Henry Sy, Sr.: Inspiring generations of growth

Henry Sy, Sr.: Inspiring generations of growth

/ 08:00 AM October 15, 2023

Written by: Tina Arceo-Dumlao

On October 13, 2023, in time for the birth anniversary of SM Group founder Henry Sy, Sr. and the celebration of the 65th year of SM, SM Prime Holdings, Inc. opened SM Center San Pedro in San Pedro City, Laguna. It’s the fourth mall in the province and the group’s 84th mall in the Philippines.

By 2026, the plan of SM Prime Holdings, Inc., one of the leading integrated property developers in Southeast Asia, is to have opened 100 SM malls.

Henry Sy Sr

Tatang, as Henry Sy, Sr. was fondly called, would undoubtedly be happy to know that the SM malls have become more than just retail and entertainment centers under the watch of the next generation. They have become catalysts for robust growth, thus enhancing economic and civic activities across the Philippines.

That the SM Group continues to expand and bring its unique brand of service and convenience to more Filipinos is a testament to the enduring legacy of Henry Sy, Sr., the Father of Philippine Retailing. His vision, passion, and determination enabled him to build a business empire from the first Shoemart in downtown Manila that he put up in 1958.

The idea that the SM Group – one of the country’s largest conglomerates with interests as well in banking, logistics, and infrastructure development – had humble beginnings, is a constant source of inspiration for many Filipinos. More so for SM Supermalls’ valued tenant-partners, a number of whom are also passing on the reins to the next generation.

Amelia Manas, co-founder and chairperson of Bruno’s Barbers, did not have the pleasure of directly interacting with Tatang, but did see him from afar in one of the SM malls.

Even then, Manas was inspired to pursue the growth and diversification of Bruno’s Barbers, guided by Tatang’s example of how big things such as SM can come from small beginnings.

Manas draws parallels with the story of Bruno’s Barbers, which also started from a single branch in Alabang and has now grown to 20 cafes and 31 kiosks in SM malls all over the country.

“There is the story of how Henry Sy, Sr. and his family would gather for weekend lunch. We do the same. And like them, we also always end up talking about business,” Manas shared with a smile.

For her son Marco Pascual, who took over the reins of Bruno’s Barbers as president in 2019, Tatang also demonstrated by example how it is important to work for a vision that goes beyond just the business.

“As leaders, what we bring to the table should be beyond oneself. His life and accomplishments will always be an inspiration for me because of his contributions to the economy of the country and the Filipino people,” said Pascual.

Following Tatang’s footsteps, Bruno’s Barbers contributes what it can by providing jobs to some 1,200 people, which creates a positive ripple effect for their families and lives that they touch.

“We at Bruno’s Barbers continue to be aligned with SM. We want to be closer to our customers while providing livelihood for our countrymen,” he said.

Henry Sy Sr

Bruno’s Barbers’ Amy Manas and Marco Pascual

Like Pascual, Adrian Dimacali, Director of the group behind the popular and fast-expanding chain of Mary Grace Cafes that was founded on the baking skills of his mother, Grace, was also encouraged by Tatang’s oft-retold rags-to-riches story, of how rewards inevitably come from honest hard work and discipline.

“I remember one time, my Mom and I were meeting someone and I saw a picture of Henry Sy, Sr. and his family. We were reflecting on how difficult the business was and questioning whether we should keep building. I told her, we are just opening restaurants, they are opening big malls,” he said, “They are doing their part to keep the economy going, to provide opportunities to tenants. I guess we have to keep opening too, to help our people and our suppliers.”

Mary Grace Café opened its first SM branch at SM Southmall in 2012 and from there expanded its SM footprint 20 cafes and 31 kiosks in SM malls all over the country.

“Now we have a five-year plan because when you reach a certain point, you have to protect what we have built,” said Mary Grace, “That is always my prayer because it is a gift, this business of ours. Good thing that I have my daughter and my sons with me and each have their own talents that make the business thrive!”

Mary Grace Cafe’s Adrian Dimacali with mother Mary Grace

Malou Fores, the driving force behind the acclaimed Mamou restaurants, and her husband Jorge “Oye” Araneta Fores, who is in charge of finance and marketing for the chain, can certainly relate to the challenges as well as the rewards from harnessing the power of family to grow an enterprise from the ground up.

And like the Dimacalis, they are constantly inspired by Tatang’s compelling and unique growth story that has lost none of its significance from every retelling.

Jorge shares that Tatang – who has an SM Department Store in the Araneta Center – was a regular visitor to the Cubao home of his uncle, Araneta Group CEO Jorge Araneta, and he recalled how he and his siblings and cousins were not allowed to disturb them while they had their discussions over a hearty home-cooked meal.

“That must be about 35 years ago when they would have one-on-ones in the house. I was moved by that sight, of these two people I admired who saw each other as equals and partners, not one who is a lessor and one who is a tenant. There was mutual respect,” he said.

Malou and Jorge Fores apply the same principle of partnership and collaboration in the way they are growing their business, seeing SM Supermalls, for example, as an integral partner in the success of Mamou, which now has six restaurants including the latest branch at SM’s S Maison at Conrad Manila.

“I always see business as something that is a partnership. I have worked on both sides, as a mall manager and now as a lessee. I know that for a relationship to work, you cannot say I am a landlord and you are a tenant. It has to be a mutually beneficial relationship,” said Jorge.

That business principle has paid dividends for the SM Group and promises to do the same for the celebrated Mamou.

Their son, Raul Fores, has taken the strengths of his parents – he has the same passion for cooking and personal customer service as his mom, Malou, and the business smarts from his father’s experience as both lessee and landlord. With that, he shared that he would like to explore more avenues where Mamou can go as well as other future dining concepts.

Mamou’s Malou and Raul Fores

Toby Claudio, President of Toby’s Sports, co-founder of RUNNR, urbanAthletics, and Total Sports, Inc., can relate well to the desire to expand in new directions as Tatang has done so. Toby’s Sports group has grown from what it was when his father started a lifelong relationship with the SM Group.

Toby’s Group has a network of 68 branches, more than half of which are in the SM malls.

That would not have been possible without Tatang’s encouragement, said Toby’s Sports’ group founder and chairman emeritus Roberto Claudio. Tatang was always there to push entrepreneurs like him who were just starting out to face down challenges.

“He was really an inspiration, he would always prod you on when you talk to him about potential problems or when you are having doubts,” shared Claudio, “He would always say, don’t mind the problems, face them, go around them. I am sure you will succeed.”

Fortunately, the Claudio family heeded Tatang’s sage advice to persevere and forge ahead through hard work, grit, and perseverance.

“He told us then, huwag kayo matakot sa failure. You guys are young, you can afford to fail. If you just persist, you will succeed,” said Claudio, who also heads the Philippine Retailers Association.

The younger Claudio, for his part, has learned two major lessons from Tatang’s life.

“The first is to just take risks, even if there is a lot at stake and even if failure is a possibility, if you really believe in it. The second is to always innovate. There were already shopping centers, for example, when he started, but the kind of mall that Henry Sy, Sr. wanted to build was totally different, and so he gave Filipinos something they did not even know they wanted.”

Toby’s Group’s Bobby and Toby Claudio

For Bernie Liu, chairman and CEO of the Golden ABC, the proudly Filipino-owned and run fashion enterprise behind such brands as Penshoppe, OXGN, Regatta, Forme, Memo and Bocu, what struck him in his interactions with Tatang was his close attention to detail.

Liu can still vividly remember how Tatang would walk around the department store – where Penshoppe started as a supplier in 1986 – with a team behind him noting his observations and taking down his instructions.

“He was very particular about the product display. I remember when we opened our module in SM Makati, there was a portion that he thought was too dark. He said that should be changed,” Liu said.

He added that Tatang was ‘really hands-on and very down to earth.’

Liu noted that it was largely expected that successful people like Tatang would control his growing enterprise from an ivory tower. But that was not Tatang’s style. He preferred instead to walk the floor and keep his ears close to the ground in anticipation of the next growth opportunities.

The Liu family’s belief in that growth vision, too, is a major reason why they have made it a point to open their stores together within each new SM mall. Today, the Penshoppe Group has over 350 sites in SM malls across the Philippines, accounting for about a third of its extensive national footprint.

“They’ve always been part of our growth. I always tell their team, if you invite me, of course I will go,” said Liu, whose own team includes his wife, Alice, now president of the group, and his children, Bryan, Brandon, and Amanda, all of whom have growing roles in the company.

Bryan is vice president for strategy and operations, Brandon is brand director of Penshoppe while Amanda is e-commerce product manager and founder of the fast-growing Bocu chain.

Like other second-generation entrepreneurs, the Liu siblings are guided and inspired by Tatang’s example and now apply these lessons as they prepare to eventually carry on their own parents’ and grandparents’ legacy.

“Penshoppe is only a few years older than I am, and so I grew up immersed in an environment with amazing role models—my parents and grandparents who worked tirelessly and passionately to serve both customers and employees. Now that it’s our turn, my siblings and I promised to honor their legacy and work hard at growing it so we can do greater things for the people around us,” said Brandon.

Tatang may seem larger than life considering all that he has accomplished over the years, but for those who were lucky enough to know him, he was very much human–a warm and generous spirit who was a constant source of motivation. He was a visionary who helped them on their own journey into becoming leaders and trailblazers in their chosen markets.

Penshoppe’s Bernie Liu with wife Alice, and kids Bryan, Brandon, and Amanda

Precy Ramos, who worked side-by-side for many years with her mother-in-law and National Bookstore founder Socorro Ramos, recalls fondly how Tatang personally supervised the construction of SM North Edsa – the first SM Supermall that opened in 1985 – with an eagle eye on the smallest of details to make sure that they were up to his exacting standards.

Tatang also made the extra effort through many years to ensure that SM malls would have the right space for National Bookstore, a revered name as well in Philippine retailing.

This solid partnership was a testament to the close personal and professional relationship that Tatang shared with Nanay Coring. She saw Tatang flourish from their early days in what used to be the commercial district of Avenida.

“During Tatang’s 80th birthday celebration, for example, he sent somebody over to get Nanay. She sat beside him [during the party], katabi niya the whole time,” shared Ramos, “They really had a lot of respect for each other.”

They both grew, and both Tatang and Nanay Coring have been able to pass on what they had built to their children. In National Bookstore’s case, the baton has been passed to the next generation represented by Adrian, the current president, who is guiding National Bookstore toward full recovery, growth, and expansion.

National Bookstore’s Precy Ramos and son Adrian

Like Liu and Ramos, Victor Siasat, CEO of Trimark Group Holdings Inc. that represents a multitude of leading international brands across a wide range of industries from high fashion to streetwear, fitness and new media, deeply admired and respected Tatang’s famous attention to detail. To him, it was an indication of how seriously Tatang looked at business.

Siasat considers Tatang a pivotal figure in his life as he got his major break as a retailer and distributor at SM, first with Guess in 1991 at Megamall, followed by the second branch at the annex of SM North Edsa. From that first blockbuster brand, Siasat’s Trimark today handles some 60 brands including Mossimo, Mango, Vans, Carolina Herrera as well as Gold’s Gym and employs approximately 5,000 people.

And Siasat is not yet done expanding and exploring. Like Tatang, Siasat is deliberate in his approach to growing his sprawling business group, but he has loosened his grip on the company reins and his children have come on board.

His son, Fergus, for example, is looking at introducing better efficiencies across the group as well as bringing in more brands that may appeal more to the higher-income markets. Tatang’s life story always helps keep them grounded and at the same time inspired to reach for more, even if they have already made a mark in the local retail industry.

“A lot of people I meet always tie Tatang’s story with inspiration. How did one man take his company to where it is? It is kind of unfathomable. He impacted many lives,” said Fergus.

Trimark Group Holdings Inc. Victor Siasat and son Fergus

George Mirani, the chair of the dominant Mirani Group, which retails and distributes internationally recognized fashion and lifestyle accessories brands in the Philippines, certainly shares similar life principles with the Sy family, whom they have known for decades.

Indeed, the SM Group has been instrumental in the growth of the Mirani Group, which operates 70 concession spaces for timepieces, and 31 stores for timepieces such as Watch Republic and 35 stores for top fashion brands, including Parfois, Triumph, Etam, Ever New, and Yves Rocher in SM Supermalls.

Mirani, however, started the group’s relationship with SM back in the late ‘70s as he would sell houseware, glassware, and gift products to what was then Shoemart.

Over the succeeding years, as the SM malls rapidly expanded, the Mirani Group did, too, diversifying from housewares to distribution of one brand after another. Today, it is one of the successful Filipino companies in retail and distribution.

“What you learn from Tatang through doing business with Tessie Sy-Coson is to think ahead,” said Mirani. “From the time we started business until about 1986, we were all, at that time, short-sighted businesspeople. Nobody knew about transformation, where things were headed after the Ninoy Aquino assassination. However, there was this gentleman opening a mall. I remember at that time, people were saying Tatang was making a huge blunder as these were unprecedented times,” he shared.

Tatang certainly proved his naysayers wrong, and the opening of SM North Edsa at that time catapulted him into a higher level, Mirani said. It has continued to reach higher goals long after Tatang’s passing, taking along partners such as the Mirani Group.

Mirani Group’s chair George Mirani

But among the entrepreneurs who got to interact with Tatang, perhaps Lydia de Roca, founder of the 58-year-old Lydia’s Lechon, had the most unique encounter.

De Roca shared that back in 1989, she noticed that on Sundays, a Chinese gentleman would religiously order and quietly enjoy his own 1/4 kilo lechon with rice in a little corner of her first store in Baclaran.

He wore a simple shirt with shorts and slippers and had an empty bayong by his side. After having his fill of Lydia’s already popular lechon, he would take his bayong and then proceed to the nearby Seafood Market and fill his bayong with seafood.

After several weeks, de Roca got curious about the gentleman and eventually asked his driver who he was.

’Di nyo siya kilala?,’ sabi sa akin. Sabi ko ‘hindi.’ Siya si Henry Sy, Sr., yung may ari ng SM, lahat ng SM sa kanila,” recounted de Roca. She was taken aback that such a rich and influential person would be so simple and unassuming.

The following Sunday, de Roca approached Sy and introduced herself, sharing how she owned the branch, but that she started with a small lechon stall outside the Baclaran Church.

To her surprise, Tatang asked her if she wanted to put up a stall in the SM Food Court. De Roca took him up on his offer and opened the first Lydia’s Lechon in the food court of SM Sta. Mesa. This was in 1990.

She has not looked back since and Lydia’s Lechon has grown into a chain of 28 branches, a far cry from where the bangketa where she started.

“Kaya lagi ko siya pinagdarasal noon, sabi ko, ‘wag mo po siya pababayaan,” shared de Roca. She added that because of him, the centavos that she used to keep as profit turned into thousands, and eventually, millions.

Now entrusted to take Lydia’s Lechon to its next growth phase are her children, including her daughter Lyd, who is credited for diversifying into other product lines such as bottled sauces and canned viands for easier delivery and distribution to other countries where Filipinos are hankering for Lydia’s food.

Lyd shares with a laugh that she and her mother do not always see eye to eye when it comes to life and business. But they both welcome the friction as productive discussions in the family lead to growth, especially as she and her siblings are united in the vision of elevating Lydia’s Lechon both in look and in size to the next level.

Lydia’s Lechon’s founder Lydia and daughter, Lyd de Roca

For Eric Teng, CEO of The Mango Tree and Gengki Sushi, what Tatang went through to grow his empire from the Shoemart store in Manila showed them that to succeed, one must be willing to work harder than everybody else.

“Do it for the family. For their security. For their future. Don’t quit. The harder times are just part of life that we overcome,” said Teng.

“I totally agree with Tatang on the value of hard work. Being able to see things others cannot and leading everyone through hard times to thriving times is a gift [of Tatang that] I wish I had. You can’t go wrong by working hard. And we must surround ourselves with people who are equally driven by the same life principles,” added Teng.

Teng is happy that the qualities of professionalism that drove Tatang as one of the linchpins of his success, have permeated throughout the organization today, making SM malls a great partner for their many concepts.

“They have shaped the consumer economy that we take for granted. It’s hard for me to imagine a Philippines today without an SM mall. And it’s hard for me to imagine our businesses not being in SM,” he said.

“As SM expands, we see ourselves growing with them. Through good times and bad. We did that before and after the pandemic, and we are much better and much stronger because of this partnership,” added Teng.

Resto PH’s Eric Teng and son Grant

It is a feeling shared by the hundreds, if not thousands, of other entrepreneurs and partners, like him, who have been touched by the SM brand in a myriad of ways, born out of the vision of the singular Henry Sy, Sr.


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