MANILA, December 7, 2005
 (STAR) By Wilson Lee Flores - Doomsayers hear this: one of the country’s most successful businessmen is bullish on the Philippines’ economic prospects for 2006.

"I’m optimistic about the year 2006 for the Philippine economy, especially our tourism growth potentials," SM Group of Companies founder Henry Sy told The STAR after receiving the first-ever "Father of Philippine Retail Industry" award from President Arroyo and the Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) last Dec. 5.

Forbes magazine has listed the 80-year-old Sy and Philippine Airlines (PAL) chairman Lucio Tan as among the world’s wealthiest men.

At the grand dinner tribute for the PRA awardees held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ortigas Center, Sy said he is looking forward to a better economy next year when he inaugurates his 500,000-square-meter Mall of Asia at the Manila Bay reclamation area as a major tourist destination in the country.

He pledged more investments from the SM Group and advised politicians to "work more, talk less." His daughter, Banco de Oro Universal Bank chairman Teresita "Tessie" Sy, added: "Our family is confident the new year will be better for the Philippine economy, notwithstanding the troubles in politics. We are very touched by this great honor for our father. I have worked for our dad for 35 years, and he is really hardworking, disciplined and a visionary. Let us have more positive thinking and just keep working hard."

The PRA has also chosen Sy’s SM City Baguio as the Shopping Center of the Year. The two finalists were the Ayala Center-Greenbelt and Ayala Center-Glorietta. The PRA dinner tribute in honor of the SM Group was attended by numerous tycoons, business leaders and other dignitaries, including the entire Sy family and even competitors in the mall and retail sectors.

Socorro Ramos, founder of the National Bookstore chain which was elevated to the Hall of Fame as Outstanding Filipino Retailer, said: "The SM malls of Henry Sy are located all over the Philippines and service all kinds of people very well. I wish the good Lord will bless Henry Sy with many more years so he can continue to do his mission of helping others."

Ben Chan, founder of Bench, which won as Global Retailer of the Year, said: "The Philippine retail industry would not be the same without Henry Sy."

Meanwhile, Tony Tan Caktiong, founder of the Jollibee fastfood chain, said: "Henry Sy is an inspiration. He always emphasized hard work."

A highlight of the PRA dinner tribute was a large-screen video presentation on the rags-to-riches saga of the legendary Sy.

Like many of Southeast Asia’s business pioneers, Sy was an immigrant from south China who exemplified traditional Confucian values of hard work, perseverance, discipline and frugality.

Sy was 12 years old when he migrated here from Ang-khue Village, Dieng-oh, municipality of Jinjiang county (now a city) of Fujian province. His Chinese name — "Sy Chi Sieng" — means "to attain ultimate success."

His father’s humble sari-sari store on Echague (now Carlos Palanca street) in Quiapo, Manila was looted during World War II, so his father returned to China. But the young Sy never gave up. Though he started studying English and entered grade one at the age of 12 at the Quiapo Anglo-Chinese School, he worked hard to catch up.

He was already in the buy and sell trade when he enrolled in a commerce course at the Far Eastern University (FEU), but he had to stop schooling after two years due to the pressures of running his businesses.

Up to this day, he still maintains his rented offices in a Makati building. He used to live for decades in a condominium unit, but he revealed that his kids have recently built him an elegant but very simple bungalow in North Forbes Park in Makati so he no longer has to ride elevators. Of his career, Sy said: "My first business was shoes, and the first store was in Carriedo street. The store became very popular. One store grew to three stores. It did not take me long to reach the top in shoes. But shoes were mainly a cottage industry, and supply was limited. So I decided to expand to a big, full-line department store to service shoppers better. In 1975, Shoemart opened its first integrated department store in Makati. In 1983, we were building SM City-North EDSA, our first shopping mall. Many people said at that time that I was crazy. There was a political crisis, interest rates were as high as 45 percent and the location of the mall was in the middle of nowhere. But the mall was an instant success. SM malls are now favorite destinations for shopping, entertainment, and many services. They have changed Philippine lifestyle."

Sy persevered even more after the 1989 bloody military coup attempt led by Col. Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan and the economy was again in shambles. He built two sprawling malls — SM Centerpoint in Sta. Mesa and SM Megamall in Mandaluyong. Despite the "Hello, Garci" political crisis and ongoing economic jitters, Sy is now rushing to complete one of his grandest projects — the Mall of Asia — at the Manila Bay reclamation area.

SM beyond RP’s borders

Sy originally envisioned the Mall of Asia as the world’s biggest shopping mall but the 1997 Asian financial crisis derailed his schedule. He told The STAR that he is hoping the Mall of Asia will become "the shopping and tourist destination in the Philippines, and a catalyst of economic growth."

Regal Entertainment founder Lily Monteverde told The STAR that Sy now owns the biggest movie cinema chain nationwide because of the popularity of his malls. SM has 23 supermalls across the Philippines. Unafraid of globalization which has made tariff barriers obsolete, Sy is hoping to make the SM Group competitive with the world’s largest retailers like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Metro, which all have massive investments in China.

In 2002, SM opened a mall in Xiamen City in Fujian province. He also personally inaugurated last week another SM mall in Jinjiang City in the same province, where the local government has recently transferred its City Hall to a strategic location near his mall site. SM also has a new major mall project in Chengdu City in Sichuan, the home province of the late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, which has a population of over 100 million.

Once a young entrepreneur who was only a borrower at the 85-year-old China Banking Corp. and the Equitable Bank, Sy has since purchased controlling shareholdings in both universal banks.

He has not confirmed industry speculations though that his Banco de Oro Universal Bank will eventually absorb Equitable PCIBank to create the first "superbank" in the Philippines which could rival other merged giant banks in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other neighbors.

Since its public listing in May 2002, Banco de Oro has grown very fast. Apart from its growing strength, the bank has acquired small banks like local branches of Singapore’s United Overseas Bank Ltd. and Spain’s Banco Santander Central Hispano SA.

Education for all

A great believer in education, Sy has established the SM Foundation which gives scholarship grants to poor but talented students.

In partnership with the "Operation Barrio Schools" project of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc., Sy had also donated several public schoolhouses in poor rural regions.

Sy is the prime mover behind the Asia Pacific College and has invested in upgrading his alma mater, the FEU. Never forgetting his ancestral roots, Sy has also donated schools to he and his wife’s ancestral villages in Fujian province.

The SM Group likewise gave financial support to the training of Filipino athletes who competed in the recent Southeast Asian Games. The taipan is a faithful husband to his wife, Felicidad, whom he calls his "best friend." When asked why he is not polygamous like some businessmen, Sy laughed and told The STAR: "It’s my nature to be faithful."

The six children helping him manage the SM Group are Tessie, who is in charge of Banco de Oro, Equitable PCIBank, the department stores and the retail stores; Hans, who is in charge of the shopping centers and president of SM Prime Holdings and vice chairman of China Bank; Henry Jr., who takes care of real estate ventures; Elizabeth, who handles tourism ventures like Taal Vista Hotel in Tagaytay City; Herbert, who manages the supermarkets; and Harley, the president of the holding company SM Investments Corp.

To young aspiring entrepreneurs in Asia, Sy has this to say: "As I move on in life and work on more dreams, I realized something — there is no limit to what we can do. God is good and generous with His gifts to us. He gives us many opportunities and equal time every day. It is up to us to make full use of them. I encourage you to have your own dream and work to make it a reality. You are young with the future before you. Remember the young boy who arrived in Manila many years ago, a stranger with nothing to his name and not knowing a word of Tagalog or English. If I can do it, the young people of today can do it, too."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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