A Summary of Henry Sy’s Biography
Henry’s amazing rags to riches story has earned him great respect from almost everyone in the business world. In addition to this, Henry is well-known for investing in and growing his SM Malls during the time of the financial crisis in the Philippines, a feat that so few in the world have come to accomplish. His philosophy and principles in business have made him a very effective and successful entrepreneur, and have established for him a reputation that has made him an example of what it means to be a businessman.
Four words can be used to describe Henry in general: creative, diligent, persistent, and optimistic. Throughout his life, Henry has encountered numerous challenges and obstacles that if we were to go through them, we would definitely quit; however, due to his persistent attitude and amazing foresight in seeing the good out of any bad situation, as well as filtering through the advice of the people surrounding him, Henry is able to become confident in any decisions he makes.
In spite of his status as a wealthy businessman, Henry is a very humble person, always attributing his success to the people around him who helped him get to where he is today. He also respects people from all walks of life, and never gets embarrassed to be seen even with the janitors of his mall. Having gone through a poor and struggling life himself, Henry knows exactly what it feels to live in want, thus he always gives a hand to those in need.
With all the success that Henry has received in his career as a businessman, he never forgets to give back to the very people who helped him achieve the very things he is enjoying today—his fellow Filipinos. Henry actively participates in the work of the SM Foundation, the philanthropic arm of his business.
Through the SM Foundation, Henry is able to reach out to the poor members of the community and give them hope through various programs, such as scholarships and relief operations. He has also collaborated with several non-governmental organizations throughout the Philippines and China in constructing public schools for the poor in these countries’ rural areas.
Henry is very loyal to the Philippines, the country he grew up in. In many of the interviews made with Henry, he has strongly expressed a belief that there is still hope for the Philippines to rise back up into its glory days, and he has been doing his part in seeing this happen by boosting the country’s tourism industry.
When he was interviewed regarding his investment at the Mall of Asia (one of the largest malls in the world) during the time of financial depression, he said:
“It's investment that manifests my strong confidence in the Philippine future. I hope this biggest mall project will have a positive impact on the Philippine economy and I hope to encourage other business people to invest, too. Not everything I do is purely for money. Of course, as a businessman and as head of publicly listed companies, we have to earn, but at this point in my life, there are other considerations more important besides just money. I took a risk and invested in SM Mall of Asia because I wanted to create something that could contribute to Philippine tourism growth.”
Where the Success Story Began
Henry Sy’s 13–billion–dollar empire had its humble beginnings in the small village of Ankhue, in the Jinjiang county of Southern China’s Fujian province, where he was born in October of 1923. He was born as ‘Shi Zhi Cheng,’ which in English literally means “to attain ultimate success.” Henry’s father was a trader who had a small business in mainland China. When he learned of the growing industry in the Philippines, which was under American rule during the twenties, Henry’s father decided to move to the country to take the risk of starting a business. He brought his family with him and settled in a thirty–meter lot in Quiapo.
Henry’s father built a small grocery shop along Echague Street, one of the busiest streets in Chinatown, where he and Henry worked all throughout the day until evening buying cheap goods at Divisoria (a place in Manila that is well-known for wholesales, retails, and bargains) and selling them at their grocery store.
In spite of the difficult life that he experienced, Henry was taught by his parents to never let the hardships of life weigh him down. He was also taught by his father to dream big, so that he will not just have enough for himself, but also have something extra for others. These teachings greatly inspired Henry that he would remember them for the rest of his life, and would push him later on to persevere during the tough times.
When he was interviewed many years later, Henry recalled how he cried when he first saw his father in his store:
“I cried because I saw how hard the life of my father was as a small shopkeeper. He worked from early morning to late at night every day. He would go to "chay-chi-khaw" area or Divisoria to buy goods, carrying them himself on his back in order to resell in the store. I learned the importance of honest hard work, frugality, and discipline from his example.”
As early as ten years old, Henry already exhibited the traits of a business–minded person. Although their grocery shop was small, it was quite popular to the neighbors due to Henry’s creative products that got people’s attention. Henry’s father was very fond of him due to his talent in promoting the store, and would often give Henry something extra every time they sold more than their daily target.
Because Henry was focused on his father’s business at a young age, he entered his elementary education when he was 12 at an Anglo-Chinese School in Quiapo (now named the Chiang Kai Shek College). Initially, it was very difficult for Henry to adapt to his school environment because he had absolutely no idea on what was being taught and had to start from scratch. He was often teased by his younger classmates because of his age.
Despite being a student with an average intellect, Henry was nevertheless studious and diligent. This greatly impressed many of his teachers, who were further amazed by Henry’s ability to juggle both his father’s business and his studies. He finished high school with flying colors.
In 1942, the Japanese invaded the Philippines and had their soldiers occupy the islands. It was a very tough situation back then, as the Japanese soldiers were cruel towards the inhabitants of the Philippines. Abuse and torture were very common, especially to those who were suspected of treachery. Fortunately for the Sy family, they were able to escape the persecution in spite of their helping the rebels. By this time, Henry’s father already had two stores in Chinatown. During the ferocious Battle of Manila, the stores were destroyed by the bombings made by the United States air force.
The destruction of the stores brought great disappointment to Henry and his family, but they never quit.
The Story Behind the Success Story
After the war, Henry saw the potential of selling American shoes and invested his time in studying the market and learning everything he can about the shoe industry.
Fortunately, an opportunity opened for him to travel to the United States. Henry immediately grabbed the chance and went on a long business trip to the East Coast, learning everything he can about the shoe business. When he came back to the Philippines in the late forties, he had a lot of grand selling ideas, but he had a problem—he needed capital to be able to put those ideas in action.
This capital came in the form of a one million peso (around twenty five thousand dollars back the) loan given to Henry by China Bank, which was then headed by Yap Tian Siang, one of Henry’s friends. With the money to back him up in his endeavors, Henry put his plans into action and in 1949, opened the very first shoe store along Carriedo Street.
Little did Henry know how he would totally revolutionize the retail industry of the country. Just a few weeks after his store’s grand opening, it already became very famous among the public. Aside from shoes being in demand after the war, Henry’s innovational and strategic selling techniques greatly appealed to the store’s buyers.
Soon enough, the popularity of his shoe store spread, and Henry knew that he would have to establish more branches to accommodate the growing demand of the public. In 1950, Henry enrolled at the Far Eastern University to study commercial studies so he could learn more about the ins and outs of business and marketing.
Sometime during the fifties, Henry applied for Filipino citizenship. When it was granted, Henry changed his name from Shi Zhi Cheng to Henry Sy, the name by which he is known today. It was also during this decade that he met Felicidad Coson, another Chinese immigrant who was studying at the Far Eastern University. The couple immediately took a liking to each other, fell in love, and with the blessing of both their parents, married each other.
Henry Sy Becomes a Father of Six Children
Felicidad bore Henry six children: Teresita (Henry’s oldest child, who later on went to manage Banco de Oro and Equitable PCI Bank, as well as the SM Department Stores), Hans (who went on to become the president of SM Prime Holdings and the vice chairman of China Bank), Henry Jr. (who became the head of the SM Development Corporation, the real-estate arm of the company), Elizabeth (who later on managed the tourism arm of the family business, like the Vista Hotel in Tagaytay), Herbert (who went on to manage the SM Supermarkets), and Harley (who became the president of the SM Investments Corporation).
Henry, who sincerely followed Confucian values, taught his children the importance and value of hard work, diligence, and perseverance. And unlike many rich parents who simply pour gift after gift to their children, Henry taught his children by involving them in the family business once they reached 13—Henry made sure that his children learn the value of hard work by placing his children on the lowest positions, encouraging them to work their way up the ladder. His children, who started out as cashiers, stockmen, and delivery men, later on went to appreciate the things that their father had them go through, as it taught them greatly on how to run the business.
By 1958, Henry’s small shoe store in Quiapo had become so popular that it had to be expanded to accommodate the growing number of customers. During the renovation, Henry utilized the things he learned from the university and decided to add an electronic appliances division to the store. He was dissatisfied with the idea of his store only selling shoes and expanded the things being sold by including other items such as apparel and accessories.
Shoemart is Born
After the renovation, Henry opened the bigger store which he named “Shoemart,” the store that marked the founding of SM Prime Holdings. Shoemart soon became very popular with the masses and in the 1960s, Henry established four more branches all across the country: two of them were in the growing pioneer urban centers—the Makati Business District and Cubao—while the other two were in Manila and Iloilo City.
In the 1970s, Henry further developed Shoemart by doing a feasibility study on the malls in the United States and how it could be applied to the Philippines. The idea of a mall in the Philippines was quite small back then, and Henry knew that there had to be some improvisations made to meet the interests of the Filipinos.
Shoemart Becomes SM
In 1972, Henry decided to shorten the name of his stores from “Shoemart” to “SM,” and hired Juneval Sanso, a Spanish-Filipino artist to design the logo. It became a hit to the masses, and by the same year Henry renamed all of his establishments SM, starting with his first shoe store in Quiapo, which he named “SM Quiapo.” By 1975, Henry redeveloped his shoe stores into fully operated department stores, complete with all the items that Filipinos would commonly want, and he also included, areas such as supermarkets and food courts.
Even when Martial Law was declared in 1972 by the then-sitting President Ferdinand Marcos, it did not stop Henry from further developing his stores to appeal to the public. In fact, it was during the martial law times that many people began to flock to Henry’s department stores, having no other places of entertainment to enjoy.
Henry got his big breakout in 1985, when he opened SM City North Edsa, the very first ‘super mall’ in the country. This shoebox looking mall was complete with all the modern conveniences that were available to shoppers at that time. It was clean and fully air-conditioned, and promoted the futuristic idea of shopping. It was opened just two years after the death of the famous political opposition leader, Ninoy Aquino, and a year before the popular EDSA Revolution that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos.
Four years later, in 1989, SM Centerpoint was established, during the height of the coup d’états against the Philippine government which was back then led by President Corazon Aquino. In 1991, SM Megamall, the most famous mall in the country, was opened. This was the very first mall in the country that featured the ‘Silverscreen,’ the most advanced cinema division of that time, and an ice skating rink.
Henry’s SM Supermalls became such a hit that over the course of the next decade, numerous branches started to be established in different parts of the Philippines. This started with SM Cebu, which was the first SM Supermall outside of Metro Manila. SM grew to become the largest mall operator in the Philippines, establishing Henry’s reputation as a successful entrepreneur and putting him among the richest people in the Philippines. In 1999, Henry was named by the Makati Business Club as the “Management Man of the Year” for his success in SM Prime Holdings. That same year, he also received his honorary doctorate degree from De La Salle University.
SM Gives Back Through the SM Foundation
In 1999, Henry established the SM Foundation as a means of reaching out to the underprivileged and promising young Filipinos. Looking back at his own life, Henry saw how much potential there was in the Filipino people. Through the foundation, Henry was able to give these promising children the opportunity that he never had in his younger years. From its inception, the SM Foundation rose to become one of the largest charitable organizations in the country, and has given scholarships to thousands of aspiring children.
More Success in Business
Henry’s success in the mall industry has allowed him to venture into other business opportunities, such as banking and real-estate. In 1976, the SM Prime Holdings under Henry Sy acquired Banco de Oro, which was at that time, one of the smallest banks in the country. Under the care of SM Prime Holdings, Banco de Oro rose to become the largest bank in the country, acquiring previously larger banks, such as Equitable PCI.
Aside from Banco de Oro, Henry has also acquired over seventy percent of the shares in China Bank, which practically made him its owner. However, in spite of having large share in China Bank, Henry has outright stated that he is not interested in ‘owning’ it in respect to his friend who gave him the loan that enabled him to become the business tycoon he is today. In an interview made with him regarding China Bank, Henry stated:
“I never imagined then that I would own banks. You know, despite our many shareholdings in China Bank, the Dee family of the original founder has managed the institution so professionally and profitably, we never attempted to change the incumbent chairman Gilbert Dee or president Peter Dee. We are not that greedy, it's not good. I don't believe in wanting both power and financial gain. Even those executives who have been with China Bank for many years, they are still there. If a venerable institution like China Bank is doing so well, why make changes?”
Henry also established the SM Development Corporation, the real-estate arm of the SM Group of Companies, as a means of building condominium towers that would cater to the middle class sector of society, the largest percentage of people in the Philippine population. From its establishment, SMDC has constructed over 15 condominiums in various places around the Philippines.
In 2006, Henry opened the SM Mall of Asia to the public. This historical and controversial mall was designed to become the largest mall in the Philippines, complete with an Olympic-sized ice skating rink, the Pacifica Entertainment Center (which contained a large bowling alley and billiards hall), the very first IMAX Theater in the Philippines, and a long esplanade where visitors could view the Manila Bay. A huge bronze globe lay in front of the mall, which symbolized the Mall of Asia’s reputation around the world as one of its largest malls.
When Henry was interviewed regarding the opening of the mall, he stated that it was one of his dreams that became a reality. What is so amazing about the Mall of Asia is that it was constructed during the time when the Philippine economy was very low. There were a lot of allegations of corruption in the government, and the economy was going downhill.
In an interview made with him regarding his decision in building the mall, Henry expressed his confidence and desire to help the country’s economy to rise back up through the mall. When the mall opened in May 2006, it instantly became a huge hit, drawing a lot of visitors not only from the country but from overseas as well.
In the years following the opening of the SM Mall of Asia, doors opened for Henry to bring the SM Supermalls to his home country, China. As of today, there are four SM Supermalls in various parts of China: SM North Xiamen, SM South Xiamen, SM Chuan, and SM Chengdu.
Henry’s faith in the Filipino people has also caused him to enter the tourism industry by engaging in the construction of tourist attractions through the Highlands Prime, the tourism arm of the SM Group of Companies. Henry’s dream of seeing investors come to the Philippines fueled his desire to help in promoting Philippine tourism by building tourist attractions in places, such as Tagaytay, Baguio and other famous Philippine spots.
Henry Sy and Lucio Tan Leads List of Filipino Billionaires
Henry Sy was declared by Forbes as 2013's wealthiest man in the Philippines. Following his lead is Philippine Airline's titan, Lucio Tan, who also happens to hail from China. Sy's net worth is estimated at $13.2 billion as of March 2013, while Tan's is a far cry at $5 billion. Like Henry, Lucio is also a businessman whose investments encompass tourism, banking, and tobacco and brewery industries. Overall, Henry was declared number 68 in Forbes' list of billionaires. Lucio, on the other hand, was ranked 248.
Henry Sy, Jr. Making His Own Mark
In 2013, Henry Sy, Jr. is now the chairman of SM Development Corporation after the stockholders appointed him to replace Henry Sr. The news created a buzz when word got out about Jeffrey Lim, former chief finance officer of SM Prime Holdings Incorporated, being favored more than Henry Jr. after he was appointed chief executive of SMDC. However, Lim clarified that the executive post will remain occupied by Henry Sy, Jr., while he will sit as president and chief operations officer of SMDC in lieu of Rosaline Y. Qua. Thirteen billion pesos will be allocated by SMDC for this year's development with four projects in the offing: Trees Residences and Grass Residences Phase 2 in Quezon City; Shore Residences at the Mall of Asia Complex; and Rich Residences in Mandaluyong.
What Success Taught Him
Throughout his career as a businessman, Henry has never forgotten the very foundations that enabled him to get to the success that he is enjoying today. He always recalls how without the opportunities that opened along his way, he would never have gotten to where he is. He often stresses the importance of being persistent in achieving your dreams, because without it you will easily quit in the face of pressure. He states of his life:
“As a kid, I had the will to strive for excellence and to overcome the hard environment, but I never imagined attaining big success. Whatever I have achieved did not happen overnight; ever since my teen years I have devoted many, many years of my life to non-stop studying, diligent work, and dreaming of a better future.”
- 1960-Present: Founder and Chairman of the SM Group of Companies
- 1976-Present: Chairman Emeritus of Banco De Oro
- 1989-2006: Director of Keppel Philippines Marine
- 1994-Present: Chairman and CEO of SM Prime Holdings Incorporated
- 1995-2007: Director of Republic Glass Holdings Corporation
- 1999-Present: Director of Keppel Philippines Properties Incorporated
- 2002-Present: Chairman of Highlands Prime Incorporated
- Former Director of the San Miguel Corporation
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- The SM Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 1999: Named the Management Man of the Year by the Makati Business Club
- 2005: Received the PRA President’s Award
- 2005: Named as the Father of Philippine Retail by the Philippine Retailers Association
- 2006: Received the Big Brother of Filipino Entrepreneurs Award
- 2008: Included in the list of the 40 Richest Filipinos
- 2009: Named as one of the Heroes of Philanthropy by Forbes Magazine
- 1999: Honorary Doctor of Business Management from the De La Salle University