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The King Who Democratized Our Retail Experience: A Tribute To Henry Sy Sr.

When Henry Sy Sr. passed away peacefully in his sleep at 94 years of age over the weekend, we lost the man who founded the SM empire, was instrumental in transforming our urban landscape, and had democratized the retail and mall experience for Filipinos all over the country.


Photo from SM Investment Corp

Forbes magazine has referred to him as the richest Filipino for the last 11 years, with an estimated net worth of $19 billion; ranking him the 52nd richest person in the world in 2018. He is now survived by his wife and his six children: Teresita, Elizabeth, Henry Jr., Hans, Herbert, and Harley. 

I’m not going to make claims of knowing the man, as I would just respectfully approach him and greet him during the SM events I would attend in past years when he would still show up. But I always saw him as the supreme example of the self-made immigrant who made the Philippines his land of opportunity—a true visionary and pioneer, and a major influence in changing the faces of Philippine real estate and property, of banking, and retail. In truth, Henry Sy Sr., was the first true influencer of his time, before we even coined the term. And without access to social media of any kind, he influenced millions, transforming our lifestyle habits.

An immigrant from JinJiang, China, he arrived in Manila as a teenager and lived with his father who was running a small grocery business. When the end of World War ll left the local economy in tatters, Henry Sr. elected to persist in the Philippines, as his father returned to China. His first shoe store in Carriedo opened in 1958; and as the merchandise expanded to go beyond shoes, 1972 saw the birth of the first SM Department Store. In fact, in an audacious move, he opened the SM Makati Department Store in 1975, right in the heart of the Ayala complex, and a stone’s throw away from Rustan’s.


Henry Sy Sr. at his first shoe store in Carriedo | Photo from SM Investment Corp.


It was in 1985 however, when SM North EDSA opened, with over 424,000 sq.m. of retail space, that the modern-day concept of what SM has come to mean to the public, finds its real roots. By insisting on locations then seen as risky but innovative in hindsight, Henry Sr. revolutionized the mall experience for Filipinos, making malls a national pastime and obsession, and the go-to on Sundays for a broad economic cross-section of Filipinos and their families.


The shoe store ShoeMart opened in Makati in 1963 | Photo from SM Investment Corp.


Before SM North EDSA, malls were perceived as the enclave of the rich and upwardly mobile. SM turned this on its own head, opening the doors to a wider segment of the public, beckoning them to enjoy the AC environs, and the retail shops and eateries that had affordable price points. If in the past, a driver would just see the driver’s lounge of a mall, waiting for his amo to beckon, and pick him or her up—with SM Malls, he could drop off the said amo on a weekday, and enjoy the same mall with his wife and kids on his day off. 

It’s easy to see it as a given now; but back in its day, this was unheard of and socially revolutionary—and Henry Sy Sr. was leading the charge. While some quarters back in 1985 were predicting North EDSA would be a "white elephant," Mr. Sy proved all the naysayers wrong, and never looked back. 


Mr. Sy opened his first mall in EDSA in 1985 | Photo from SM Investments Corp.


This notion of SM overreaching was a common story back then. I recall attending the opening of SM City Pampanga in November 2000, the very first SM Supermall in Central Luzon; and like many there with me, we were wondering why in the middle of nowhere, outside the city limits, who would make this a regular destination? Of course, we were all wrong, and SM, guided by Mr. Sy’s vision and business acumen, knew exactly what they were doing. And he made believers of us all.

This sense of vision and business savvy on the part of Mr. Sy goes beyond location and knowing what to build; it extends to recognizing people and talent, and giving them their first break and opportunity. Back then, Ricky Reyes would always mention how he owed his hair salon business success to Tatang (Mr. Sy), who prodded him to put up branch after branch in his SM malls. And I’m certain so many other entrepreneurs have similar stories to share. 


Even in the arena of banking, SM’s BDO Unibank helped reconfigure the limits, and our perception of what the banking business could be all about in service of its customers. With BDO banks in the SM malls open on the weekends, it truly became a godsend for the millions who work as rank and file, and don’t often have a chance to attend to their banking business on weekdays. Immediately, BDO gained steam and reputation as the People’s choice for their banking needs.

It’s easy to forget BDO’s relatively short history. Acquired by the Sy Group in 1976, and renamed the Banco de Oro Savings & Mortgage Bank, BDO became a commercial bank only in 1994, and a universal bank in 1996 known as BDO Unibank. And today, in terms of total assets and market capitalization, it’s the largest bank in the Philippines, fifteenth largest in Southeast Asia. For a 22-year-old Unibank, that’s some feat.

Ultimately, it’s how SM and Mr. Sy redefined Filipino mall culture that will leave the lasting impression in most people’s minds. Sure, malls existed before SM, but by making them sprout up anywhere and everywhere, seemingly overnight, and in locations that oftentimes had us scurrying to our local maps or GPS, SM created its own lifestyle revolution, and made sure everyone was invited, and could enjoy the experience.


Photos from SM Investment Corp.