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SM at 50:  snippets of memory

(Article published in the Feb 6, 2008 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

By now, anybody who is any money must have had his or her say on this boy, now 82, who at 12 took a boat from Jinjiang, China and joined his father’s sari-sari store in Binondo, Manila, in order to receive, after 50 years, tribute from scions whose great grandfathers looked with disdain on the residents of the Parian.

           That all done, it is now time for us the many, born in war not of our wishing, raised in peace that seemed so promising, and aged in political turbulence characterized by senseless drift, to claim Henry Sy as our rightful heritage.  I, for one, claim him as part of me for I could not look back at my own past 50 years without somehow thinking of SM, or of Henry Sy, or, of both. 

           It was always a thrill to buy shoes, having outgrown the indestructible Greg, from the first Shoemart store which was located on Rizal Avenue as the school year opened.  Not because it was walking distance from Odeon and Manila Grand Opera House; Ang Tibay  was much nearer. Nor because it was adjacent to Fairmont where father and I often bonded over a cup of mocha ice cream, waiting to board a De Dios Transportation bus heading for Balut that brought us back to Tecson in Gagalangin, Tondo.  It was because buying shoes at Shoemart was both a visual and auditory experience.

There was a ritual to buying shoes at Shoemart.  You walk in; you are met by a saleslady who is as plain as can be; you look at the shelves; indicate your choice; and take a seat at the shoe fitting area.  The saleslady comes with your pair in an open box in one hand; sits across in a much lower bench made for shoe fitting, keeping her legs tightly crossed so all you could see are the ugly scars on her knees of a carefree childhood.  Almost always, the pair is not your size.  That is when the real show begins.


            The saleslady from her bench bends forward and stands up, one hand holding the box and the other keeping in modesty the neckline of her blouse close to her chest to ensure that you do not see whether she wears an escolta beneath her camison. In current language, an escolta is a padded bra, then so-called because it was available at Berg’s Department store on nearby Escolta street.

The climax of the show is when the saleslady walks to the center of the floor, somewhere near the cashier, looks up at a dark hole at the ceiling, and calls out to someone up there for your right pair, “wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-” giving thereby the size, color, and style in tongue intelligible only to Shoemart staff.  In less than one minute (remember, this is in an age when inventory management by computer was as inexistent as the Asian Institute of Management), down from the dark hole comes a box; it is caught deftly by the saleslady who brings exactly the pair you need.  The rest---the fitting, the few steps of “feeling it,” the wrapping, and the paying—is denouement. That way of selling shoes is part of the national treasure and must be preserved.

Henry Sy was selling more than shoes when I once approached him, with the younger of my then two daughters in tow, at the ground floor of SM Department Store at the Makati Commercial Center, the place to go on week-ends as an alternative to Doroy Valencia’s Rizal Park.  He was, like the many males there, wearing a banlon shirt, and was intently watching customers flow in and flow out of his store.

I had always sat beside him at the meetings of the Ayala Fund’s Board, (after all, minority loves company,) and so thought nothing of telling him that my little girl, who was then attending the Maria Montessori Cooperative School in Pasay, had a question.  “Mr. Sy,” said my imp, “how much did it cost you to build this?” Henry smiled and answered, “You work for me, when you graduate from college.”

My little girl had since gotten her degrees, worked for a bank or two, and is now faraway working at a similar enterprise called “Harrods" at Knightsbridge.  Coincidentally, she is engaged in exactly what Henry was then doing when they first met, watching the market make its choices, seeing to it that the staff catered to its needs and wants, feeling a sense of triumph reserved only to those who successfully match the demand with the supply.

After Edsa I, Makati lost its position of choice, of mine at least, when Henry Sy built The Mega Mall at Ortigas.  The Mega Mall, not just a one item store nor merely a place to buy different items, became where to be on days when one was not working.  And soon, as both sellers of goods and sellers of service filled the puestos, even when one was working.

I was walking to the parking area after a long working lunch at Saisaki one afternoon when I saw coming from the opposite direction, a group of about five men about arms length from one another, with a plump man, slightly hunched, at the center.  I did not change course, as others did, to make way and instead walked smiling towards the one in the center.

As I neared, the security guys tensed up.  They did not know I had been seeing their boss at the Makati Stock Exchange Building several times the previous days, completing the negotiations for a client for the operation and management of what was then known as the Taal Vista Lodge. They relaxed only as they saw Henry Sy reach out his hand to shake mine.

What is the secret of Henry Sy that enabled him to build what people now call the “SM empire”? His daughter Tessie at the SM Group’s golden anniversary celebration at the SMX Convention Center described him as “as a symbol of determination, guts and grounded optimism.”  “His story”, she said, “is an inspiration to everyone who believes in hard work and perseverance as success to him is dreaming big and working hard to this a reality.”

Henry is all that, true; but Tessie, I think, like a true Sy, was not too liberal with her father’s trade secret. It was during a board meeting of Ayala Fund that I had a glimpse of it. We were engaged in vigorous debate on which direction the Fund was to head in the face of growing uncertainty in the political climate and of the economic storms that were threatening to flood the country.  Shooting down a proposal of Ayala’s boys from BPI, Henry insisted, “we have to stick with what we know how to do well.”  That is, Henry’s secret; sticking to what one knows how to do well is, in my view, the defining characteristic of his doing business.

I do not recall how the division of the house went during that meeting; I am certain I voted, as I had always done, with Henry.  A few months later, I left the board taking the secret of the Shaolin with me, eventually lost touch, and, met up with Henry again only much later when as the lawyer of a Dutch group, I was part of the legal team that organized Makro.  By then, “Ayala Fund” had been renamed “SM Fund”. 

Henry’s words were still in my ears when last year I walked a young lady from a school activity at the SM Science Discovery Center to the La Mesa Grill at the seaside section of the Mall of Asia.  Intelligible only in the context of doting dialogue licensed exclusively between lolo and apo, where fantasy easily mingles with fact and what is envisioned flows freely with what is in vision, I told her, “You know, Mia, all this belongs to Henry Sy; and Henry Sy belongs to me.”   

          The kid was considerate enough not to react; she had for sometime now known, of what her grandpop says, which ones to believe.