If You Build It, They Will Come
And there are times as she gazes out of the picture window when she has to pinch herself because she still can’t believe that the shoe store that her father established in 1958 in Carriedo, Manila has grown into one of the country’s largest conglomerates. Forbes Magazine has estimated the Sy family’s net worth in the vicinity of $13.2 billion as of March 2013.
“I still cannot believe it sometimes. I don’t know really how we got to this point,” says the 62-year-old vice chair of SM Investments Corp. (SMIC), which has interests in major sectors, among them retail (SM Retail), mall operations (SM Prime), banking (BDO and China Bank) and property development (SM Development Corp. or SMDC)
Sy-Coson, who has been cited by Forbes Magazine as one of “Asia’s 50 Businesswomen in the Mix,” a listing of women on top of companies that yielded significant income gains in 2012, puts it all down to passion for hard work that her father had drilled into her and her siblings’ heads early on.
Says this eldest of six children born to SM group founder Henry Sy Sr. and his wife, Felicidad: “He was very demanding of himself and his children. Ours was a very business-oriented family. We are not really very personal with other people and even among ourselves. We built good fences.”
When she was growing up, family meals constantly gravitated toward talk of business and how operations could be expanded or improved, recalls Sy-Coson.
Financial discipline and a quick eye for opportunities that opened up from the late 1950s to the present ensured that earnings were diligently plowed back into the company, making the group among the country’s most valuable based on stock market prices.
Sy-Coson recalls that when she started working for her father upon graduation from Assumption College in 1970, she was expected to put in long hours and pull her weight just like everybody else. Perhaps, she muses, she even had to work harder than most because her father expected more from her.
“Even at midnight I would be asked about business matters. He was difficult to please. But in hindsight, it was very good training,” says Sy-Coson, who started her career in retail after getting a Commerce degree.
Putting in 10 to 12 hours a day at work has become a habit she could not break, even if she can certainly rely on her qualified management team to take on some of her responsibilities.
Although the company has become a well-oiled, profit-churning machine, Sy-Coson remains very much a hands-on manager responsible for making key decisions. But the nerves of steel needed to maintain that grip are hardly visible, thanks to the woman’s pleasant demeanor.
In the retail sector, this widow and mother of three, oversees business at the SM Department Stores, SM Supermarkets and other retail affiliates totaling 600 stores nationwide.
Sy-Coson is also adviser to the board of directors at SM Prime Holdings, the most dominant mall developer in the country today. But it is in BDO where this chair of the board pours most of her energy, making it the country’s largest bank in terms of total resources, customer loans, total deposits and assets under management.
Sy-Coson says that aside from hard work, her father also instilled in the family the value of putting family relations over business, which means making sure that the pressures of running a multibillion-peso enterprise that employs thousands of Filipinos do not sever the ties that bind the family.
Rather, those ties should be strengthened especially with the second generation now handling the operations of the different units under the SM group.
Sy-Coson’s sibling Henry Jr. heads SM Development Corp., while Hans is president of SM Prime. Harley Sy is president of SMIC while Herbert is its first executive vice president. Sister Elizabeth is actively involved in the SM group’s tourism and leisure business operations and is adviser to the board of directors at SM Prime.
Sy-Coson says that all six of them share a common vision of strengthening the group’s foothold in the many industries that it is in, which has made for a more harmonious working relationship.
“When we were all working with our dad and all decisions had to be collegial, it was quite difficult. We have passed through all that. All of us siblings are now more mature and find it easier to work with one another,” she adds.
“Of course, there will always be disagreements here and there because we all have our own way of thinking. This is part of the dynamics in the family. But relationships will always come first so we are still okay, in fact more than okay,” she says.
That she is not just the eldest but also the highest ranking in the corporate ladder among her siblings—despite her being a woman—is not as unusual or surprising to the Sy family as outside observers seem to believe.
Sy-Coson says that the women in their family have always held a position of respect that is as much Filipino as it is Chinese.
“You cannot get the Chinese out of me, but the thing is, my grandmother was only half Chinese. My great grandmother on my father’s side was a Filipina in China and that was quite unique. When I look back on my roots, I see how somebody that different can survive. I understand that uniqueness can really make a person. It was my grandmother who told my dad to go to the Philippines and never look back. That is something very hard for any mother to do,” says an emotional Sy-Coson.
But then her grandmother had always believed in the Philippines, and believed that it was here, in the land of her forebears, where her family can have a life much better than what they had in Xiamen, Fujian in China.
Her faith was not misplaced with her son, Henry, starting out in the trading business before establishing his first business in shoes. Now 88, the elder Sy has handed over the reins of the company to his six children, with Sy-Coson being the de facto heir apparent.
Being a woman in a sea of men in both the banking and retail sectors is just a footnote in Sy-Coson’s storied life. Like her great grandmother and grandmother, she used her being different and unique not just to survive but also to get ahead of the pack.
It also helped that she and her siblings had industry hardwired into them and were willing to put in long hours to meet their objectives.
“We even kid each other that being out of the office for a week’s vacation is much too long,” says Sy-Coson with a smile.
The certified workaholics, however, never fail to carve time out of their schedule to make way for the requirements of SM Foundation, which is celebrating its 30th year of operations this year.
SM Foundation provides various services to its host communities all over the country including health and medical assistance, farmers’ training and socialized housing.
But it is in education where it has made the most lasting positive impact.
The scholarship program, a brainchild of Henry Sy Sr., was launched in 1993 and since then has seen more than 1,700 scholars from underprivileged families graduate with degrees in engineering, information technology, business and education.
In 2012, close to half of the 164 scholars graduated with honors. Another 1,300 scholars are currently completing their studies, bringing the total number of beneficiaries to 3,000 scholars.
The annual presentation of the graduates among the SM scholars is one event that Henry Sy, who came to the Philippines when he was 12 years old without knowing a word of Tagalog or English, never fails to attend together with his entire family, another indication of how important education is to him and his children.
Sy-Coson says that her father has always emphasized the importance of education as he himself benefited much from it. He enrolled initially at Far Eastern University but had to leave after two years into his Commerce degree due to the pressures of attending to his budding business.
Little wonder then that he used education and scholarships to give back to the communities that were instrumental in the SM group’s growth. It was a missed opportunity that he now offers to young students.
“He thought that the best way to make a dent in the community is through education so that the scholars will be able to help not just their family but also the companies they will work with and society as a whole,” says Sy-Coson.
“I think my father realized very early in life what education can do and wanted other people to have the same opportunity. Right now, management can only handle so many scholars but we are constantly thinking of ways to increase the number of SM scholars and to really nurture and mentor them. Hopefully when they grow older, they will be able to influence society positively,” she adds.
Sy-Coson estimates that the SM group allocates about P200 million a year to the various programs of the foundation with almost half of it going to education, both through scholarships and the construction of school buildings in remote areas not reached by other private groups similarly involved in education.
“Our foundation is really geared toward reaching the poorer people in the (lower) strata of society,” she says.
To do more, she adds that the SM group has to earn more, too.
“In our family, we have to earn to be able to share. That is why we have to keep earning so our allocation for the foundation will keep increasing. We do not know if people really know what we are doing, but as long as we positively affect (the community), we are happy,” she adds.
Sy-Coson says that the siblings learned empathy from their mother Felicidad. “My mom taught us to take care of people around us. When the company grew, it meant taking care of people working with us. There will always be people who (are not) happy, but as far as we are concerned, we have been able to continue employing them. That has been part of our mission in life; that’s why we do not have mass layoffs even in mergers.”
Indeed, the SM group has its share of detractors and criticisms, who point to its policy of hiring contractual labor for its retail operations as well as its aggressive expansion into the countryside, which has led to the demise of smaller, family-owned retail establishments in these areas.
The environmental issue has also come to fore, with the conglomerate being put to task for clearing its land of trees to make way for more store space.
The Save 182 movement in Baguio City, for example, is fighting valiantly against the SM group’s plan to relocate the pine trees on Luneta Hill to give way to the expansion of SM City Baguio. It has lost its case in the local courts but is willing to take up the fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
“Ours is not an anti-SM campaign; it just so happened that the company (is) the proponent of the removal of those trees, and Baguio City needs to save as many of its remaining pine trees as possible,” says Save 182 leader Karlo Altomonte.
The SM group definitely did not get to where it is without ruffling feathers but it has taken it all in stride as part of its continuing growth story, says Sy-Coson. She adds that as the company grows even further, she continues to keep in mind her mother’s sage advice to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“If there is one thing that my mom always reminds us, it is that the world is round. You may be doing well today but you have to be prepared for the downturn,” she says.
“We are lucky to be able to afford many things but these are not forever. So with whatever we have been able to build, we should be able to help whenever we can,” Sy-Coson adds.