The man they call Tatang | Inquirer Business

The man they call Tatang

/ 05:25 AM August 12, 2018

Tatang (right) with SM chair Jose Sio.

A knowing nod; hot pan de sal shared at a construction site; a career crossroads and a question thrown casually while staring at the ceiling—unrelated, seemingly inconsequential, and yet meaningful and poignant moments that define bonds with Henry Sy, founder of the SM Group.

Senen Mendiola was a young and new accountant, transplanted to Manila from the bucolic life in Lubang Island in Mindoro, when his uncle, a government official, introduced him to an equally young businessman in the 1950s.


This cursory introduction was Mendiola’s big break in the business world with Sy, whom he fondly called Tatang or father. Later, Mendiola found himself in a position of trust, first handling the financial books for Sy’s drugstore and shoe stores on Carriedo and later on managing Shoemart’s public ties and fulfilling its social obligations.


Mendiola shared Sy’s passion to learn about retailing as they visited stores on Escolta Street to see how these were run. Before the war, Escolta was considered the high street of business and style where the well-heeled of old Manila shopped. After the liberation of Manila, Escolta lost some of its former luster but businesses trickled in to revive the trade.

Sy and Mendiola watched shoppers and talked to sales ladies, learning all that they could about retail. This proved useful in the later years for Sy, who continued to observe shoppers’ behavior to know their needs.

They shared so much in common that Sy and Mendiola were considered inseparable. Such was their bond that words need not be said for them to understand each other.

Sy considered Mendiola practically family, recognizing his help in growing Shoemart from its small beginnings.

Antolin “Bet” Paule likewise bonded with Sy.

Paule shared that he was just finishing work as a foreman, timekeeper and overall supervisor at the construction site of one of Sy’s earliest projects in the late 1960s, the Manila Royal Hotel on Calle Echague, when he heard someone calling his name an hour past midnight.


It was Sy, who was legendary for working very long hours, recalled Paule, now the senior vice president, SM Engineering Development and Design.

Paule said Tatang would work 16 hours a day, but he was considerate of the needs of others.

“At paminsan magdadala siya ng hot pan de sal para sa akin (Sometimes, he would bring hot pandesal when he visits),” Paule fondly remembered.

One day, Sy asked Paule to join him and look at a somewhat strange location—a large swampy area between Quezon City and Caloocan now known as North EDSA.

“Puro kangkungan ‘yon at squatters (the area was overgrown with watercress and had illegal settlers),” Paule said.

Paule recalled how much flak Sy got when he was building his first SM mall on North Edsa in the early 1980s amid an economic downtrend and skyrocketing interest rates.

“People would ask me, ano nangyayari sa boss mo? Binili niya kangkungan (What happened to your boss? He bought land filled with watercress),” Paule said.

But when SM City North Edsa opened in 1985, it drew thousands, exceeding everyone’s expectations.

Erlinda Paule was a graduate of Commerce in 1958 when she found a job as a cashier in a shoe store on Avenida Rizal. Little did she realize that this store would give rise to a chain of shoe stores in the country under the Shoemart brand.

Erlinda spent a few weeks on the job before she got moved to bookeeping, in charge of recording the financial transactions of the company including sales.

Like her husband, Antolin (Bet), Erlinda felt a sense of family as she closely worked with Tatang on these duties and saw his virtues of malasakit (sacrifice and genuine concern), lakas ng loob (grit or courage) and hard work.

That grit was tested when Tatang sought to venture to the emerging Makati district. For Tatang, Makati presented opportunities for expansion even if the development of the district was uncertain at the time. Erlinda was at a crossroads and found herself choosing to relocate to a new work location, trusting Tatang without hesitation. Tatang’s conviction led to the launch of his shoe store, Shoemart Makati, in 1963.

She stayed for over 35 years with SM until her retirement in 1994.

Jose Sio, SM’s longest-serving Chief Finance Officer, now chair, was an accomplished auditor for a large accounting firm when he got assigned to all the big businesses handled by the firm, including Sy’s.

As part of the auditing process, Sio would meet with Sy to ask him questions about the business. Sy found his curiosity so infectious that he invited Sio to join SM.

“I can already see what he was dreaming about. He told me he wanted to be the biggest retailer, the biggest bank and the biggest property developer in the country. I thought, this man really had a vision,” Sio said. Sio later found himself working with Sy for the next three decades.

The vision took shape, forged in a crucible of various economic and financial crises which also revealed Sy’s unconventional thinking and tenacity that led to SM’s unprecedented growth in the last six decades.

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From his origins in retail, Tatang has had an innate desire to make customers feel happy when visiting his store and give them value for their hard-earned money. From customer happiness sprang the larger goal of sustaining the communities that grew around SM’s developments. This mindset was rooted in the company’s values, practices and culture.

TAGS: Henry Sy

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