SM Prime Henry Sy
The late Filipino business tycoon Henry Sy Sr. left a legacy of success and entrepreneurial wisdom. Image Credit: SM Prime

Manila: Henry Sy Sr, the late Filipino billionaire and founder of SM Investments Corp., is a legend. He was the richest Filipino. His children are listed as the richest siblings in the Asian country.

He started out poor.

As a 12-year-old boy, he travelled from the Chinese city of Xiamen in Fujian province in 1924 to the Philippines to help his father run a small “sari-sari” (neighbourhood sundry) store.

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He only started studying high school in Manila. He learnt what adversity meant when World War II erupted, which nearly decimated the Philippine capital.

After the war, seeking a better life, he started his own business selling shoes, opening his first store, Shoe Mart (SM), in downtown Manila in 1958. Sy is known and respected for his hard work. He built one of the biggest conglomerates in the Philippines employing 140,000 people today.

Eight key lessons we can learn from his life and career:

#1. Start small, think big

Henry Sy Sr had an early start. While his peers were busy learning how to construct English sentences in school, he was learning the art of multiplying money at age 12 while helping run his father's small store.

His wealth-building journey began with a small shoe store called ShoeMart in Manila. Despite humble beginnings, he had a grand vision for his business.

From a single shoe store, it evolved into a department store (SM), a fast-growing network of shopping malls, and eventually the conglomerate it is today.

Henry Sy Archives
Filipino business tycoon Henry Sy, renowned for his meticulous attention to detail and relentless pursuit of excellence, during his younger years.

SM Group now operates malls, banks, logistics, gaming, leisure, food, natural resources, dormitories, and offices, property development. It’s one of the largest and most diversified conglomerates in the Philippines. This shows the power of starting with what you have and scaling up through strategic vision and persistence.

#2. When things are good, invest; when things are bad, invest more

Henry Sy Sr. has been quoted as saying: “In good times, I do my usual work. But in bad times, I work harder.”

His journey to success was far from easy. He built his business from the ashes of World War II when opportunities were scarce. Life was rough. Filipino opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in 1983, which precipitated an economic and political crisis.

Yet his first mall, SM City North EDSA, was built during the tumultuous post-Ninoy years, when interest rates were as high as 45 per cent. He picked a location many considered “remote”. But when the mall opened in 1985, amid uncertainty, and a year before the EDSA Revolt, it was an instant hit.

A view of SM City North EDSA in Quezon City, Manila.
A view of SM City North EDSA in Quezon City, Manila. Image Credit: SM Supermalls

Reflecting on his career, Sy Sr. told once local media: “I have been in business for over 50 years and have endured many crises: in 1972 during martial law; in 1983 with the Aquino assassination; in 1987-89 during the military coups; and — worst of all — the Asian crisis.”

His optimism remained unshaken: “Crises produce opportunities, and I believe, like in the past, we can handle the situation.”

At least 4 new SM malls are set to open before end-May 2024 (SM City Caloocan, SM City J Mall in Mandaue, Cebu; SM City San Fernando La Union; and SM City Laoag).

#3. Grit

Sy faced numerous challenges, including the devastation of his businesses during World War II. However, he demonstrated remarkable resilience by rebuilding from scratch.

The average person has ordinary goals: buy a car, build a house, send kids to school, then retire at a certain age. Sy set extraordinary goals and saw opportunities amid adversity.

His grit, an ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and persist through adversity is a testament to the importance of resilience in achieving long-term success.

He’s been quoted as saying: “There is no such thing as overnight success or easy money. If you fail, do not be discouraged; try again. When you do well, do not change your ways. Success is not just good luck: It is a combination of hard work, good credit standing, opportunity, readiness and timing. Success will not last if you do not take care of it.”

#4. Customer-focus

One of Sy's core philosophies is the razor-sharp focus on customers. He understood that the success of his malls and retail stores depended on providing a superior shopping experience. He constantly sought to find ways to serve his customers and employees.

Over time, his influence extended to his business partners and the communities where SM operated. By prioritising customer needs and continuously improving services, Sy built a loyal customer base that propelled his business to new heights.

#5. Diversification 

Successful businessmen don’t put all their eggs in one basket. Henry Sy didn't limit his business to retail. He diversified into banking, real estate, and other sectors (including hardware, appliances, home stores, toys, baby stores and a pharmacy), creating a robust and resilient business empire. He then ventured into banking and property development.

Being bold and innovative while exploring new opportunities highlights the importance of diversification in curbing risks and capitalising on growth opportunities. The company has also built hotels and convention centres.

IKEA Manila
When SM partnered with IKEA, they built the biggest store in the world, at the SM Mall of Asia, in the reclaimed part of Manila.

#6. Branding

Sy sought targeted education for himself. He went on business trips and came home with ideas that gave him an edge over his competitors. He continuously listened to customers, suppliers, and employees. This on-the-job research equipped him with rare business insights to win over more customers.

Sy was renowned for his meticulous attention to detail and relentless pursuit of excellence. Whether in the design of his malls or the efficiency of his operations, he consistently aimed for the highest standards. This dedication to quality ensured that his businesses not only met but exceeded customer expectations, building a strong and reputable brand.

#7. Discipline, boldness

Sy understood discipline, and the power of delayed gratification. He built an empire while living simply, lived like he was poor and became super rich because of his humble habits. Today, the group is the Philippines’ largest business conglomerate – SM Investments Corp (holding company, with interests in retail, property and banking) has a market cap of over $19 billion. SM Prime, its real estate and shopping mall arm, has a market cap at $13.62 billion.

SM Prime
Image Credit: SM Prime

Sy married Felicidad Tan, a shoelace vendor, and the couple was blessed with six children – Teresita Sy-Coson; Elizabeth; Henry Jr; Hans; Herbert; and Harley. The Sy siblings consistently land at the top of the Forbes’ Philippines rich list. Their simplicity and innovative spirit shines through.

The group recently launched a telecoms arm, partnering with Elon Musk's Starlink to help the bridge the country's 7,641 islands with broadband internet. At least 4 new malls are set to open this month (SM City Caloocan, SM City J Mall in Mandaue, Cebu; SM City San Fernando La Union; and SM City Laoag). SM malls are increasingly powered by solar, with EV charging stations available.

#8. Generosity

As Henry became the Asian country’s richest man, his habit of spending money to make money never waned. In the words of his daughter: “Opportunity is where you find it, not where it finds you.”

At the time of his death (January 2019, at the age of 94), his net worth was estimated at $19 billion – the 52nd-richest person in the world then.

The old man lived a life of service, having committed himself to a simple goal: “To serve more people and serve them better.” Sy was not just the richest man in the Philippines: he was also the biggest philanthropist.

Henry Sy, Sr. and his wife Felicidad T. Sy launched the SM Foundation in 1983.
Henry Sy, Sr. and his wife Felicidad T. Sy launched the SM Foundation in 1983. Image Credit: SM Foundation

SM Foundation, which Henry Sy Sr. founded in 1983 with his wife Felicidad, sends thousands of less fortunate students through college and technical-vocational scholarship programmes, builds public school buildings, hospitals, wellness and health centres, organises medical missions, farker and livelihood trainings, and disaster response/initiatives.

SM and its donors awarded 400 new houses in Tacloban City
SM and its donors awarded 400 new houses in Tacloban City, Leyte to families who were hardest hit by the supertyphoon Haiyan (local codename: Yolanda) in 2013. The village, called Pope Francis-CFC ANCOP Canada Community – SM Cares Village, is the biggest of several SM Cares housing projects. The other villages have about 200 houses each.

It runs a greening programme, and supports persons of determination and the elderly. “As you sow, so shall you reap” – the law of “good karma” worked well with him and for him – leaving behind a legacy of entrepreneurial wisdom and a life of giving.