When the Mall of Asia opened in 2006, Henry Sy, Sr. was walking around the SM Store alongside Ma. Cecilia Abreu, who was then assistant vice president for store operations.
As is usually the case with Mr. Sy, he dropped by the Shoe section, checked the shoes and sandals, and then asked a few questions to the sales clerks. “Marami pa ba nito? Are these fast-moving?”
The questions did not stop there. Holding one sandal, he asked Abreu a question that stayed with her: “Can our customers still afford to buy our sandals at this price?”
“Ang iniisip niya talaga is kaya pa ba ‘to ng customer. Very consistent si Mr. Sy when understanding his customers, what they want, and what they need,” Abreu shared.
That consistency in understanding the market has stayed with SM through the years. Providing customers with affordable and quality items goes way back to Tatang – the name Mr. Sy, Sr. was fondly called by those whose lives he touched.
Once an assistant branch manager of SM Makati, Abreu has a lot of stories about Tatang.
“Meron din kaming isang customer. Nagdadala siya ng maraming bag. Hindi naman siya bumibili. Then she would always look for Mr. Sy. Uupo siya sa daanan ng lobby namin. Sasabihan namin si Tatang na sir andyan na naman ‘yung lady na palaging naghahanap sa inyo.” Tatang would tell us with a smile on his face, “Let her sit there.’”
Continuing the story of the SM Makati customer, Chelo Monasterio, once an SM Makati branch manager, said, “Tatang feels that SM is for everyone. That’s why kahit typhoon, we will open. It was because, for Mr. Sy, we are a shelter for people.”
Monasterio joined SM 41 years ago, back when there were only three stores: Quiapo, Cubao, and Ermita. Climbing the ladder from HR manager, SM Makati branch manager to becoming SM Store president, and now a consultant for SM Retail, Monasterio shared with pride, “We were trained by Tatang. So what we think, what we impart came from him. He molded us to be what we are. He managed us but he did not make us scared of him. We could tell him how we felt and he would never take it against us. He listened to what people had to say.”
According to Monasterio, Tatang was not flowery with his words. He was very direct to the point. These words, simple as they may seem, made their mark on her. “These are the words that I carry with me.” In one instance, Tatang told her. “Chelo, there are two traits that you should have that will make you successful. One, you have to have common sense. And the other one is you have to have industry.”
With a smile, remembering those days at SM Makati as branch manager, Monasterio said, “Mr. Sy mentored me on selling operations. He would help me in the morning and talk to me about merchandising and shoes. He would talk about how to handle people including suppliers – that you have to be kind and that you have to honor your commitments to them because that will dictate your reputation.”
Tatang liked to spend time and talk and share his dreams and aspirations.
“When he shares it with you, you feel a certain affinity – that you belong and that you’re gonna help him with his vision,” Monasterio said.
On Mr. Sy’s last visit touring SM Store’s Distribution Center in Paranaque, Rose Siaco still remembers what he told her, “This is a bonus, Rose, and it’s not part of my vision.”
The distribution center is where SM Store’s suppliers drop their products for transfer to SM Store branches and retail affiliates across the Philippines.
In 1978, Siaco was a practicing medical technologist who dared to try something outside of her comfort zone. She started her journey as Shoemart Inc.’s supplies officer that year. This is where her organizational skills and attention to detail would come in handy.
Seeing that Siaco thrives on challenges, she was given the task by Mr. Sy of becoming an acting warehouse manager. “I told him that it’s a man’s world, but he told me to train as a warehouse manager. He said to me, ‘I need your talent. I don’t need your physical strength. That would be too taxing for you,’” Siaco shared.
This encouraged her and inspired her to enroll in management courses. “Talagang nag-train ako. I attended seminars. Those were the days na ‘pag nag-attend ako ng seminar, I was the only female participant,” Siaco added.
For her, Tatang is really a disciplinarian, like a strict teacher. “If you make a mistake, ico-correct ka na niya – on the spot. Ganun siya mag-train.”
She added he also informed the affected staff of the consequences of the mistake.
Other than thriving on new challenges, Siaco shared the reason why she stayed with SM for 45 years: “Kaya ako nagtagal, I don’t feel that they are other people. They treat their employees like family.”
Abreu shared another anecdote. “Supermarket. After his usual ‘rounds,’ Tatang bade farewell to everyone. He got into his car but before the car even left, Mr. Sy got out of the car. Everyone was still outside, waving and thanking him for the visit. Mr. Sy said in a clear voice ‘I want to thank each and every one of you for your hard work.’”
Sharing his vision, telling stories, and words of gratitude are the ways in which Tatang showed he cared. Now, his employees and colleagues from the small stores of Quiapo and Makati continue to tell his stories and help the company realize his vision.