JUNE 14, 1999  

Henry Sy

Founder, SM Prime Holdings, Philippines

HENRY SY KEEPS A STUFFED EAGLE WITH 3-INCH TALONS IN HIS MANILA OFFICE. ''I believe eagles have a very strong character and a sharp eye,'' he says. The comparison is clear. Using such skills, Sy has made himself the retailing king of the Philippines. At 74, he presides over a conglomerate that relies on sales of low-priced consumer goods to prosper even in recession. His air-conditioned Megamalls have turned traditional Sunday afternoon family time into shopping expeditions. As a result, SM Prime revenues rose 19% last year, to $115 million, and 17% growth is expected this year.

The tycoon is a long way from his humble start. His impoverished family left China when Sy was 12 and opened a corner grocery in Manila. Sy later sold shoes, traveling 40 hours by propeller plane to New York to get them. He picked up retailing ideas in the U.S. and started his own store. By 1985, Sy had expanded, opening a department store. He has been expanding ever since. ''I make things happen,'' he says.

'If I Make Good Today, I Want to Make Better Tomorrow'

Henry Sy, 74, is the Philippines' retailing king -- the owner of the equivalent of Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target combined. He is the founder of the huge Megamall, Shoemart, and SM Prime Holdings retailing empire, where an estimated 2 million Filipinos go every weekend to shop for low-priced discounts. Sy's family emigrated to the Philippines from China's Fujian province when he was 12, and his family opened a small corner grocery in Manila that was destroyed during World War II. Now, his estimated net worth is close to $3 billion. Business Week Asia Editor Sheri Prasso recently interviewed him in his Manila office. Because his English isn't perfect, he first asked Prasso to read a copy of a speech he'd written and delivered at De la Salle University in Manila on Jan. 30. It read in part:

"Remember the young boy who arrived in Manila many years ago, a stranger with nothing to his name and not knowing a word of Tagalog or English... Success is not just good luck. It's a combination of hard work, good credit standing, opportunity, readiness and timing. When opportunity comes, you have to be ready to embrace it. Otherwise it goes to somebody else. Also, success will not last if you don't take care of it... When you do well, do not change your good ways."

Q: Tell me about why you built such a big empire?
A: From the start, I wanted to change our family's lifestyle. Even in China, we were poor. People often ask me why, what is my driving force? It's this: If I make good today, I want to make better tomorrow. If I have a big shopping mall, my next thing is to have a bigger one. By doing that, I have to work very hard, 10 to 12 hour days.

Q: What about weekends? What do you do in your spare time?
A: Working, also Saturday and Sunday. I go to the shopping mall. We call it "management by walking around." That's how I spend my time out of the office.

Q: You must like to shop.
A: What you do you must enjoy. First, I inspect conditions of the shopping malls, and at the same time I meet friends. I love food, shopping -- also, most important, business.

Q: What about the dangers of being kidnapped? Do you have bodyguards?
A: Two guards. I go at different times to different places. Anytime I find free.

Q: What advice do you give to others?
A: It's always a lot of hard work, good credit standing, and determination. Don't just give up. The road is not smooth. Try to overcome.

Q: So does luck factor in?
A: You need a combination. Without hard work, opportunity is nothing.

Q: You're 74 now. When do you plan to retire?
A: I might slow down by 2000, do 50% of what I do now.

Q: How has your life's work changed the Philippines?
A: Before, Filipinos were very quiet. On Sundays, they go to church, to the park, go to the beach. Now they can go to air-conditioned shopping malls, have one-stop shopping and entertainment. Now everything is under one roof. Also to meet people; it's where the action is.

Q: Next you're planning the Mall of Asia? It will be bigger than the Mall of America?
A: Yes, the Mall of Asia is just started. It will take 5-10 years. It's almost twice as big [as the Megamall]. If I can make it work, I might plan a bigger one. If I can make it bigger, I get a lot of satisfaction. It's not just income, but it makes you feel happy.

Q: Do you get a lot of retailing ideas from the U.S.?
A: I travel a lot. I learn from that. I call it my social university. Travel helps a lot. My eyes open. After the war [when Sy was selling shoes in Manila's Chinatown], I flew 40 hours in a propeller plane to New York. That was 1955. I observed how they operated businesses, every time. What's good about the Philippines is you can adopt anything here. But I make things happen, I don't just copy.

[Sy then leads his visitor from the conference room to his office to show off his giant stuffed eagle encased in glass.]

Q: It's an eagle?
A: It has a seven-foot wing span, and look at the talons. It's one of the largest in the world. I believe eagles have a very strong character and a sharp eye.

Q: Like you?
A: Yes. I keep the eye aimed at the [visitors'] chair.

Q: That's for feng shui reasons?
A: Yes. See, my mail is here. My management style is to have most of the mail sent to me, like business proposals, not the other way around [to subordinates]. If I think it will work, then I pass it on.