Born of a poor family in Xiamen, China, Henry Sy Sr. has come a long way from selling shoes from a small store in Quiapo, Manila, to become the richest man in the Philippines with an estimated net worth of $13.2 billion as of March 2013, according to the financial Bible, Forbes Magazine.
Globally, according to Forbes, the man behind the household brand SM, is ranked 68th among the wealthiest in the world.
But the man born on Christmas Day (Dec. 25, 1924) decided to live up to his birthday to take on the role of the Magi to thousands of scholars under SM Foundation.
Sy, who didn’t speak a word of English or Filipino when he first migrated to the Philippines as a young boy and who had to give up college because of pressures from a budding business, has made sure that poor but deserving students are given the education opportunities he didn’t have.
In an interview with SIM, Sy speaks about having it all—and how he has found ways to share it, thanks to SM Foundation.
1. You’ve been named one of the richest men in the world by Forbes, and are considered by many as the most successful businessman in the Philippines. Yet one can’t mention your name without appending it to SM Foundation. Why is it that important to you?
I have always believed that if we do well, we must also do something to help others in society. I am pleased that through SM Foundation, we are able to do many socio-civic projects like supporting education through scholarship programs and school buildings; healthcare through medical facilities, health centers, and medical missions for those who cannot afford basic medical needs; helping farmers through training and livelihood programs for self-sufficiency; improve housing by building shelters and houses together with Gawad Kalinga, as well as providing disaster assistance for affected areas.
What is closest to my heart is our education program. We support at any one time 1,300 college scholars from underprivileged families, many of them bright students who come from public schools.
2. How important is education? Why have you made this the centerpiece of your philanthropy?
I came to realize the importance of education early on. I was born in China and studied there until I was 12. When I came to the Philippines to follow my father, I asked him if I could go back to school so I could learn English and improve myself.
At that age, I started grade one all over again and attended classes with much smaller classmates. I asked my teachers if I could be promoted faster and they agreed, on condition that I score over 90. Encouraged by them, I studied hard and have always tried harder. I finished grade school in five years.
I enrolled for college at the Far Eastern University where I passed the qualifying exam. I took up Commerce, but had to leave school after two years because of my growing business.
When I received an honorary degree at De La Salle University in 1999, I told the graduating students that they were lucky to have so much at the start of their career, much more than I ever had.
3. SM Foundation is one of the biggest private spenders on education. Why invest so much in it when there are other sectors that need as much help?
We believe that it is better to give one a rod to fish rather than just dole out fish to them. It’s about creating opportunities for self-sufficiency.
When our scholars graduate, it is a step towards a better life not only for themselves, but also their families.
4. After opening doors to students through your foundation, what advice would you give them?
I would tell them: You have to have a dream, whether big or small. Then plan, focus, work hard and be very determined to achieve your goals. There is no substitute for hard work. There is no such thing as overnight success or easy money.
In life and in business, you need to be good-hearted and trustworthy, and to have integrity. This is the way to build long-term relationships. It is also important to be optimistic and to look at challenges as opportunities. •