Hans Sy Jr. on post-COVID 19, and lessons from SM elders

What will the state of the nation be after the global COVID-19 crisis? What are the prospects for Philippine businesses?

On July 22, the 38-year-old, Australia-educated SM Engineering Design and Development Corp. (SMEDD) president Hans “Chico” Sy Jr. delivered his first-ever speech at the monthly forum — nowadays conducted via Zoom — of the Anvil Business Club, of which I am chairman. He was so eloquent, frank, incisive, down-to-earth and sensible.

Anvil honorary chairman Jeffrey Ng of Cathay Land, Inc. commented after the over-two-hour dialogue: “Henry Sy and Hans Sy are so lucky to have such a grandson and son; SM will have 50 more years of dynamic success.”

Among the many Anvil officers who were so impressed by this third-generation SM Group scion included honorary chairman Michael Tan of LT Group, Inc., honorary chairman Bernard Go of Contract Design Systems Furniture, chairman emeritus George Siy, honorary chairman Reynold Siy, Anvil vice chairman and Nielsen Phil. CEO Patrick Cua, president Hubert Chua, honorary chairman Peter Mangasing, and honorary chairman Marcelo Co. Anvil is part of the philanthropic and business umbrella group Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Inc. (FFCCCII) and its president, Dr. Henry Lim Bon Liong, said, “I am a great admirer of Tatang Henry Sy and the strengths of the Sy siblings in the guidance of Achi Tessie. The third-generation Sys have also been brought up with good values. I’m sure SM Group will rise to greater heights and continue to help our Philippine economy.”

Here are some of the many points and personal views shared by Chico Sy:

  1. The SM Group is bullish on the Philippines’ post-COVID-19 future. Chico Sy said, “I am also very bullish. We are now fighting a battle against fear, this is a mental battle.” He said we should wear facemasks and do all the health safeguards, but he also believes that we need to go out and work. He believes we should protect the vulnerable and the elderly, and that the Philippines can overcome this crisis well, especially with our very young and productive population. In fact, Sy foresees a possible strong recovery by June of next year, starting in March of 2021.
  2. Malls will still be relevant. Sy believes that shopping malls — as places for socializing and for cost-efficient, safe, unique one-stop convenience — will continue to thrive in the post-pandemic era. He acknowledged the growing importance of online shopping, adding that SM Group has also pivoted to include online services. But the constraints of online shopping, like fulfillment challenges and delivery costs, will keep malls relevant and comparatively convenient.
  3. Take advantage of this crisis to evaluate and improve. When asked what advice he would share for the over-300 young Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs of the Anvil Business Club and Filipinos in general, Sy replied, “Take advantage of the downtime of this crisis, evaluate systems, crack it open and think of what to do to make it better. Don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer.”
  4. Never stop learning; keep asking questions. Sy said that we need to encourage more critical thinking in the Philippines. He shared his own mindset: “You never stop learning. Keep asking questions. Ask why, how, etc.”
  5. Work hard and persevere. When asked by Anvil Honorary chairman Roy Chua how his firm has made “the maintenance of SM malls superior,” Sy answered that good maintenance begins with good design. He enumerated an amazing array of examples in precise detail, from the way SM mall centrally runs the blowers of the aircons to ensure consistent coolness, to the good quality of the floor tiles.

He also reiterated that he learned from his late grandfather, SM Group founder Henry Sy Sr., his parents Hans and Carol Sy, and from the second-generation leaders, his aunts and uncles — “Sipag at tiyaga,” or hard work and perseverance. Chico said his parents work six days a week, while he works five and a half days a week.

  1. Lead by example. Sy said several times that his parents and family elders have positively influenced him through “leadership by example.” He said, “There’s the SM DNA: you will see the bosses are doing work 110 percent every day, and you need to follow. Up to now, all second-generation members of our family are still on the frontlines.”

He also extolled his father, Hans Sy, as a great exemplar of hard work, while his mother, Carol Sy, upholds “morals, ethics, humility and family values.” He shared that his grandmother, Felicidad Tan Sy, and his mother have very devout religious faith.

  1. Lead a simple lifestyle. Sy revealed that they were never spoiled and led normal, simple lives. He said, “We never had a high-flying lifestyle, but we really couldn’t, too, because everything was in the business. My grandfather, he had no luxury and no vice. In his office, the most expensive thing was a statue of a hawk or eagle, which was a gift from somebody, nothing grand. There were no Rolls-Royces, no Bentleys. He just had a Mercedes-Benz, nothing flashy. All that kept us grounded.”

Sy revealed that as kids, they had “baon” for lunch, so they weren’t given allowance money until he reached Grade 5. He recalled that his first-ever allowance from his parents was five pesos a week. When he told his father Hans that he couldn’t even afford to buy one soft drink at the school canteen with this weekly allowance, his dad replied, “You can, if you save your allowance for two weeks.”

Read more: Philippine Star