawer, at the Chinese chay-chi-kaw area to buy heaps of goods and then carry them on his back all by himself to resell them in the convenience store. The store was their very own ha-ya tiam or better known as a sari-sari store to Filipinos. Father and son both worked from early morning up to late in the evening everyday and just slept at the small counter floor, which they cleared late at night, when the store was closed. Certainly, these humble beginnings have already started a benchmark of future complexities that will be multiplied in the years to come.

The Birth of SM

Everything was going well during their stay in the country and Sy was enrolled at the Anglo-Chinese School in Quiapo entering Grade One at the age of twelve. It was a tough time for the young illiterate to catch up and learn English. Throughout history, his business life was always marked by risk and luck. During World War II, the unforgettable tragedy happened in the Philippines. The local economy collapsed during the Japanese occupation, businesses closed and the country’s industries were all destroyed after the Battle for Manila. In 1946, when the shop was plundered into ashes and rubbles, his father simply went back to China without having any second thoughts. But he never gave up and decided to stay. He began returning into business by peddling cheap American shoes. In order to rebuild his business, he of course needed a financial loan for some capital. In 1949, he received his first credit line from the China Bank and was lent with one million Philippine pesos, approved by financial tycoon Mr. Yap Tian Siang. To improve his entrepreneurial skills in the buy and sell trade, he later enrolled at the Far Eastern University in 1950 and took up a degree in Associate in Arts in Commercial Studies. He also considered the change of his legal name into Henry Sy after obtaining Philippine citzenship. But his college attendance was unfortunately cut two years later due to the pressures and lack of focusing on his business. He later marries a Chinese immigrant who became a Filipino citizen under the legal name of Felicidad with whom he erected six offspring to the world. Both converted into Catholicism under the strong influence of the conservative Filipino society. Henry Sy witnessed the rebirth and reconstruction of the Philippine economy and took the opportunity by setting up a shoestore in the same district, this time along Carriedo Street. He opened the first Shoemart store along Carriedo St. in Avenida Rizal, downtown Manila in this label, he conceptualized a new chain of shoe stores, each characterized by a distinctive merchandising layout that has never before been attempted in the country. The shoe store soon became very popular until one store later expanded into three outlets. It did not take him too long to reach the top as a shoe retailer but he soon noticed that his business was mainly just a small scale cottage industry and his supply and opportunities were very limited. Because of this dissatisfaction, he decided to create something new and better. He added an electronic appliances division in each of his stores but he was still not satisfied. At this point of his life, he already began his journey towards climbing up his own mountain, the Mount Everest of the retailing business.

The Supermall Phenomenon

The 1960’s saw many dramatic changes in the Philippines when several economic crises already began to plunder the country. It was also in the same decade when Henry Sy decided to expand his shoe store chain in the new pioneer urban centers, at the Makati Commercial Center in 1963 and then followed by another in Cubao, then by two other ones again at the Harrison Plaza in central Manila and in Delgado St., Iloilo City. These bigger expansions brought fame to his name and his company prospered. The legendary SM logo was later used for shortening the term shoemart. It was designed by the now famous Spanish-descended Filipino artist Juvenal Sanso. The blue logo was simple and refined, representing luck and kitsch in some way. The year 1975 saw a new facelift in the company’s large scale evolution by making its shift from a shoe store into a full line department store including supermarkets and other upscale services in most of its outlets. This marked the SM Shoemart chain, or simply SM, to be a synonymous term with the one-stop shopping excitement. The company soon positioned itself with the purpose of diversifying its presence in the economy. Henry Sy began emerging in the business world and slowly gained wide attention in the business community. Never the less, he was still known as the simple and hard-working man. He is not accustomed in wearing fancy and elegant suits as most businessmen do, nor did hear wear any expensive brands as most people of the elite society did. His simple styles and sporting trademark was only accompanied with his favorite Hawaiian attires. He loved wearing Hawaiian shirts, which he always did from the very beginning when he made earlier buying trips to the United States and soared the entire country from East to West Coast just to gather some inspirations for his business. He noticed the booming shopping center development conquering the American way of life. This inspired him to build the company’s first shopping mall which soon came to reality. His big breakout came in 1985 when he opened his first supermall in Quezon City. It was not a wise decision according to many economists and influential tycoons of the business community at the time thought he was crazy. There was so much pessimism towards his plans of building a huge shopping complex in a place that was in the middle of nowhere and still practically undeveloped at the time. But he proved his detractors wrong. The SM City North Edsa became an instant success and the prediction of many analysts that he would fail drastically and end up in rags was wrong. His clean and fully air-conditioned venue introduced modern shopping to the Philippines and became a key player towards the country’s malling phenomenon. Can this miracle be caused by mere luck? He says, “Success is not just about good luck. It is a combination of hard work, good credit standing, opportunity, readiness and right timing. When the opportunity comes, you’d have to be ready to embrace it. Otherwise, it goes to someone else.”

Risks & Opportunities

In many ways, it was also highly questionable why a businessman would invest in a time of social chaos in the country and risk so much. He knew that business was also a gamble of making tough choices and taking risks. In the end, he had the last laugh and states that “Crises also produce opportunities.” He has managed to keep his business running during the strict martial law rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos since 1972 when the Philippine economy crumbled. Earlier before the opening of his first mall, the controversial assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino took place in 1983 and the year after the opening of SM City North Edsa followed the People Power EDSA Revolution in 1986 caused by the national consciousness at the time. Both social and economic prospects haven’t eased even after the years that followed. When the Landmark Mall in Makati City crumbled, the Zobel de Ayala clan eagerly searched for a firm to operate the mall. But they refused to let him operate the site, fearful that his success might be hard to control in the future. The lease was given to several other businessmen instead and the mall failed for a number of years. 1987-1989 saw a wide series of military coup d’ état attempts by government rebels and Marcos loyalists. Henry Sy also lost a public bidding over a huge property reclamation area along Manila bay. The Philippines as a country was lagged by other emerging Asian economies and was left behind with its sluggish economy and stagnant development. He was a strong witness to the rise and fall of the Philippine economy throughout his career starting during its glory years. As poverty rates grew and the Philippines became a laggard to the world economy, nothing stopped him towards the opening of SM Centerpoint in 1989 right after the bloody coup attempt led by Col. Gredorio Honasan. Its doubled success gave rise to the famous SM Megamall in 1991 which remained Asia’s longest building for a long span of time. Inaugurated in June of the same year, it was built on 105,000 square meters of land in the bustling Ortigas Center of Mandaluyong City with a gross floor of 331,679 square meters at 5 stories high. The ambitious project boasted 550 retailer shops, service stores and dining outlets. It boasted a trade exhibition center on the fifth floor. And for the first time, one of his supermalls showcased a cinema division called Silverscreen. It had 12 film theaters that had a combined seating capacity of 11,074. The mall possessed both indoor and outdoor parking areas that could accommodate up to 3,000 vehicles. It also housed the country’s first ice skating rink, which had a unique distinction of having a large supporting post of the complex at the middle of the rink. Together with all the other malls, it was operated under SM Prime Holdings, the newly formed conglomerate of Henry Sy. Aside from shopping mall operations, the firm gained interests in commercial property development, retail/wholesale and merchandising, banking and financial services and later even on tourism and real estate developments. The company embarked to become the country’s most successful retail enterprise in terms of efficiency and high sales volumes. The firm’s triumphant patriarch soon emerged to be one of the country’s richest men and gained the honor of being the Philippine mall magnate. Soon, his prestige was cited by many, not only local but also, regional and international leading publications. The commotion about his wealth was well-talked about and elevated him as one of Asia’s foremost industrial taipans.


The first mall expansion outside Metro Manila took place in 1996 when SM City Cebu was opened in Cebu. It still holds the title as the largest shopping mall in the Visayas region up to this day. It was followed by SM South Mall in Las Piñas including SM City Fairview and SM City Bacoor in the province of Cavite. During this period, the by far worst crisis of all occurred when the Asian financial crisis crippled many Asian economies like a plague and led to the collapse of many business groups in the region. The crisis caused the delay of an ambitious project along Manila’s waterfront but the master plan of this vision was secretly kept aside. Nevertheless, the company continued to branch out its supermalls by opening SM City Iloilo in 1999 to cater most shoppers of the island of Panay. It was then followed by SM City Manila, SM City Pampanga in Angeles City and the SM Supercenter Sucat, which later emerged as SM City Sucat. To ease all complexities, the firm set up sister companies such as the SM Investments Corp. and SM Developments Corp. The malling culture began to dominate the daily lives of Filipino consumers making the supermalls a source of their daily commodities and services. “We changed the lifestyles of the people here.” Mister Sy beams with pride. His contributions to the Philippine economy have raised people’s aspirations and levels of sophistication abreast with international tastes and standards. His empire continued to grow immensely in size and commercial superiority. The company’s fist mall expansion in the country’s Muslim south was attempted in 2001, a time when Islamic rebellions and terrorist attacks took place in the country. Despite the numerous bombings by extremist groups and tourist kidnappings that occurred, SM City Davao was openedand received positive responses in revenues amidst the economic shambles. After the launching of SM City Bicutan, a second mall was opened in Mindanao. SM City Cagayan de Oro was inaugurated in the northern key city of the island in 2002. SM Centerpoint was then renamed to SM City Santa Mesa after extensive expansions. It was followed by the opening of SM City Lucena, SM City Marilao, SM City Manila and SM City Baguio.

Banks & Foreign Joint-Ventures

The SM Group has also engaged in joint-ventures with other companies for the improvement of its shopping centers: Watsons Personal Care Stores, Inc. is a pharmaceutical endeavor with Hong Kong’s Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd. With the International Toy World firm, the Toy Kingdom outlets were created. Ace Hardware Philippines was a joint-venture with the Ace Hardware Corp. of USA. Other retail endeavour agreements were done with Star Appliance Center, Surpuls Shop, Sports Central, Baby & Co., Home World, Our Home and Quantum Entertainment. Henry Sy was also the founder of the Banco de Oro Universal Bank which he still controls today. Not surprisingly, he acquired 11 percent of San Miguel Corporation, the largest food and beverage conglomerate in south-eastern Asia. Once a young borrower of the China Banking Corporation in the past, he now holds a major stake of the bank owning more than 70 percent of its assets. He also owns 34 percent of the Equitable PCI Bank and attempts to purchase another 33 percent of it to merge it with Banco de Oro to create the Philippines’ largest bank. This realization will form the country’s first superbank to par with the giant banks of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – therefore enabling him to eclipse all financial tycoons in the Philippines including George S.K. Ty, Alfonso T. Yuchengco and even his former landlords, the influential Zobel de Ayala family. His personal assets in these three banks are valued at $1.5 billion and some $500 million worth of net income from the food company. He has also recently absorbed small franchise banks such as the local branches of Singapore’s United Overseas Bank Ltd. and Spain’s Banco Santander Central Hispano SA. Around 2003, he made a joint-venture with the Keppel Group of Singapore and opened The Podium right beside the Megamall. It was the first handicapped-friendly shopping center in the country.

The Family Affair

Unlike many rich kids, his children did not grow up spoiled and arrogant but rather simple and industrious. Their father, who lived by the rules of the traditional Confucian values of life, kept them away from boastful spending and other vices. They were all raised learning the importance of perseverance and simplicity to in order remain free from greed. Starting at age 13, each of his children were already put to work, all focusing on the stocking shelves and manning cash registers. Henry Sy barred his children from studying overseas fearing that they would all stay far from the business. Today, he has the full support of all six of them in managing the SM Group with Teresita “Tessie” managing Banco de Oro, Equitable PCI Bank, the department stores and the retail stores, while Hans is in charge of the shopping centers and president of SM Prime Holdings and vice chairman of China Bank. Henry Jr. takes care of the real estate ventures of the company and Elizabeth is involved with tourism ventures like the Taal Vista Hotel in Tagaytay City. Herbert manages the SM Supermarkets while Harley is the president of the flagship holding company SM Investments Corp. Unlike many traditional Chinese families who favor the men in the clan, all children were treated equally in the family. Like many Chinese immigrants to the Philippines, they have adopted the liberal policies in the Filipino society where women are said to be among the world’s most liberated. Once the patriarch will take his retreat from the company in the future, all siblings will be running the company together as a group but many foresee his eldest daughter, Tessie, taking over the business empire. Many analysts predict that she will be his successor, although nothing can be for sure since the Asian business community in the region still prefers to handle business with men. 53-year-old Teresita Sy-Coson is married to a Filipino and has three children studying in Australia. She envisions a more relaxed and free atmosphere in the family for the future. Like many Chinese industrial clans of the younger generation, the Sy siblings also dream of the luxury of enjoying their wealth and success. All siblings grew up being pressured at work. Once asked in an interview what they all did for fun during their youth in a café in Manila, they all stared nervously into their cups and eventually uttered “Work.” In a recent interview with Time Magazine, she admitted that her father always wanted “life and work become one. My Father would love that. He hoped we would be his clones. We do have our own lives. For my father, the organization is the family.” But Mister Sy, of course, only wanted the best for his family. He is after all a family-oriented person. Part of his simple life is walking on Sundays along Manila’s seaside market to buy fresh fish, which he cooks himself for the family’s lunch meal. His favorite specialty is fish soup with noodles. The family frequently meets up together on weekdays at the company’s office headquarters where they discuss and oversee nearly every aspect of the business, from property deals to labor negotiations. Every Saturday, the family gathers up for their trip inspections at some of their mall branches for quality control and service check. Twice a month, they conduct executive meetings to discuss business with their company’s top people and sometimes the family would even meet together “informally” for lunch.

The Asian Crisis

Henry Sy knows almost every obstacle in his business after almost sixty years of experience. After contributing so much to the phenomenal calculus of the country’s economic development, he knows what is best for his business and has learned from the problems he has faced in the past. He sited one of the reasons that worsened the status of the Asian crisis in 1997 was the fact that most industries in Asia were family-controlled. Most Japanese industries, for example, have started as private family firms: Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Toyota and etc. Most residents in Hong Kong cannot avoid contributing to the bank accounts of business tycoon Mister Li and his sons who control countless office towers, supermarkets, electronics outlets and telephone companies in the city. Both the economies of Hong Kong and Taiwan prospered from the industrious anthills of small family shop owners who grabbed the chances whenever good opportunities came along. The secret behind South Korea’s economic success came from thirty ambitious business clans who engineered the economic miracle by creating the vision of Korea Inc. The idea was to transform the back then impoverished agrarian economy into one of the world’s economic powerhouses by the unity and struggle of these ambitious families called chaebols. This meant that these families have supported each other throughout the years and therefore have benefited from the riches mainly among themselves. The impoverished Indonesian archipelago has bowed to its mama and papa corporation, known as the Suharto Inc., for more than 30 years. For many decades, patriarchs have been running their family business like absolute royalties to maximize their economic power rather than to maximize profits for the good of the nation’s success. The most accurate description of the Asian economic landscape is to conclude that business in Asia is a family affair. Even today, most of Asia’s top public industries are still family-owned. The industrialists who run these industries belong to the powerful families who basically own Asia. And for generations, industrial concerns have been past down from grandfather to son and to grandchildren, not to professional managers who are not related to the clan. And instead of venturing with shareholders, profits were made to create new flagship companies. During the decades of industrial growth in East Asia, these inefficient and outmoded practices have increasingly grown until they came under fire and have caused the outcome of the Asian crisis based on crony capitalism cables and the spoils of parceling economic growth only to a privileged few. Having recovered from the crisis today, many Asian economists have become suspicious about centralized capitalism and concentrated economic power. Even tycoons today would note that it is not business as usual anymore since the pre-crisis atmosphere in the region. Economists no longer trust to take faith on former socio-economic policies of the past. Today, it is impossible for business families to continue carrying on with their secret industrial recipes due to global competition and international pressure from free trade. The private business sector has learned a lesson from the heavy dose during the region’s economic collapse. The Philippines as a dwarf economy only experienced a light economic spill over. The rules of the game have changed as East Asia still remains to be the world’s fastest growing region. Industrial success now demands transparency and genuine data for firms to be run in the benefit of stakeholders and the public. Henry Sy has been an influential monitor towards the change of Asia’s economic behavior. He himself took care that no intruders or outsiders would enter his family business in the past. Now that he has joined the rules of fair play in the free trade policy, his company has slowly been opening up to outsiders. In the case of the family tradition, the business has increasingly grown so complex and stressful that professional workers outside the family had to be hired – of course counting on their loyalty. As much as possible they try to avoid placing any professional strangers who have their own agendas. His offspring claim that the business grown too large for just a few people to manage. The family has been very hands-on lately. Now they have to delegate more work and take more responsibility. Some day-to-day managements of the Sy family have been handed off to recruited managers and professional economists who now assist them in making financial decisions. The new rule is that there should be no family members in the team of a professionally managed company. Still, the Sys continue to fear that by bringing in these new changes in their business affairs, something important might get lost forever. But nevertheless, they still hope that everything goes out well and pray for a “continuity of culture”, which will keep the spirit of their legacy alive once the family’s role in the company diminishes.

Going Public

When the SM Group opened up to the public on March 2005 by enlisting its three prime companies at the Philippine Stock Exchange, the company launched what is now considered to be the largest initial public offering throughout Philippine history. It is now one of the largest gainers in the local bourse. As a sign of his gratitude to the country, he has returned a special gift to the consuming community by establishing the SM Foundation Inc., which grants scholarships to numerous unprivileged children. Being a wide believer of education, Henry Sy continues to engage in education projects. His foundation has already granted aid to some 400 gifted scholars. In partnership with the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc., Mister Sy has donated public schools for the poor in rural areas of the country. He was also the prime mover behind the prestigious Asia Pacific College in Parañaque City. He also invested for the upgrading of his alma mater, the Far Eastern University. Never forgetting his ethnic roots, he donated several school buildings in his and his wife’s ancestral villages in China. His company also gave full financial support to the promising athletes of the Philippine team during the 2005 Southeast Asian Games. He owes most of his inspirations to his beloved wife, whom he claims to be his life-long best friend. He once told the press that he is not polygamous as any ordinary businessman because it is his nature to be faithful. In the same year, SM City Dasmariñas, SM City Batangas, and SM City San Lazaro were opened.

The Torusim Venture

A very remarkable man he is. After all, not many have the chance to achieve and excel so well. Maybe, he is a very fortunate person after all. All hardships have their reward. And lucky are those people who dream big and still get to live their dreams. Henry Sy is indeed a man of visions. “I’ve never had an inferiority complex,” he declares in an interview “only shopping complexes.” His eldest son, Henry Jr. points out. Well, it is true about his weakness for shopping - or shall we say passion? He never turned his back on making long and hard decisions for his projects and faced all the challenges that came upon his path. Even during the times of EDSA II (2001) and the Oakwood mutiny (2003). In 2004, countless political noises began to mess up the Philippine economy once again: from the long process of the presidential elections to the controversial scandal about the “Hello, Garci…” tapes, the insane opposition movement, allegations towards human rights of the current administration, the never ending debate towards charter change in the government system, the atrocious state of national emergency incident and finally, corruption issues as always. All that mess was in his way but they didn’t seem to bother him the slightest. The Philippines still continues to paint a far worse economy than expected by international investors. It simply discourages, no, it even haunts them from coming in. Many of them long have given up on the country. But definitely not for Henry Sy. Not unless he sees hope in it. He always strived even in sickness and in health. Not even to note that this is the retailing empire that he has built. This is the land that Henry Sy has forged. If he wouldn’t have done so, what would have happened to the Philippines? That is why he continues to emerge as the economy’s “cool king”. He takes every commotion, which scares everyone else, with ease. He is a man who just walks beyond the borders of reality. He only has one thing to say to the doomsayers of the economy: The Philippines is not a hopeless case. “I am optimistic that we can achieve a better future. I came to this country to appreciate the natural beauty and many economic advantages of the Philippines more than many other people do, and I kept working and investing with positive thinking.” These are the words that come from a great man of a few words but rather great deeds. In the few times that he has spoken in public, Sy has imparted very simple yet profound words of wisdom that are worth more than a thousand words: “My personal style leads towards working, not speaking. In fact, speaking before you is more difficult than building shopping malls.” His motivations towards life and economic progress have always been an inspiration to many even in crucial times of social despair. Knowing the country’s high potentials in the tourism sector, he aggressively embarks to grab a bigger slice of this cake. Aside from owning several hotels already, he continues to buy attractive properties with panoramic views in Cabanatuan City in Nueva Ecija, Pangasinan and Bulacan. His company continues to embark on a forceful expansion program for tourism development within the next few years. Urbanization projects have already long been underway. The rising number of tourists has showed that the tourism industry will soon become the next big thing in the country with its increasing rates. In preparation for this, his company has already acquired a total land bank of 96.6 hectares in 10 strategic locations including the joint venture he has signed with the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) to develop a 2.34-hectare GSIS property adjacent to his SM City Baguio mall. He is planning to build residential condominiums and hotel complexes to ensure his position in the country’s top holiday destinations under his very own tourism company, Highlands Prime Inc. It is the publicly listed high-end leisure property development company of the SM Group. He also owns a string of prized coves and hundreds of hectares of beachfront and adjoining hilly property in Cavite province between the wilting Puerto Azul resort and the sizzling Punta Fuego, but that is another property play waiting to happen. He is now master-planning a new 5,700-hectare seaside project called the Hamilo Coastâ in Batangas. His Tagaytay Highlands project in Tagaytay City has long broken grounds as it set to create a new landmark on Philippine soil. It is envisioned as a private residential haven for golfers on a wide green landscape with a panoramic view facing towards the breathtaking Taal Lake. It is nearing the first phase of completion inside the exclusive Tagaytay Highlands and Tagaytay Midlands enclave. Known as The Horizon, the first low-rise condominium development inside the complex will contain luxurious mountain resort facilities. As the completion of The Horizon’s six (out of twelve) buildings are drawing near, the Pinehurst Building, the Pebble Beach Building, the Gleneagle Building and the Bayhill Building are some of the pompous buildings designed from a fusion of Japanese and other Asian elements showcasing monochromatic earth tones, giving it a relaxing and laid back ambience. Gold-accented and striking red ornaments are added as the centerpiece of the furniture. The panorama is accompanied with green oasis gardens together with elegant furnishing and Zen gardens at the balcony. The Midlands Golf Club will be an 18-hole golfing resort with a carefully landscaped garden and several infinity pools for relaxation.

SM Mall of Asia – Visualizing a Dream

Henry Sy Sr. is the chairman of the SM Group of companies. He continues to work hard everyday but he also realizes that he is aging. And having an adventurous life, most likely well-lived, many would still ask what else he is looking for. For a long time, he has been focusing on a meaningful project. It was a dream that nearly fell apart during the Asian economic crisis back in 1997. Back then he was willing to contribute something than could boost the Philippine economy to the fullest. He wanted to create a legacy – perhaps even leave a mark. It was his ultimate dream. He wanted to have it in the center of it all, directly in Manila’s waterfront at the reclamation area in Pasay City nicknamed Bay City. It was ought to be the greatest work of his life. He originally envisioned it becoming the world’s largest mall once opened. After the crisis, its plans were scaled down. Instead of building a huge 600,000 square meter box-like bricked shopping complex of seven stories, it was narrowed down to two floors, now with a more modern architectural design formed by a white glossy wave. Its construction began on the third quarter of 2002 and he pushed through for its construction no matter what happened. It was now being built having a gross floor area of 386,000 square meters, a size that has long been surpassed several other malls in the world. It was nestled at the centerpiece of the SM Business Park, where the long arcade of five one-story buildings serves as the company’s corporate office headquarters. But the construction later slowed down due to the long awaiting of the availability of funds. In early 2004, construction was accelerated due to the Ty family that owns the Metropolitan Bank and Trust Company, who invested on a medical school, a dining strip and a residential complex at the Macapagal Boulevard, adjacent to the SM Business Park. At the time of its construction, the Philippines saw the opening of SM Supercenter Valenzuela, SM City Santa Rosa and SM City Clark. His SM City Baguio mall also won an award for being the country’s Shopping Center of the year at the time beating the two Ayala Malls, Glorietta 4 and Greenbelt 4. It was awaited for launching on June 2005 but because of the strong pressures of economic jitters, political scramble and tropical depression; its inauguration was delayed again for nearly another year. The mall would have opened before the Christmas of 2005 but was once again delayed because of the hitch of the delivery of construction materials. It was later delayed once more because of the delayed turnover of mall space to tenants so the inauguration date had to be moved again. Before its opening on March 3, 2006 there were press rumors that the complex was unstable and had several structural defects but these allegations were denied by the company. On May 21, 2006, it was finally done. The day of its inauguration took place. It was said to be one of his greatest achievements ever. Elite members of the society, the business community, authoritarian politicians and even to the influential clergy, every imaginable person was present at that day in honor of an edifice created by a very honorable man. It was the grand opening if the long-awaited SM Mall of Asia to the public. Even the President was present at the event to congratulate him. 400,000 consumers came to grace its first day of service to the all-consuming economy. He called on his arch competitor John Gokongwei Jr. of the Robinsons Malls earlier to attend the inauguration but he couldn’t attend. As expected, the mall was definitely huge in size. It was a mammoth. It was built on 19.5 hectares of reclaimed land west of Roxas Boulevard and at the southern most tip of the historical Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). A colossal roundabout was built in front of the mall with a huge bronze globe similar to Universal Studios. There was a huge esplanade constructed behind the mall where visitors could take a glimpse at the panoramic view of the famous Manila Bay sunset. It also served as an observation center for big events such as firework events. The shopping complex consists of four buildings interconnected by walkways: the Main Hall, Entertainment Hall and the North and South Carpark Buildings. It has a unique feature possessing a 20-seater tram to make it easier for mall drawers to go around. It was the management’s priority for shoppers not to get lost inside the mall. There will be two information centers – one in the Main Mall and one in the Entertainment Hall. Maps will be given out to visitors and facilities will include many signs. The Main Mall includes shopping and dinning establishments, in the food court. It gave way to more than 800 retailer shops. The North Parking Building houses the SM Hypermarket while the South Parking Building includes the huge SM Department Store outlet. The parking facilities have a 5,000 vehicle capacity. The mall’s greatest attraction is the Pacifica Entertainment Plaza. Aside from world-class bowling and billiards facilities, the building has 10 huge theaters including an exclusive Director’s Club and of course, the first ever IMAX Theater in the Philippines. It has the largest screen in the country at 22 x 33 meters, similar to the height of an eight story building making it the biggest outlet in Asia. It is named the San Miguel Coca Cola IMAX Theater coming from the joint-ventures with the two companies. More than anything, the mall also features the country’s first Olympic-size ice skating rink and a special science museum. The mall also provides office space for investments in Information Technology and Business Outsource Processing. Dell International Services, a subsidiary of Dell Inc. has occupied a 13,470.5 – square meter area at the second floor. Complementing projects to the SM Mall of Asia was the donated church and following plans to build residential towers and hotels within the SM Business Park. The OneE-Com Center is an Information Technology haven for global firms to set office for their BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) operations; while the proposed MAITRADE Expo and Convention Center will house future showrooms and host trade fair events. The final highlight of the project will be a state-of-the-art entertainment dome for concerts, prestigious sport events and show business celebrations with upscale and high-tech facilities that is said to eclipse the now prestigious Araneta Coliseum once finished. The SM Mall of Asia received so much praise from the public that the parking massive lots were not enough to cater guest vehicles and the complex has caused several traffic jams in the first three weeks after its opening. It is the world’s third-largest shopping mall, behind the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and the Golden Resources Mall in Beijing, China making SM Megamall the 16th largest mall in the world. It was a big leap from the small shoe store in Quiapo back in the 1950’s. SM’s destinations have continuously evolved creating continuous researches and new ideas to meet the tastes of consumers. On this day, the patriarch was definitely the happiest man on earth having fulfilled a long-awaited dream.

Awards & Recognitions

For a great man who deserves more than just social admiration, Henry Sy was awarded with the first special recognition as the “Father of Philippine Retail” in December 2005 by the Philippine Retailers Association. The president of the alliance, Mr. Mars Chua cited, “as retailers, we have all benefited from the establishment of malls in the country. Success stories of entrepreneurs abound as their businesses grew with the growth of malls.” The award, Chua added, was an “opportunity to thank him.” No other than President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo handed Sy the award. Many people praised him for his achievements. Earlier in 1999, he was named “Management Man of the Year” by the Makati Business Club and was conferred an “Honorary Doctorate in Business Management” by the De La Salle University in Manila. These awards highlighted the extraordinary rags-to-riches saga of the “Mall king”.

His daughter Tessie said “We are very touched by this great honor for our father. I have worked for our dad for 35 years, and he is really hardworking, disciplined and a visionary. Let us have more positive thinking and just keep working hard.”

When asked why he has recently spent 7 billion Philippine pesos on his new mall at a time when the Philippine economy was not strong at all, he answered, “It’s investment that manifests my strong confidence to the Philippine future. I hope this biggest mall project will have a positive impact on the economy and I hope to encourage other business people to invest, too.” He therefore urges the government to push and work hard to improve the country. “My simple formula that will accelerate growth is in the sense that the government should improve the peace-and-order situation as well as the international image of the Philippines in this crucial issue. Infrastructure should be upgraded and there should be a strong information campaign in promoting the country.” He was definitely bullish on the economy and he meant it seriously. Every time he meets political figures, he often cites his excitement about the Philippine economy.

Socorro Ramos, founder of the National Bookstore chain which was elevated to the Hall of Fame as “Outstanding Filipino Retailer”, expressed “I wish the good Lord will bless Henry Sy with many more years so he can continue to do his mission of helping others.”

Meanwhile, Tony Tan Caktiong, founder of the Jollibee fast food chain and CEO of Jollibee Foods Corp., said "Henry Sy is an inspiration. He always emphasized hard work.”

Benjamin Chan, the founder of the Bench boutique chains, which won as “Global Retailer of the Year”, said that “the Philippine retail industry would not be the same without Henry Sy.”

Conquering the World

The SM Group continues to compete against the worlds largest retail giants like America’s Wal-Mart and Carrefour including Germany’s Metro. All chains have massive investments in China. The SM patriarch now aims to be number one in the world. “Ever since I was a boy in our village in southern China, I was always No. 1 among the kids in our area. I’ve always wanted to be No. 1 in everything I undertake. I believe in excellence, in doing one’s best.” Sy stated. A European banker once noted that if he really wanted to be number one among the rest of the world, he should aggressively expand into the vast China market to compete with other leading companies that are now present in the booming Chinese economy. Asia’s richest men, Robert Kuok of Malaysia and Li Ka Shing of Hong Kong hold these positions because of their strong presence in China. The SM Group has secretly been expanding in China over the past years with three supermalls, namely SM North Xiamen, SM South Xiamen and SM Chuan. The company is currently constructing a mall that will soon open in Chengdu City in a province of more than 70 million people. But the European banker said that he has to expand faster before it’s too late.

And the Dream Goes On...

With almost 30 supermalls and more than 25 department store branches, SM Prime Holdings is now on its move to take the lead in opening two malls a year in the Philippines and one mall a year in China until 2010. Other expansion possibilities are being eyed in Vietnam and India. SM City Lipa and SM Supercenter Pasig will be opening soon, followed by SM City Bacolod and SM City Marikina in the near future. The company employs more than 40,000 Filipinos and contributes to the livelihood of more than 1.5 million people. The Silverscreen of his SM Cinemas house 146 movie theaters (with over 103,708 of total seating capacity) making it house 60 percent of all cinemas in the Philippines, therefore having the position as the leading cinema operator in the country. His ice skating rinks have introduced Filipinos to a western sport that was otherwise unpopular in tropical countries. Today, Filipino ice skating talents have brought home countless victories in international championship tournaments excelling with much global recognition, crediting the exposure of their delegations to Henry Sy. He built the rinks in dedication to his lifetime passion, which is inline-skating. In his youth, he often used to roller skate a lot along Manila’s Taft Avenue. His acknowledgement as the richest Filipino alive is seen with a net worth income of $1.4-2.1 billion and was therefore ranked as the world’s 355th richest man. But these Forbes estimates are considered wrong due to his vast business empire. Economists predict his personal fortune to be around $5 billion with vast shares and business holdings more than $15 billion including him among the 40 richest people in Asia. The Sy family has long surpassed the 10-generation Zobel de Ayala clan with their 171-year-old Ayala Corporation. The SM Group today is considered to be the fifth best-managed and best-performing company in the Asia Pacific Region. Despite the many complaints pointed out by foreign business executives about the problems weighing Philippine progress, Henry Sy continues to strive and work hard to fulfill more dreams on new projects at the age of 82, a lifespan when most people would have already retired decades ago. He is a stout brown-skinned man and also loves to eat a lot of Mexican food like any average Filipino. Today, he has become more mentally sharp and physically energetic than ever before. As of now, he can only say, “As I move on in life and work on more dreams, I realized something - there is no limit to what we can do. God is good and generous with His gifts to us. He gives us many opportunities and equal time every day. It is up to us to make full use of them. I encourage you to have your own dream and work to make it a reality. You are young with the future before you. Remember the young boy who arrived in Manila many years ago, a stranger with nothing to his name and not knowing a word of Tagalog or English. If I can do it, the young people of today can do it, too.” During public assemblies, he frequently bumps into friends and other people he hasn’t met for a long time already and they always tend to ask him what else he is still working for after achieving so much in life already. He simply laughs and answers that he is a man of dreams and still wants to accomplish a lot of visions based on the fact that “I dream a lot, and I like to make things happen.”


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Published: 07-06-06 - Updated: 07-06-06 - id:2206603

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