The story of Henry Sy, Sr.

"His passing is a personal loss."



The life of Henry Sy, Sr. who died at the age of 94 is some kind of a fairy tale, a simple rags-to-riches story. He is known as the richest Filipino, the King of Retail, a business icon, and a good friend to other conglomerates and businessmen.

For me and my wife, the passing of Henry —often called “Tatang” by those who knew him—is some kind of personal loss. We have known him for many decades.

To every Filipino who wants and aspires to do something, Henry is the perfect example of dreaming big and working hard, coupled with praying (his wife is a devout Catholic).

Many things have been written about this great Filipino, nation-builder and prime example of a success story. Today I will recount something that many Filipinos don’t know about him.

Way back in 1948, my late brother Willie, a budding politician in the second district of Manila, was working for the late Manila congressman Joaquino “Titong” Roces. He told me to meet somebody he knew in Quiapo. I was then a junior student taking my Bachelor of Arts course at the old Ateneo de Manila at the Padre Faura ruins.

When we reached Carriedo Street, Willie told me to wait because he would like me to get acquainted with a young Chinese whose father owned an air-conditioned shoe store. At that time, air conditioning was a kind of novelty.

In front of the store was a big pile of shoes. Sy, who was in his early 20s, a few years older than me, was standing beside a big pile of shoes all imported from Boston, U.S.A. He said that if I wanted to buy, he would give me a good price.

I chose a pair with the brand name “Bostonian.” At least, I thought, my friends would know that it was imported.

I was later on told that they were slightly damaged export surplus products that Sy had bought in Boston. And Henry went on importing them for his father’s shoe shop.

Then came the Retail Trade Nationalization Act, which gave Filipinos the sole privilege of engaging in retail. Obviously, Henry Sy saw this as an opportunity, not a barrier. Sari-sari stores were then dominated by the Chinese.

With his friend and partner, businessman-politician Senen Mendiola of Oriental Mindoro, Sy incorporated SM to engage in the retail of shoes. SM stood for the initials of Mendiola. Sy was still only then a Chinese national who migrated with his father to the Philippines, penniless, from Amoy in China, which is now called Xiamen.

My late brother Willie later on told me that Sy was opening his first shoe store at the corner of Avenida Rizal and Plaza Goiti, beside the Ideal cinema house. There was another well-known shop at that time, Good Earth Emporium, which was famous for having the first escalator. There was always a big crowd there. This made people aware of the existence of SM.

I then followed the progress of SM, later on in Makati beside the well-known Hotel Intercontinental where other well-known shops and restaurants were. It was called Makati Commercial Center.

When SM Makati went into full operations, I was told that Sy would make his rounds of the store and even take a cup of coffee at the coffee shop there. I was business editor at that time already, and I figured Sy always made a good story.

Would you believe, my gulay, that it was at Elysee Coffee Shop where Sy told me about his plans? He said he would put up an SM in Mandaluyong and another one in Quezon City. After some years, these plans did materialize.

I was a resident of Philamlife Homes in Quezon City for many years and I used to wonder what would happen to that vacant lot.

During one of our coffee sessions, Sy told me about his dream of seeing all Filipinos owning a pair of shoes, having an SM in every nook and corner of the Philippines, and seeing all Filipinos able to go to school.

Now there are 79 SMs nationwide, with another six in China.

He went on to banking, property development, tourism, hotel, gaming and almost anything you can think of.

He was fortunate to have children who shared his vision. I know only three of his six children.

As shown by the accolades he has been getting from the business community, big business did not consider him a competition but as a friend and associate.  His being chairman of both the Asia Pacific Colleges and National University attests to his commitment to education.

His biggest legacy, to my mind, is his hard work, patience and perseverance.

My wife and I will miss him.

* * *

The first plebiscite for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was relatively peaceful except in Cotabato City and Isabela City where the atmosphere was tense. In Marawi City, voting was delayed because of bad weather.

To be sure, we can predict that the “yes” votes will be overwhelming because no less than President Duterte went around the region to solicit “yes” votes.

With Monday’s plebiscite and another one on Feb.9, I wonder if the Supreme Court would still proceed with oral arguments in connection with the two petitions brought up before the High Court. The petitions, one by the government of Sulu and the other by the Philippine Constitution Association, question the constitutionality of the BOL.

Both assail the BOL saying the 1987 Constitution only mentions two autonomous regions—the ARMM and the Cordillera Autonomous Region.

This brings up the question: Can Congress amend the Constitution replacing the ARMM with the BARMM? Will the Supreme Court decide even after the plebiscite? It does seem that any ruling by the Supreme Court will be an exercise in futility. The result of the plebiscite will be the voice of the people.

Still, while there are those who say that the plebiscite could mean the end of conflicts between the government and rebel groups in the South, terrorist forces still want to establish a caliphate. If that is so, what would be the use of BARMM? 

Topics: Henry Sy Sr , Bangsamoro Organic Law , Bangsamoro Autonomous Region , Congress , Retail Trade Nationalization Act
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