Every time we hear the name Henry Sy, the first thing that comes to our mind would be SM, a business taipan, and how rich he is. Who wouldn’t? He is just the richest man in the Philippines for fifth year in a row now. That is why everyone is curious about his success story as a Filipino Chinese entrepreneur.
Mr. Sy is the founder of SM Group and chairman of SM Prime Holdings, the largest retailer and shopping mall operator in the Philippines. SM malls were among the largest mall in the world based on gross leasable area as of 2012 (SM City North EDSA at no. 3 and Mall of Asia in Pasay at no. 10). But would you believe that this man who literally overflows with money was once just a poor boy? Hard to imagine that but the Retailer King actually was just a striving Chinese boy who was determined to find a way out of the poverty.
Born Sy Chi Sieng in a small village in southern China on December 25, 1932 to a poor family, Henry become eager to follow upon his father’s footsteps on becoming a businessman who set out to try his luck in another country when he was just a toddler. At the age of 12 he followed his father here in the Philippines pretty sure that he was going to succeed only to be surprised of the state of his father’s miserable life in this foreign country. After shedding a tear of that very sad reality, he became more persistent on achieving his goal. He did everything he could to help alleviate life; he worked from dawn until late at night.
He would buy goods from Divisoria flea market, carry them on his back and sell them in his father’s small (sari-sari) store. When they close for the night, they would both sleep inside that small space until all their hard labor eventually earned them a better way of life.
Henry started his studies at Anglo-Chinese School in Quiapo at the age of twelve where he also struggled to learn English. But everything else was doing fine for him and his father until the Japanese came to take over Philippines during the World War II. The economy collapsed, and all in 1946, their store was burned down which made his father decide to go home to China. Henry however decided to stay. He started his own business by selling cheap shoes from Marikina.
In 1949, he was able to loan a capital from China bank and used it to rebuild his business. And to improve his skills in the buy and sell industry, he decided to enroll at Far Eastern University in 1950 taking up a degree in Associate in Arts in Commercial Studies. He changed his legal name to Henry Sy upon acquiring his Philippine citizenship. After two years, he had to give up his studies so he could focus on his business.
He married a Chinese immigrant who changed her legal name to Felicidad upon acquiring her Filipino citizenship and they had six children. They both converted to Catholicism due to the strong Filipino influence.
When the economy in the Philippines was starting to get back on the right tracks, Henry decided to put up the first Shoemart along Carriedo St. in Manila. And because its popularity, he was able to open another two outlets. But he was not contented of what he have achieved and decided to add appliances division on each of his stores. By 1960’s, store chains have expanded. And in 1970’s, it became a full-line Department Store changing the name from Shoemart to SM with a pioneering store at Makati City followed by four other stores including one in Iloilo City which was the first outside of Metro Manila.
In November 25, 1985, the first Supermall was opened in Quezon City which was called SM City North EDSA, as of today; there are already 43 malls across the Philippines and branches in China.
With all his achievements, Mr. Sy have collected awards, including Management Man of the Year by Makati Business Club in 1999, Honorary Doctorate in Business Management by De La Salle University in January 1999, 40 Richest Filipinos of 2008-2012, Forbes magazine Heroes of Philanthropy, and he was the 1st Chinese-Filipino recipient of the PRA President Award (2005).
Was it just pure luck or a fruit of labor? Maybe both, with this, Mr. Sy was able to give as a very concrete example of the saying; if there is a will, there is a way. Long live the King of Retail!
Stay tuned for more Filipino entrepreneur’s success stories.