REMEMBERING ‘TATANG’ | PHL richest man values education, hates wasting food

2 months ago

By Anthony Divinagracia

JANUARY 20, 2018 – Henry Sy, Sr. did not say a word. But his face said it all.

From his wheelchair, the country’s richest man basked in unspeakable joy as the spotlight at the SMX Convention Center gleaned at his direction.

No, it was not an event to celebrate the family’s latest business success. It was not even about the Sys, let alone the patriarch of the country’s booming retail giant.

It was about a dream, which “Tatang” (father) has long shared with a thousand people that formed a sea of blue on that afternoon of January 6, 2019.

“We love you Tatang!” were intermittent chants that reverberated in the packed SMX Convention Center.

A few minutes later, Henry Sy. Sr – the man they fondly call Tatang (father) appeared glassy-eyed as five alumni scholars of the SM Foundation presented him a wall art titled “Scholars for Scholars” to honour his generosity and love for education.

“In good times, work hard. In bad times, work harder. If you fail, do not be discouraged. Try again. Success requires time, determination, and discipline. If you do well, do not change your ways. Success will not last if you do not take care of it.” Tatang’s youngest son Harley said on behalf of his 94-year old father.

“You all know this. You have gone through these tough times yourselves so help the current scholars in whatever means you can—tutor them where they are weak and make them feel that they are not alone. SM Foundation after all is also your home,” he added

That turned out to be Tatang’s final moment with his beloved scholars, whom he considered family outside of his posh Forbes Park mansion. Twelve days later, Henry Sy, Sr. passed away.

READ ALSO: PHL’S RICHEST MAN | Henry Sy Sr. dies at 94

“To our dear Tatang who believed that education is the best defense against poverty, who supported farmers long before food security became a pressing concern, who asserted to provide quality healthcare to communities nationwide, who was always one of the first to respond to calamities – thank you for teaching us about hard work, patience, humility, perseverance, compassion, and giving back,” SM alumni scholars posted on the Facebook page of the SM Foundation a day after the Sy family announced the demise of their patriarch.

“You lived by example and you are an inspiration to us all. Your legacy lives on in all the lives you have touched. Maraming Salamat po from your SM Foundation family, scholars, school building beneficiaries, Kabalikat Sa Kabuhayan farmers, patients, Operation Tulong Express grantees and housing recipients.”

Sure, Tatang’s philanthropy is legendary. But his charity extends beyond education, says Arlene Lumampao, who worked 29 years as supervisor and manager in the Fixed Assets and Supplies office of the SM Mall chain.

“I remember when I was re-assigned back to the first SM branch in Quiapo, he told us to clear the upper floors. We took out all the furniture and appliances. The following evening, he donated all the furniture and appliances to the people who were affected by the Mt. Pinatubo explosion,” Lumampao recalled.

Of all the SM stores, the Quiapo branch(now SM Clearance outlet) was dearest to Sy, for all the good reasons. That once dingy nook the Sy patriarch bought in 1958 between Carriedo and Palanca streets held the pillar of a business empire that would soon define and redefine retail selling and cross-product investing in the country.

“Our store was so small it had no back or second floor, we just slept on the counter late at night after the store was closed,” he told a Philippine Star interview in 2006.

In 1972, Tatang transformed that shoe stall into a department store that later became SM Quiapo. Thirteen years forward, Sy defied the Philippines’ looming economic crisis by inaugurating SM North Edsa, the first supermall in the country. It was erected from a lot previously owned by the Government Service Insurance System and was originally meant as a housing venue for public school teachers.

Disciplinarian but kind

Tatang was named the Philippines’ wealthiest man for 11 straight years by Forbes Magazine. He was ranked 52nd among the richest in the world. By the time he died on Saturday, Sy had a net worth of $19 billion based on Forbes estimates. Bloomberg Billionaire index pegged his assets at $7.1 billion.

Educator Lydia Echauz, a former Far Eastern University president and board member of the SM Foundation, captured Sy’s business philosophy in a 1994 paper which aimed to “seek out and describe the sources of Chinese business success.”

“His (Henry Sy, Sr.) basic philosophy in business as in life is essentially to know one’s goals and then to work hard to achieve them. Thus, well-defined goals, long-term vision, hard work, honesty, honour, drift, humility, respect for others, human relationships, health, cleanliness, negotiating skills, determination, flexibility, continuous improvement, value for money, full use of one’s resources, attention to details, catalysis, and joy of living are his guideposts,” Echauz said.

“Sy’s management style in choosing his executives is biased towards young management professionals, who are well educated, especially in the fired of finance or management. Sy pays his professionals well.”

Lumampao echoed Echauz’s observations.

“He is a disciplinarian but he is kind. He doesn’t like wishy-washy work. He is very meticulous” she said.

“Pagdating sa sales, kelangan two-digit percentage and makuha. Pero kahit one percent lang ang increase, kahit ‘di ma-meet and quota ok lang bata lesses expenses.”

A former administrative secretary who rose to the ranks in the SM Mall management ladder, Lumampao recalled accompanying Sy in one of the mall’s food centers in the late 90s.

“Yung mga kumakain, tingnan mo sila, sobra-sobra binibili (tapos ‘di nauubos). Mapupunta lang sa kanin-baboy. Sayang,” Sy told her.

“Kung tutuusin dapat matuwa siya kasi maraming binibili. Kumikita siya. Pero hindi (siya ganun). Ang mensahe niya is like this: ‘Wag bibili ng sobrang pagkain ‘pag di naman kailangan. ‘Wag kang gagastos ng sobra sa kita mo.”

In several lunch meetings, Sy would make sure he empties his plate. Leftovers for him was non-negotiable. It’s an insult to the people who worked hard to prepare the food. That’s his way of paying respect to his workers and colleagues, Lumampao added.

Breaking tradition

Prior to these encounters, Lumampao, now a retired migrant in the United States, worked for one of Sy’s daughters Elizabeth, who managed the SM food center and grocery departments. Now, Elizabeth is the chairman and president of SM Hotels and Conventions Corporation.

But it was the eldest daughter, Teresita Sy-Coson who got the most attention being deemed as the heir apparent to her father’s business empire. Yet Sy-Coson, the current SM Investments vice chairman, said otherwise.

“I was not meant to lead the group. Even now I am not leading—I maintain the core,” she said in a Forbes interview in 2012.

“I was just born into a business family. It is really a destiny. I was always told I had to be an example to my siblings. I was told to toe the line. So I had to behave.”

Jose Sio, Tatang’s long-time business partner, is currently the chairman of SM Investments. But the Sy siblings know where they stand in the management summit of their father’s entrepreneurial everest. Everyone, Sy-Coson says, has a role.

Henry Jr., know as “Big Boy” among SM officials and workers, is also vice chairman of SM Investments while Harley is executive director. Hans is chairman of the SM Prime executive committee and chairman of the board of National University, which SM acquired in 2008. Herbert is adviser to the SM Investments board, vice chairman of Supervalue Inc., Super Shopping Market Inc, and Sanford Marketing Corporation, and director of China Banking Corporation.

“Endo empire”

One of President Rodrigo Duterte’s promises when he assumed office was to eliminate the contractual system or “endo” in the labor sector. In the middle of all the jostling was Tatang’s SM chain of stores, which has been dubbed by labor unions and some lawmakers as an “endo empire.”

SM was heavily criticized for replacing employees or putting them under probation after six months. Most of them do not reach regularization. Lumampao as one of SM’s employee evaluators confirms, but explains further.

“They (employees) were given six months (to work) in the company, pero hindi ibig sabihin out na sila agad. Ina-assess pa rin ‘yung performance, kung maayos magtrabaho, saka magde-decide ang management kung ire-renew or ia-absorb na (as regulars),” she said.

Lumampao also lamented the times when SM labor union members scored Tatang for unfair labor practices.

“Ginawan na siya (Henry Sy, Sr.) ng kabaong na effigy. May RIP pa nga, kasi nagagalit sila. Hindi sila na-renew o na-layoff sila. Pero ‘yung iba hindi naman talaga maayos mag-trabaho. Bagsak sa evaluation kaya naalis.”

Sy felt bad but he did not take it personally against the union members.

“Hindi na puwedeng bumalik sa kumpanya yung mga nag-strike. Pero si Mr. Sy sabi niya sa management bigyan pa rin ng gratuity pay ‘yung mga tao,” Lumampao recalled. “Magugutom daw kasi ang mga bata. Walang pang-eskuwela.”

Just this December, Labor secretary Sylvester Bello III reported that SM had regularized 11,660 workers, most of them were former contractual employees under different manpower agencies. SM has also put 18,720 employees under probationary status while 14,138 were classified as “seasonal” workers. The Sy empire was also excluded from the labor department’s list of labor-only contracting companies after pledging to regularize 10,000 workers by the end of 2018.

Labor groups such as the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) also paid tribute to the Sy patriarch who has “created jobs for thousands of Filipino workers and helped improve the quality of lives of working people and their families for many decades.”

“While Mr. Sy’s pioneering business model in the Philippine retail industry is world class, he always strive to make sure his employees were always part of his thriving business. The TUCP family of unions is hoping that Mr. Sy’s legacy and his commitment to improving the quality of lives of all his employees and their families stays and will continue to improve with the assumption of whoever takes his place,” TUCP president Raymund Mendoza said.

Now, the Sy family is on the crossroads. Other labor groups are now raring to shake the empire’s pillars by pounding on the its rentier or comprador business model typified by leasing spaces and consigning products and services. But that is another story.