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Life & Culture Lifestyle

Henry Sy: From Penniless to Multibillion-Dollar Business Empire

From rags to riches, the Chinese-born Henry Tan Chi Sieng Sy Sr. faces life with optimism and turns it upside-down, truly a groundbreaking tycoon in the Philippine Corporate World.

Henry Sy is the wealthiest man in the archipelagic nation, Philippines. He was responsible for establishing SM Malls across the country, with a boasting 72 shopping malls that serve 3.5 million customers a day. From rags to riches, little did everyone knows, is the retail tycoon’s success story.

At the age of 12, Sy left the village of Hong Xi Jinjiang, countryside of Quanzhou City in China’s Fujian province, in hopes of finding a better future in a foreign land. The Chinese-born started his business with a small footwear shop in the Philippines on 1958.

Initially, the SM trademark began from the humble ShoeMart retail stores in Rizal Avenue and Carriedo Street in downtown Manila. Sy’s business eventually branched out into bigger retail shops in Makati and in Cubao, Quezon City – two of the country’s busiest districts during the 1960s. By 1972, his shops had branched out into selling all sorts of goods, prompting him to change the name to SM Department store.

Sy also founded Banco de Oro Savings in 1976, which grew into BDO Unibank, now the country’s biggest universal bank.

Filipinos gravitate towards malls not only for shopping purposes but also for services in line with passport, tax, and other government amenities that are available in malls.

Now, the SM Prime Holdings, Inc. or simply SM Prime is the largest shopping mall and retail operator in the Philippines. The company engages in the development of malls, residences, offices, hotels, and convention centers. It operates in four segments: mall, residential, commercial, and hotels and convention centers.

The retail tycoon managed to change the shopping landscape in the Philippines and grew his business into an empire. He started building SM Supermalls into a household brand, turned malling into a national recreation and redefined the limits of banking.

Widely considered as the “Father of Philippine Retail,” he ranked as the country’s richest man for 11 successive years, according to Forbes magazine. Furthermore, he was the 52nd richest person in the world in 2018, beating out bold-name tycoons like Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, and George Soros, with his net worth amounting to almost $19 billion (about ₱1.05 trillion).

Sy was a generous donor to charitable causes, allocating millions of pesos each year to grant college scholarships to thousands of underprivileged Filipino youth. Through the SM Foundation, Sy also donated huge amounts to healthcare, disaster response, and farmers’ training. Truly, a philanthropist above everything else.

“In good times, I continue to work; in bad, I work harder,” – Sy, recalling his humble beginnings in an interview a decade ago.

“It is important to be optimistic. Many of our milestones occurred during difficult times,” he added.

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