The dream maker

"In good times, I do my usual work. In bad times, I work harder."



At 5 in the morning of Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, Henry Sy Sr. woke up unusually early in his Forbes Park home in Makati. Wake-up time was usually 7:30 a.m. He was told to go back to bed as it was still dark. He did. But he never woke up again.

“Tatang died in his sleep, peacefully,” said Teresita Sy-Coson, his eldest child and now the virtual matriarch for a $20 billion fortune. Thus ended the most amazing saga of entrepreneurship in one of Asia’s most dynamic economies, the Philippines, home to the world’s 12th largest consumer market. Henry was 94.

From an amazing rags-to-riches(t) narrative, Henry Sy passed into the realm of legends to make his people and his country proud, as well as to amaze, inspire and empower thousands of other aspiring entrepreneurs that with true grit, relentless hard work, and magisterial ambition one can produce tremendous successes—even while starting young with barely an education and/or with just—10 centavos.

Tatang Henry began doing business at 12, landing in Manila by boat in 1936 from Xiamen, with only 10 centavos in his pocket, but in search of his father and a better life. He spoke no English and no Tagalog. His mother, Tan O Sia, had told Henry on the day of his departure, “don’t look back.”

Henry grew the 10 centavos, a pittance, into a $20 billion wealth today, making him the richest Filipino, the ninth richest in Asia and the 52nd richest in the world.

In the Philippines, he had no equal. The next richest Filipino, of Spanish descent, only has $4.8 billion, most of it inherited third-generation wealth.

Today, Sy’s holding company, SM Investments Corp. is the Philippines’s largest conglomerate in market capitalization of P1.168 trillion ($22 billion). The next biggest conglomerate has a market cap of just $10 billion. His BDO Unibank is the largest Philippine bank with P2.89 trillion in resources (18 percent of the system), P2.34 trillion in deposits (19 percent of the system), and P568.62 billion in market cap, making it the most valuable local bank.


Henry’s retail network is formidable —71 malls, visited, on a good day, by six-million people; 2,212 retail outlets, and 1,843 bank branches.

In the first nine months of 2018, SMIC had revenues of P307.4 billion (on track for P409 billion sales whole year), and profits of P26.2 billion (P35 billion if annualized). In 2017, SMIC was the Philippines’ fourth largest in sales (P396.15 billion) and fourth most profitable (P51.5 billion).

In 1936, Henry spent half of his 10 centavos to buy a loaf of bread in the boat.  But he fell ill because it had butter. Fortunately, he befriended another boy who found P20 lying on the boat’s deck. That sustained them during the perilous journey.

When young Henry first saw his father, he cried. “There has to be a better life than this,” Henry told me in one interview eight years ago. His father’s store in Calle Echague was no larger than two square meters. It was multi-functional—a store by day, a bed by night, with the same table where goods were displayed serving as bed by nightfall. Every morning his father bought goods in Divisoria and carried them barefoot to Echague. It was backbreaking unrelenting work.

From his father, Henry learned one thing—the importance of discipline, hard work, and good credit.

Henry was born in Xiamen, China, on Oct. 25, 1924, as Sy Chi Sieng (in Chinese “to attain ultimate success”). The village was Ang-khue in the Dieng-ho municipality of Jinjiang country.

Sy Siu Tek, Henry’s father, was a diligent trader who sailed to Manila for better opportunities. He had put up a small business and remitted money back to Xiamen.

Henry attended Grade 1 at the Anglo-Chinese School in Quiapo but he was in such hurry he asked his teacher how he could speed up schooling. The reply: Have a grade of 90. He did. He finished grade school in five years, at the top of his class, remarkable given that he had no textbooks and could only afford second-hand ones.

By 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Sys already had two stores, which happily were spared of war-induced looting. Under Japanese rule, Henry, now 17, got a bike and busied himself doing the buying and selling for the two stores. “In good times, I do my usual work. In bad times, I work harder.”

After the Battle of Manila, one of his two stores was razed, the other looted. The city was in ruins. His father left Manila and back to China.

By the time the war ended in Manila, Henry had saved a few hundred pesos. He found a new business hub—Plaza Miranda. He began buying cigarettes by the cartons from American GIs and selling them by the pack, making a peso per pack. He also went into selling scrap metal and other odds and ends.

Later, with rented space from Don Vicente Rufino on Calle Carriedo, Henry built his first store, selling anything he could. It was also his house by night. US shoe importers offered to sell him shoes by the job lot. The business prospered. With a partner, Lao Kang, he opened Plaza Shoe Store and a second, bigger store, Park Avenue Store.

Henry introduced innovations in retailing like fixed pricing, after a Filipino GI walked into one of his stores and bought a pair of shoes without haggling. Henry felt guilty the GI was overcharged.

With two stores, Henry quit night school, finishing only a two-year Associate in Commercial Science at FEU. In 1949, he got his first bank loan, P1 million, from Bank of China. Today, he owns the bank, in addition to BDO.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Henry made trips to the United States to learn many things about retailing. The US had become the mecca of shopping centers, with the rise of Macy’s (1858), Sears (1893), and JC Penney (1903) following the post-war economic boom. Henry also travelled to Europe to observe the latest trends in fashion and retailing.

In 1958, Tiger Bazaar, a partnership with Francisco Chong, was renamed Shoemart. It took off. A second store, on Carriedo Street, was opened.

Henry introduced more innovations —sales girls dressed like stewardesses and very important, air-conditioning “so shoppers would feel like they are in America.”

By 1959, Henry, after nine years of marriage to Felicidad, a teenage crush, had six children—Teresita (1950), Elizabeth (1952), Henry Jr (1953), Hans (1955), Herbert (1956), and Harley (1959). They are the new management team today.

Topics: Henry Sy Sr , Forbes Park , Teresita Sy-Coson , BDO Unibank
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