Henry Sy life's story from 10 centavos to Billion Dollars

When Henry Sy was leaving his home in Xiamen in 1936 at age 11, his mother, Tan O Sia told him never to look back. She probably did not want her son to be homesick. Maybe this advice helped Henry become who he is now, a dollar billionaire, the richest in the country but people know of his many kindnesses. This advice maybe helped him to carve out not just a name for himself and his family but to the country that would host him and his father who was already in Manila eking out a living selling all kinds of inexpensive stuff.

He had nothing on but a shirt on his back and 10 centavos in his pocket. He was alone, but befriended someone he met on the boat. This friend begrudgingly shared with him the P20 he found on boat but not without complaining that they were spending his “lucky money”.

The luck the man was talking about seem to fit Henry’s future. After all, his parents gave him the name Sy Chi Sieng which in Chinese means “to attain ultimate success.” His first meal on the boat was a five-centavo bread stuffed with meat, his first encounter of the sandwich. 

The young Sy had to spend time on Engineer Island, a processing center of the immigration bureau.

It was not the 10 centavos he parlayed into his first million before he was 30. It was sheer determination, enriched by discipline and a kind heart that drove him to harder work with his father, Sy Siu Tek.

The father was running a sari-sari store on Exchague st. in Quiapo. The place was a shop of cheap goods at daytime and living room and bedroom at night. At that early age, Henry realized how hard his father was working to be able to send money back home to his wife - a Chinese-Filipina brought to Xiamen at age five.

The biography of Henry Sy written by his second eldest child Elizabeth quotes her father as saying after making the first million, the next million then billion was no longer difficult.

Henry was always preoccupied with doing business, he hardly ever rested.

During the Japanese occupation he discovered he had enough to buy a karitela, a horse-drawn car but he had the sense to have someone operate it for him. Time was too precious to be wasted transporting people in the karitela.

There were bigger things to do but small things do contribute to expanding savings and eventually wealth. From the little money earned from the karitela, Henry was able to buy a bicycle from a Japanese. 

Henry Sy was biking when he saw a 16-year old pretty girl named Felicidad Tan. She was to be his wife later, but not if his parents were allowed their way. When he went back to China after 11 years, his parents tried match making. He told his mother that he would go back to Manila if his parents picked his wife. He was so in love with Felicidad.

Henry said “there are countless ways to make more money. Only your willingness to work, your imagination, and time can limit the ways.”

Henry Sy is now the top billionaire worth close to $9 billion, according to the most recent survey made by Forbes Magazine.

The popular impression about Henry is that started building a business empire with shoes. Shoes, he has always loved but before shoes, he was in a few other things including a drug store and Sison Ice Drop. He had a partner named Lao Kang when he set up the Plaza Shoe store. His daughter Elizabeth told Malaya Business Insight that until five years ago, Henry would drop by the store and personally inspect the shoes himself.

Shoes attracted him because he thought if he could sell a pair each to Filipinos, he could make money. “There is no business like shoe business,” Henry told himself.

But before those little ventures, he was supplementing his income by selling cigarettes he bought from the American soldiers in Plaza Miranda. Sales were brisk enabling him to earn one peso a day, a fortune in those days. 

The wealth of the present Henry Sy needs no retelling. He has built 46 malls in many parts of the Philippines. He has another four in China.

The practice in Chinese-Filipino family is to bequeath management of the business to the first born son. Henry Sy did not do that. He thought he would see how Tessie Sy Coson the first born, could run the thriving business.

Tessie, widowed for some years now, definitely had the talent. However, even Chinese families believe that the biggest secret of Tessie’s success was how her father disciplined the rest of her five siblings to respect the decisions of their eldest sister.

Most of the decisions were Henry’s. His children, led by Tessie, are merely implementing them. Henry had the sense of erasing competition among his children. While Tessie was at the top and chairman of the Banco de Oro Universal Bank, each of the rest of his five children was given a business to run.

None of Henry’s children had a business that competes with the others. None of the six children is outdoing one another. Each is on his own. The competition was to succeed by helping one another.

The malls do not compete with the bank. The bank does not compete with property. The supermarkets in the malls were competing with supermarkets of other businessmen.

Henry did not have much of college education. The only title after his name was associate in commercial science he earned from Far Eastern University. Henry amassed enough wealth to send all his children to Dela Salle University.

In gratitude to the school, he donated the largest library among all schools in the Philippines. The edifice which will open by about the end of the year cost Henry P1.6 billion. That seems to be his way of looking back at people or institutions who helped him and his children succeed.

As he has shown to himself and to the whole world of business, the best education for the less educated is the battle field of business. Henry was fully armed for those battles.

He has always had the knack for retail. The Chinese from Xiamen are said to be the best in the retailing business because circumstances forced them to be so.

Xiamen is a poor province of China where hardly anything grows. It is separated from Taiwan by the Taiwan Strait. People in Xiamen were forced into the buy and sell business.

Chinese-Filipinos who came to the Philippines are all hard working. But not all of them had the foresight and the heart to be grateful to the consumers who continue to make the Sy Empire grow even bigger.

Henry knows that the bulk of the money that pushes a consumer driven economy comes from remittances of overseas Filipinos. In gratitude, his big malls have a lounge exclusive to OFWs where they are served coffee and a sandwich, and a two-minute free phone overseas phone call.

Henry knows that senior citizens have problems moving about. But many of them have little pensions that carry them through. There is no place where one can find anything he wants to buy except in the malls of Henry Sy.

To help them enjoy themselves, Henry provided golf carts that senior citizens can drive around the malls for free. They need not buy anything from the stores of the malls.

The greatest contribution of Henry Sy is the modernization of the retailing business. He might have been driven out of business a few sari-sari stores. But most of them found stalls in Henry’s malls.

The shoppers these days do not hop from one department store to another to buy what they need. Yes, they can get tired hopping from one shop to another but the shops are under the same roof of Henry’s 46 malls.

Henry Sy and his children are aware that the malls create a demand for products, including food, never thought of before precisely because there was no place of large concentration of people, particularly shoppers.

The malls of Henry Sy induce demand. His big malls have Sunday live entertainments. He thought that everybody, including the less fortunate, is entitled to some fun. He gives them fun for free.

It took Henry Sy more than a dozen years before he was granted a P1 million credit line by China Bank. Little did he know that about 50 years later his family would be one of the bank’s largest stockholders. 

The stake in China Bank came much later than Banco de Oro, a universal bank that he parlayed from a small thrift institution to become one of the country’s largest. Banco de Oro probably has the biggest number of branches among all banks

These are the big decisions. But long before, he saw Makati as the potential business district in the country. He was one of the first few businessmen who built in Makati. He built the Shoemart store near the Intercontinental Hotel. 

Sy’s business then was not yet the empire that it is today. His mind and body were restless. He thought of Shoemart cards that may be said was the harbinger of the present day credit card system.

His was simple. He would issue credit cards, P.O. (purchase orders) exclusive to Shoemart to just anybody provided the purchases are guaranteed by another person. The guarantor, in turn, makes a small cut out of the payments.

I had a niece, Lourdes M. Macasaet, now a citizen of the United States, who supported her widowed mother and several siblings, picking people with good credit standing and guaranteed their purchases from Shoemart. She made money two ways: She was working for Shoemart and looking for customers who deserved the credit cards.

Sy helped the small shoppers buy basic necessities while giving extra money to the guarantors. The cardholders and the guarantor, as far as Ms. Macasaet, were concerned, both survived. 

Henry owes many things to many people. The Bank of China officer who approved his first credit line of P1 million. There was Vicente Rufino who leased to him many several parcels of land in Quiapo.

He was a friend of the Spanish painter Jovenal Sanso. He was close to the late Enrique Zobel. He visited him often.

Senen Mendiola of San Jose, Oriental Mindoro was his accountant when he started the shoe business. |Senen is just about as old as Henry is, in his past eighties. Senen continues to sit in some boards of his many companies.

Henry’s memory is as long as his views in life and honest but hard work.

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