The Man They Call Tatang

A knowing nod; a hot pandesal shared late at night at a construction site; a career crossroads and a question thrown casually while staring at the ceiling—unrelated, seemingly inconsequential yet meaningful and poignant moments that define bonds with Henry Sy, beloved companion, comrade, father-figure and mentor.

Senen Mendiola was a young, newly graduated accountant, transplanted to Manila from the bucolic life in Lubang Island in Mindoro when his uncle, a government official, introduced him to an equally young businessman in the 1950s.

This cursory introduction was Mendiola’s big break in the business world with Sy whom he fondly called Tatang or father. Later, Mendiola found himself in a position of trust, first handling the financial books for Sy’s earlier drugstore and shoe stores on Carriedo and later on managing Shoemart’s public ties and fulfilling its social obligations.

Mendiola shared Sy’s passion to learn about retailing as they visited stores on Escolta Street to see how these were run. Before the war, Escolta was considered the high street of business and style where the well-heeled of old Manila shopped. Department stores in art deco and neoclassical buildings which sold shoes, clothes, cosmetics and even bicycles, lined the streets. After the liberation of Manila, Escolta lost some of its former luster but businesses trickled in to revive the trade. Sy and Mendiola watched shoppers and talked to sales ladies, learning all that they could about retail. This proved useful in the later years for Sy who continued to observe shoppers’ behaviors, albeit incognito style, to know their needs.

They shared so much in common that Sy and Mendiola were considered inseparable. And like Sy, Mendiola emulated qualities of loyalty, commitment, honesty and humility. Such was their bond that words need not be said to understand each other. “Sila ng dad ko (my dad and Mr. Sy) they were very close. There was one meeting and somebody asked a question. Another person suggested something else. And Mr. Sy and my dad, nagkatinginan lang sila na para bang nagkaintindihan sila (they just looked at each other like they understood each other),” Jorge Mendiola, Senen’s son and the Executive Director of SM Retail said.

“There was a silent trust and understanding between them,” Marissa Mendiola Aguirre, Mendiola’s daughter, now Senior Vice President for the SM STORE’s Signature Lines observed.

Sy considered Mendiola as practically family, recognizing his help in tending to Shoemart from its small beginnings. Mendiola’s family also became involved in the businesses—with his wife Josefina helping in the development and expansion of SM Cubao as branch manager and both Jorge and Marissa eventually taking active leadership roles in the retail business.

“They (the Sys) treated us like family and they are so kind. My dad would tell us when we were younger, ‘tulong kayo’ (help them) so we would help out in the Cubao store. My dad loved Mr. Sy and SM that I think he felt family should help family,” Aguirre said.

Antolin “Bet” Paule had just finished his end-of-shift routines as a foreman, timekeeper and overall supervisor at the construction site of one of Sy’s earliest projects in the late 1960s, the Manila Royal Hotel on Calle Echague.

In fact, he was hoping to cap the day with a nice bottle of beer when he heard someone calling his name an hour past midnight. Sy was legendary for working very long hours and by extension, Paule was no stranger to working late.

“Binati ko siya ng good morning. Sabi niya, sige inom ka, para may lakas ka, but not too much (I greeted him good morning. He told me, go ahead and drink so you will have strength),” Paule, now the Senior Vice President of SM Engineering Development and Design, recalling Sy’s unassuming way of showing his concern said.

Paule said Tatang would work 16 hours a day. But he would be considerate of the needs of others.

“At paminsan magdadala siya ng hot pandesal para sa akin (Sometimes, he would bring hot pandesal when he visits),” Paule fondly remembered.

One day, Sy asked Paule to join him to see a somewhat strange location—a large swampy area between Quezon City and Caloocan now known as North EDSA.

“Puro kangkungan ‘yon at squatters (the area was overgrown with watercress and had illegal settlers),” Paule said.

Paule recalled how much flak Sy got when he was building his first SM mall on North EDSA in the early 1980s amidst an economic downtrend and skyrocketing interest rates.

“People would ask me, ano nangyayari sa boss mo? Binili niya kangkungan (What happened to your boss? He bought land filled with water cress),” Paule said. He further recalled that Sy would tell him that people didn’t understand his vision. “It is like a fishnet. Going north huli natin. Going south huli natin,” Paule recalled Sy saying to him about the mall’s potential as a regional hub.

When SM City North EDSA opened in 1985, it drew thousands, exceeding everyone’s expectations.

Erlinda Paule was a graduate of Commerce in 1958 when she found a job as a cashier in a shoe store on Avenida Rizal. Little did she realize that this store would give rise to a chain of shoe stores in the country under the Shoemart brand.

Erlinda spent a few weeks on the job before she got moved to bookeeping, in charge of recording the financial transactions of the company including sales. Like her husband, Antolin (Bet), Erlinda felt a sense of family as she closely worked with Tatang on these duties and saw his virtues of malasakit (sacrifice and genuine concern), lakas ng loob (grit or courage) and hard work.

“Hardworking si Tatang. Minsan inaabot po kami ng hatinggabi sa office. Kahit paminsan na may sakit siya, nasa trabaho pa rin (Tatang is hardworking. Sometimes we would work until midnight. Even if he is sick, he will continue to work),” she said.

That grit was tested when Tatang sought to venture to the emerging Makati district. For Tatang, Makati presented opportunities for expansion even if the development of the district was uncertain at the time. Erlinda was at a crossroads and found herself choosing to relocate to a new work location, trusting Tatang without hesitation. Tatang’s conviction led to the launch of his shoe store, Shoemart Makati, in 1963.

“Yung SM Makati lumago ng lumago (SM Makati continued to grow),” Erlinda said. She stayed for over 35 years with SM until her retirement in 1994.

Erlinda said that despite his success, Tatang was untouched by fame and fortune.

“Ganoon pa rin siya. Simpleng tao lang (He remains the same. He is just a simple man),” she said.

Jose Sio, SM’s longest-serving Chief Finance Officer, now Chairman of the Board was an accomplished auditor for a large accounting firm when he got assigned to all the big businesses handled by the firm including Sy’s. As part of the auditing process, Sio would meet with Sy to ask him questions about the business. Sy found his curiosity so infectious that he invited Sio to join SM.

“I can already see what he was dreaming about. He told me he wanted to be the biggest retailer, the biggest bank and the biggest property developer in the country. I thought, this man really had a vision,” Sio said. Sio later found himself working with Sy for the next three decades.

The vision took shape, forged in a crucible of various economic and financial crises which also revealed Sy’s unconventional thinking and tenacity that led to SM’s unprecedented growth in the last six decades.

But there was more to the man than gaining success. Sio shared that Sy’s moniker, Tatang, had a deeper meaning. “It was never just about the business. He always considered what he should be giving to the community, what he should be giving back to the people.”

Sio remembers catching Sy staring blankly at the ceiling one noontime in his office at the old Makati Stock Exchange, deep in thought.

“Mr Sy, ano iniisip niyo? Malalim (What are you thinking about Mr Sy? It seems deep.),” Sio asked Sy.

He finally told Sio, “I’m feeling the heavy responsibility that we have so many people here (in SM). We have so many employees, suppliers, tenants, so many children, daughters and sons relying on us, that if we’re not successful, what will happen to these people,” Sy said.

From his origins in retail, Tatang has had an innate desire to make customers feel happy when visiting his store and giving them value for their hard-earned money. From customer happiness sprung the larger goal of sustaining the communities that have grown around SM’s developments. This mindset has become rooted in the company’s values, practices and culture.

“He has always taught us his own philosophy of the value of money. This is how the retail business has grown because he wants to give value to the money of the customer. If you go to the store, whatever it is you buy, you should feel that it’s worth it. So you would rather gain one peso and serve a million people than gain ten pesos and serve a smaller market. That has always been his philosophy, to serve millions,” Sio said.

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