MANILA, MAY 23, 2006 (STAR) BULL MARKET, BULL SHEET By Wilson Lee Flores (Everest for me, and I believe for the world, is the physical and symbolic manifestation of overcoming odds to achieve a dream. –Tom Whittaker)

The question is inevitable: can the recent inauguration of the country’s biggest shopping mall complex and the possible Banco de Oro merger with Equitable PCIBank by rags-to-riches taipan Henry Sy Sr. help catapult him to the No. 1 position as the wealthiest entrepreneur in the Philippines (ahead of "Tobacco King" Lucio C. Tan)?

Henry Sy’s hard work with his kids, led by Teresita "Tessie" Sy and Hans Sy, in the opening of this giant mall is similar to those Philippine climbers recently overcoming the odds and braving obstacles to reach the zenith of Mount Everest in the Himalayas. The SM Mall of Asia is a monument to his half-century struggles, from being a shoe retailer in Carriedo in Quiapo to his pioneering numerous SM malls, which have bucked the political travails of the past three decades.

In another field, Henry Sy Sr. seems to still be climbing up another Mount Everest. Will possible success in eventually consolidating control of Equitable PCIBank with his fast-growing Banco de Oro help him create the country’s first superbank similar to those giant banks in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore – thus enabling him to eclipse George S. K. Ty’s Metrobank Group and his former landlord, the Zobel-Ayala clan’s Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI)?

Recently joining the country’s political, business and religious elite at the inaugural of the SM Mall of Asia, I remember him saying during the opening of the Podium: "Ever since I was a boy in our village in Fujian province, south China, I was always No. 1 among the kids in our area. I’ve always wanted to be No. 1 in everything I undertake. I believe in excellence, in doing one’s best." With President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as the guest of honor (who received a P10 million cash donation for charities from Sy Sr.), and with 50 Catholic priests led by Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales in blessing the area, SM Mall of Asia was launched last May 20 at the Manila Bay reclamation area, Pasay City, as the country’s biggest shopping mall. The grand opening for the public was yesterday, May 21, coinciding with the premiere showing of the Hollywood action thriller X-Men: The Last Stand.

Cardinal Rosales told Philippine STAR: "It’s an amazing place. It has the first ever IMAX movie cinema in the Philippines. You should see and experience it to believe it; the kids will be very happy. On the night of May 18, when the rest of the world was watching that foolish movie Da Vinci Code, Henry Sy’s family invited me and many priests and nuns to watch a film about Mount Everest for the first dry run of the country’s first IMAX movie theater. It was awesome!"

Behind all the glitz and fanfare of the celebrations, most people do not remember the numerous obstacles the Shopping Mall King had to overcome to realize his ultimate dream project (what he described as "the greatest project of my life"): he narrowly lost a public bidding for another Manila Bay reclamation property called Marina to the late real estate tycoon Tan Yu in the late 1980s under the Cory Aquino administration; the 1997 Asian financial crisis that crippled many Asian economies and led to the collapse of so many business groups; the troubles that sparked Edsa 2 and 3; and most recently, the half-year delay in the inauguration of the Mall of Asia.

Originally envisioned as the world’s biggest mall at 500,000 square meters – a size that has since been surpassed by several giant malls in China – the SM Mall of Asia is still a sight to behold and a new tourist destination the Philippines can be proud of at 386,000 square meters. The unique characteristic of Henry Sy Sr. is his being undeterred by obstacles and hardships throughout his half-century career as a retailer and rugged entrepreneur.

At a recent lunch at Edsa Shangri-La Hotel’s Heat with the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCCII) honorary president Jimmy Tang and Landmark Department Store taipan Enrique Cheng, Tang recounted that after the success of Sy’s SM Department Store in Makati City, the middle managers of his landlord the Ayala Group didn’t want him to expand too much within their area for fear he might be hard to control. Instead of giving Sy priority to operate the one-hectare Landmark site, Ayala Group gave the lease to the late real estate tycoon Tan Yu, but the 1983 Ninoy Aquino assassination stalled the project. The Landmark site was later offered for sale to the Robinsons retail chain of John Gokongwei, Jr. but negotiations didn’t progress smoothly because Gokongwei had a previous disagreement with Tan Yu on the latter’s failure to consummate the sale of the Bancom finance group. Eventually, Cotabato-born and University of Michigan-educated Enrique Cheng took over the Landmark project which was constructed by Weldon Construction of Lucio Lee Rodriguez (who coincidentally was the builder of the first SM project in Makati). Landmark has since become one of the country’s most successful retail enterprises in terms of efficiency and high sales volumes.

According to Jimmy Tang, when Henry Sy was rebuffed by the middle managers of the Ayala Group in his quest to operate the Landmark project, the SM founder immediately approached the Araneta family in Cubao, Quezon City, to negotiate for a new SM department store – a mark of his unending quest for new expansions outside the Makati City area. Tang said: "Henry Sy is a remarkable entrepreneur who is never deterred by obstacles and problems. He is a man of determination, hard work and big dreams."

Among the retail competitors of the SM Group who are not willing to concede the whole market include the Robinsons retail chain of John Gokongwei Jr., which is backed by the publicly-listed Robinsons Land Corp.; the Rustan’s/Shopwise retail chain of the Tantoco clan; garments exporter Basilio Tan’s phenomenal 168 Mall in Divisoria, Manila, which recently opened its phases 2 and 3 called 268 and 368, respectively; the Waltermart retail chain of Wilson Lim/Abenson Group, which is strong in provincial areas; the Puregold retail chain of low-profile taipan Lucio Co, and others. There were unconfirmed reports before that Lucio Tan of Philippine Airlines was planning to open a few malls called "Dragon" in his numerous real estate holdings throughout Metro Manila.

A European banker told the Philippine STAR that the next ultimate challenge for Henry Sy, if he truly wants to be No. 1 – not only in the Philippines but also in Asia and the rest of the world – is to aggressively expand into the vast China market to compete directly with America’s Walmart, Carrefour, Germany’s Metro and other global giants of retail now present in that booming economy. SM already has two malls in Fujian province and is constructing an SM mall in Chengdu City in Sichuan province, but the European banker said SM Group needs to expand faster there before the onslaught of the biggest American, European and Asian retailers. The European banker pointed out that Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok is No. 1 in his country because of his vast China investments in Coca-Cola China and Shangri-La hotels there, and Li Ka Shing of Hong Kong is No. 1 because of his strong China presence.

While a lot of politicians and even business executives are complaining about the many problems weighing down Philippine economic growth, Henry Sy, who is in his 80s, is still working and dreaming up new projects at an age when most people have already retired. After the SM Mall of Asia, Lipa City Mayor Vilma Santos said Henry Sy is scheduled to inaugurate the new SM City Lipa in Batangas this September. Two other SM malls set to open include the SM Supercenter Frontera Verde near Tiendesitas and Libis, Quezon City in July, and the SM City Bacolod in Negros Occidental province in November. Earlier this year, Sy inaugurated SM City Santa Rosa in Laguna and last May 12 he inaugurated SM City Clark in Pampanga province.

If an entrepreneur as eminently successful as Henry Sy Sr. is still nonstop in his quest for excellence, hard work and to be No. 1 – like those Philippine climbers who recently conquered the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest – shouldn’t we all be inspired to conquer our own fears, climb our own mountains and relentlessly reach for our dreams?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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