Tycoon and philanthropist

IN A capitalist democracy such as the Philippines, private enterprise is both the engine of economic growth and the propellant of social responsibility. Hence, I measure the success of a business conglomerate not so much by the profits it rakes but by its ardor in caring for the less fortunate. Indeed, fabulous wealth can be justified only by the zeal to share it with the poor.

Passion for philanthropy. This is why I accepted to be the guest speaker during the “13th Presentation of SM Scholar-Graduates” held on May 12 at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City: to find out how one of the biggest conglomerates in our country and its principals fulfill their social responsibility.

I was not disappointed. The presentation was considered a major milestone by taipan Henry Sy Sr. (fondly called “Tatang” by his friends), his wife Felicidad, his children led by BDO Chairperson Tessie, and the top executives of the SM Group. They celebrated the event as significantly as their annual shareholders? meeting.

For four hours, they listened with rapt attention to several beaming scholars (and their tearful parents) who narrated how they were cared for (not just funded) by the SM Foundation from their first year in college up to their graduation. At the sidelines of the huge convention hall, personnel managers of the SM companies set up booths to offer choice jobs to the scholars.

The Foundation, proudly described by Tatang as the “heart and soul of SM,” undertakes multimillion-peso educational, health and medical projects as well as livelihood and religious programs. However, it considers the scholarship program as its flagship endeavor. Currently, it has 750 beneficiaries 103 of whom graduated this school year while the rest are still enrolled in 29 institutions nationwide. This year’s batch includes five magna cum laudes and 20 cum laudes. So far, 1,176 have graduated under the SM scholarship program.

“SYnergy” in business. In my address, I recalled that as a student in the 1950s, I met Tatang when I bought my shoes at the original Shoemart store in Carriedo Street in Manila at, believe it or not, P10 a pair. Since then, I marveled at how that store metamorphosed to SM and expanded so rapidly. Three of the world’s biggest malls are located in our country: SM Mall of Asia, SM Megamall and SM City North Edsa. SM generates nearly P150 billion in revenues, employs over 75,000 and operates 100 stores.

SM has forayed to other fields that always seamlessly blended with one another pursuant to Tatang’s business philosophy of “SYnergy.” Tatang sticks to his core business and area of expertise. His business empire may seem diversified but it has really been interconnected – retail, tourism and entertainment, shopping centers, real estate development, and banking.

SYmmetry in personal life. Though highly successful in all his ventures, Tatang remains humble, self-effacing and low profile. He seldom makes public appearances. He treasures, if I may quote him, “my six children who are my teammates and friends in the office and at home, and most especially my wife of [over] 50 years, Molly, who is my lifetime companion, treasurer, adviser, and best friend.”

He also professes deep faith in God, who according to him “is good and generous with His gifts to us.” That is why at the center of his major projects is always a house of the Lord. In the frenzy of buying and dining at the SM Megamall, shoppers can still find peace and tranquility at the Chapel of the Eucharistic Lord inside that huge shopping center. Even before he built his gigantic Mall of Asia and SMX Convention Center, he first constructed the Shrine of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life near them.

He describes his low profile, God-oriented, family-centered lifestyle as “balance.” I prefer to call it “SYmmetry,” a word that – in my humble opinion – reflects, yes, balance and also, harmony and evenhandedness in personal relations.

SYmphony with God. Although Tatang has been acclaimed for many years as one of the richest men in the world, he has not forgotten his roots. He always reminisces that he was once poor, that he was a simple and hard-working commoner who has been blessed abundantly.

His passion is no longer to accumulate more wealth but to distribute it to the hopeless and the helpless so they could later help others. His zeal to share his resources has thus brought him to the league of the world’s mega philanthropists like Bill Gates, Henry Ford, John Rockefeller and Li Ka Shing.

Philanthropy is not just a civic duty. For the endowed, it is the way to a final reunion with God. The Good Book (Matthew 25) teaches that only those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned can reach the Eternal Kingdom. By the same token, when we finally knock at the pearly gates, our Lord will not ask us how many digits were in our bank accounts, or how many doctoral degrees we earned, or how lofty our government positions were.

He will just ask whether we shared our resources with the poor, used our talent to defend the weak, and spent our time to help those in most need. I call this direction given by the Lord to share our blessings and gifts with the less fortunate a concert, a “SYmphony” with God.

In his own big way, Tatang has proven that one could be both tycoon and philanthropist, an entrepreneur and a Christian, a hard-knuckled realist and a softhearted humanist. May his philanthropic ardor ever increase.

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