What we learned from Tatang: Henry Sy’s protegés remember

‘He was there for all of us. Most employees called him Tatang because he demonstrated his fatherly traits’
/ 05:03 AM January 23, 2019
What we learned from Tatang: Henry Sy’s protegés remember

Despite Sy’s stature as the country’s richest man, he remained humble and simple, say those who worked closely with him.

The late taipan Henry Sy led the SM Group to dominance by adopting a paternal style to business that inspired trust, commitment and values. Sy was a hands-on owner/leader, mentoring generations of employees.

Millie Dizon, SM senior vice president for marketing and a long-time employee, recalled that in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the mall culture was just emerging. Sy did the rounds of the stores.


“He was there for all of us. Most employees called him Tatang because he demonstrated his fatherly traits. He gave us many lessons in life and in business,” she said.

Steven Tan, chief operating officer of SM Supermalls, recalled how Sy shared a cup of coffee with him at SM Mall of Asia every day. “He imparted valuable lessons in shopping behavior, mall plotting and working closely with tenant partners. He was very focused, and encouraged me to do the same,” said Tan.


SM’s homegrown retailer Johnlu Koa attributed the growth of French Baker, a bakery chain and café, to the way Sy nurtured his tenants. Koa was content with his space at SM North Edsa Annex. But Sy believed in pushing the limits.

Upon Sy’s prodding, Koa expanded the bakery to include meals, and has since grown the company. Now on its 30th year, French Baker has 63 branches, over 40 of which are in SM malls.

Dizon quoted employee Luisa Suniga as saying, “As the company grows, we grow with the company. No one is left behind.” Suniga started as a clerk of Sy’s wife Felicidad in SM Makati in 1972, and is now vice president for operations in North Luzon 3.

Country’s richest man

Despite Sy’s stature as the country’s richest man, he remained humble and simple. Fashion retailer Marilou Peña-Koa recalled meeting him in the dampa seaside market when he was buying a lot of fish.

A dapper young Henry Sy, still on his way to becoming a taipan

Not knowing who he was, she asked if he was in the restaurant business. He replied, “No, we are doing SM.” The Sy family was often seen in the dampa.

Menswear designer Anthony Nocom recalled how in the ’80s, Sy would come to SM Makati, in his trademark printed shirt. None of the customers were aware that he was the owner. He’d sit on the park bench in front of Café Elysée to observe the shopping habits of customers.


Marissa Fernan, senior vice president of SM Prime Holdings-VizMin, remembered the days when she drove Sy around Cebu in her pickup.

Sy has been synonymous with coaching and caring, diligence and dedication. It was typical of the SM Group founder to invite his employees or tenants for a cup of coffee for a chat and an impromptu “lesson.”

People who have worked with him share their unforgettable moments with Lifestyle.

Millie Dizon, senior vice president for communications, SM

Sy’s vision was to provide new experiences for the market. “He wanted his customers to enjoy good clothes and shop well at reasonable prices. The malls became family-oriented,” said Dizon.
Sy stayed out of the limelight and granted interviews only on rare occasions. Dizon was privileged to have sat in his interviews with international publications.

Steven Tan

In 2004, Sy and his heirs apparent, Teresita Sy-Coson, vice chair of SM Investments Corporation, and Hans, SM Prime Holdings chair, landed on the cover of Time Magazine.

Although the interview took several days, Sy was a gracious host, taking the Time team around SM Megamall and bringing them to his home in Tagaytay.

Sy had envisioned that the Philippines would become a top destination in Asia because of its strategic location, the people’s hospitality and ability to speak English.

He built the SM Mall of Asia (MoA), as a shopping, entertainment and leisure destination at Bay City. The Sunday before the opening, he toured the press around the complex. He stopped to savor the sunset over Manila Bay. That grand opening day, MoA, ranked the 13th largest mall in the world, posted a record one million visitors.

Dizon learned about the great but quiet ways of Sy when she interviewed pioneer employees during SM’s golden and diamond anniversaries.

Customer satisfaction

She quoted Suniga and Carina Nudo, checking supervisor for the SM Store, both 47-year employees of SM, about what they learned from Sy.

His main concern was customer satisfaction because it created loyalty and sustained business.

Discipline at work sets SM employees apart from the rest of the pack. Sy also insisted that the frontliners should always look polished and pleasant at any given time.

Johnlu Koa

“He touched many lives,” said Dizon.

“Tenants got their break with SM. Scholars led better lives because of the scholarship program. For the customers, the malls became part of their lifestyle. When I interviewed the long-time employees, they said, ‘As SM grew, it made sure that innovations are not just for the company, but also for the people behind it,’” said Dizon.

Lulu Tan-Gan and Anthony Nocom, designers

SM Group began with Shoe Mart, which had a unique system for selling shoes. The selling area had a small opening in the ceiling where shoe boxes were dropped from the stock room.
Every time a customer wanted to fit a style, the saleslady would call out the stock number on a microphone. The boxes were caught by the sales person and brought to the customer.

Tan-Gan was a fresh graduate of fine arts in 1976 when she joined Shoe Mart. She started out as a shoe designer and helped Coson, who headed merchandising, to select products for the store.

Nocom started out as visual display artist, then became a merchandiser before he ventured into menswear.

Sy was hands-on in shoe sampling, while Coson handled fashion.
In the former main store along Echague in Quiapo, Sy would arrive at 6 p.m. after doing the rounds of the stores. He’d say “Hello” to everyone.

“Buying time for shoes took longer than the clothes. He had the final say on footwear,” recalled Nocom. “He went through each style and let the buyer fit the shoes in front of us. He made sure they were comfortable and durable.”

Tan-Gan said that there was no such thing as an eight-hour job for Sy. The shoe sampling ended at midnight.


“My first big lesson from him was the importance of understanding the market and providing what it needs,” she said. “If our designs were too experimental, he would ask if it would sell. As a merchandise buyer, you have to be prudent in your choices because you’re making an outright purchase.

“Second was pricing. If your shoe design had 10 straps, the production would be costly. Make it five straps instead. Third, successful people start early in the morning and finish late at night.”

Anthony Nocom, Millie Dizon

Marissa Fernan, senior vice president of SM Prime Holdings Inc. Viz-Min

A pioneer employee of the Cebu operations in 1988, Fernan was tasked to set up the first BDO branch and SM City Cebu.

As BDO was set to open, Sy inspected the branch. Fastidious about details, he pointed out that the bathroom flooring should be slightly inclined. Water could easily flow through the drainage when the bathroom was being cleaned.

“He checked every nook and cranny of every project, gave his instructions, reviewed the expense reports and signed the checks,” said Fernan.

When SM City Cebu opened in 1993, Sy himself thanked the pioneer tenants for joining the first mall outside of Metro Manila.

One day, he made a surprise visit to Cebu. Sy wanted to have a meal with Don Paterno Luym, his first landlord for Shoe Mart Department Store.
“He valued relationships. You can see that trait among his children,” said Fernan. “The way I conduct business with people was inspired by his emphasis on serving the customer and the tenant.”

Steven Tan, COO, SM Supermalls

Tan joined SM in 2004 and was responsible for MoA when it opened in 2006. On its first year, Sy inspected the mall every day and called for him for coffee and updates.

During their usual chat, the sprinkler of a tenant on the floor above their dining place burst.

Tan panicked. Sy calmly held his hand and told him to settle down. “If you panic, you will be unable to decide properly and carry on objectively and with a steady hand,” said his employer.

Marissa Fernan

“This was my particular lesson on grace under pressure,” said Tan.
“Mr. Sy is a generous mentor. I will always treasure my stint at Mall of Asia which allowed me to have one-on-one sessions with him… He was very focused and would encourage me to be the same. He cited determination and hard work as pillars of success.

“He was not a man of fancy talk, but someone very solid and grounded. He worked hard and achieved so much, and yet he took time to coach others. I am so thankful for our time together for it has guided me tremendously in my work. Salamat po, Tatang.”

Loaf bread

JohnLu Koa, founder and CEO, French Baker

Herbert Sy, director of SM Prime Holdings, handled SM’s grocery business. He tapped his former classmate, Koa, to supply loaf bread to the supermarket.

In 1989, when SM North Edsa opened the Annex, the mall’s upmarket extension, Koa was invited to be a tenant. Koa envisioned providing European-style breads and quality local breads at affordable prices.

Sy was slowly repositioning the SM brand to compete with the market leader and wanted to develop his own tenants. During the first 10 years of French Baker operations, Koa frequently saw his landlord who would ask, “How are you? Is there anything that we can do for you?”

Seeing French Baker’s potential, he told Koa that if the latter offered only breads and fine coffee, his business wouldn’t grow as quickly. This was despite the fact that there were long queues when French Baker slashed its prices toward closing time.

Sy suggested that the bakery should be complemented with light meals for better growth.

Sy then offered the 45-sq m vacant space beside the 88-sq m French Baker. “It became a twin store—one for baking, the other for cooking,” said Koa.

Lulu Tan-Gan

Sy would often be spotted at the Annex between 9:30 a.m. and noontime, checking on each outlet.

Eventually, Sy offered Koa an over-200 sq m space that had been vacated by a pizza chain in the main mall. Koa was daunted.

“I’m small fry,” he told Sy.

“Are you afraid?” asked Sy. He told Koa that if the latter needed help, he could always call his office. Koa then acquired half of that size, 120 sq m, at SM North Edsa.

“I thought life was good at SM North Edsa until we opened SM Megamall in 1991,” said Koa. The bakery-restaurant was situated on the ground floor near the Edsa entrance.
Six months later, Sy invited him to open another branch on the bridgeway on the third floor.

French Baker rose to prominence because Sy provided strategic locations.

Sy invited Koa to open in Cebu and offered to fly him to inspect the site.

Koa trusted his landlord. The SM City Cebu space was 240 sqm, but the rent was a fraction of the Manila price. “Luckily, it made money,” said Koa.

Before MoA opened, many retailers were eyeing a 320-sq m space near the mall entrance. Sy had reserved the site for Koa and said, “Your dad and I were friends since we were young.”


By 2006, Sy was already wheelchair-bound. Yet, he still went around MoA. “I would be sad if I didn’t see people carrying my SM blue bag,” Sy said, referring to the old shopping bag.

In the last 12 years, SM has rapidly expanded its retail, banking and property. “The organization was restructured. The children were properly positioned and professionals were given the mandates. Gone were the days when I’d get a call from him to meet me in the mall,” said Koa.

However, he admires Sy for how his focus kept the business stable despite coups d’etat, natural calamities and political upheavals.

Koa quoted Sy: “Philippine history repeats itself, but the Filipinos are nice people and they want the good life.”

Koa added that SM lives up to one of its company’s slogans, “We find ways.” He explained: “SM will find solutions to accommodate you and make things work. While there are rules, they make exceptions for the tenants. His management style is reflected in his children and managers,” said Koa. –CONTRIBUTED

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