By James Loyola
It is well-known that Henry Sy Sr., fondly called “Tatang” by both family and those who have worked under him, started out as a shoe vendor in Quiapo after the war and went on to build one of Asia’s biggest business empires and named as the Philippines’ top billionaire with a net worth of $19 billion as of Friday, according to Forbes. com. Forbes said he was the 52nd richest person in the world last year, beating out bold name tycoons like Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, and George Soros.
Acknowledged as the Philippines’ Father of Retail, Sy was born in Xiamen in China’s Fujian province. He immigrated to the Philippines at the age of 12 and started selling rice, sardines and soap at his father’s neighborhood store in Manila in 1936.
The store was burned and looted during World War II so Sy was called on to sell goods to help the family survive, according to Tessie Sy-Coson, the eldest of his six children.
Sy began his SM Group of Companies with a shoe store in 1948, during his entrepreneurial days, selling American-made shoes after Manila was devastated by the war.
The shoe store near Quiapo Church eventually led to the opening of a department store in 1958 and became a chain of four branches with its biggest branch at the then shopping capital of Cubao.
But what would set Sy apart from other retailers of that time was when he set his sights on a 16-hectare marshland in Quezon City which was to be the birthplace of his first shopping mall, SM City North EDSA.
Constructed at the height of a political crisis in the middle of nowhere, Sy focused on completing the project. His vision unseen by most observers who thought that developing a mall that size was foolish and ill-timed, SM North EDSA eventually opened its doors in 1985.
We’ve got it all for you
While its only tenants at the start were SM’s fifth department store, its very first supermarket, and its first cinemas, other tenants followed suit as people came in droves to see what a mall that size had to offer. It was then that Sy made sure that SM has it all for its loyal customers.
With his initial success, Sy’s transformation from a retailer to a real estate magnate began as he built mall after mall before undertaking his first initial public offering of shares of SM Prime Holdings Inc.
By the end of September last year, SM Prime had 71 malls in the Philippines and 7 in China with a total gross floor area of 9.5 million square meters and 398 cinemas. It has also diversified into the development of residential condominiums, offices for leasing, resorts, hotels and convention centers.
But Sy’s vision did not stop with SM Prime, his retail business also grew rapidly with the addition of more department stores, several grocery store and supermarket concepts, convenience stores, and various specialty stores. He also entered the banking business and grew BDO Unibank to be the country’s biggest lender, while holding a significant stake in China Banking Corporation.
Holding all his major undertakings in SM Investments Corporation, Sy led his business empire with a focus on his commitment to good governance, excellence, transparency and stewardship and having a high regard for all stakeholders.
In 2017 and 2018, SM was named among the top firms in the Forbes 2018 Global 2000-Best Regarded Companies – Forbes Magazine’s list of companies recognized for being trustworthy and fair.
Companies were evaluated based on their reputation including topics on trustworthiness, honesty, social conduct, performance of the company’s products and the company as an employer.
The list is global with 34 countries represented. Only two Philippine companies – SM Investments Corporation and BDO Unibank – garnered spots in the list of well-regarded companies, joining the roster of well-known global brands.
A visionary in the field of business, Sy was also a philantrophist. Through SM Foundation, he has helped hundreds of deserving scholars get an education and achieve their dreams.
He also built or contributed to churches in and outside SM Malls, as well as school buildings, latest among which is the P400-million BGC Campus of the University of the Philippines.
Through all this, Sy has also built a tightly-knit family with wife Felicidad with whom he has six children – four boys and two girls. Over the years, shoppers at SM would often see him going around the malls with one of his sons and, on Sundays, it is not uncommon to see the entire Sy clan with his children and numerous grandchildren troop to one of the restaurants in an SM Mall for dinner and bonding.
Sy’s children Tessie, Henry Jr., Hans, Herbert, Harley and Elizabeth played various roles in helping him build the SM Group and continue Tatang’s legacy by steering the conglomerate to greater heights with the help of professional managers.
Tatang, Henry Sy Sr., 94, passed away peacefully in his sleep early Saturday morning. The Sy family has not provided further details at the moment.
“We are truly grateful for the outpouring of sympathy on the passing of our father, Henry Sy Sr. May we respectfully ask for privacy today to give the family time to reflect and to finalize arrangements,” the Sy family said in a statement.
The SM Group in a statement said: “It is with deep sadness that we inform you of the peaceful passing of our beloved Chairman Emeritus, founder and Tatang, Mr. Henry Sy, SR. this morning. We join the Sy family in fervent prayer.” (With a report from AFP)