The 94-year-old former immigrant from China had built a vast business empire that spans retail, real estate and banking. Sy’s family-owned SM Investments is the holding company for SM Retail, the country’s largest chain of department stores and supermarkets, SM Prime, the country’s largest shopping mall operator, as well as BDO Unibank.
Born in 1924 in Fujian province, he went to the Philippines at the age of 12 and got his start in the retail business by selling goods in his father’s neighborhood store. After saving enough money, Sy started his first business with a footwear shop called ShoeMart in 1958.
Over the following six decades, ShoeMart grew and evolved, so the brand name was changed to simply “SM.” Sy opened his first department store in 1972. The 20,000-square-meter space was considered large at the time, and it was run by his then 22-year-old daughter Teresita Sy-Coson.
Sy has also been credited with helping to spur the “malling culture” in the Philippines, where the country’s tropical climate often makes shopping outdoors an uncomfortable experience. SM Prime now operates 70 malls in the Philippines and another seven in China.
He first expanded into property development in 1974. Today, the conglomerate boasts a real estate portfolio of 49 residential projects, 6 hotels and 9 office buildings.
In 1976, Sy bought Acme Savings Bank, which had originally been set up as a thrift bank, and renamed it Banco do Oro Savings and Mortgage Bank. In 1996, it became a universal bank and the name was changed to the current Banco de Oro Universal Bank (BDO Unibank).
Sy stepped down as chairman of his holding firm in 2017, assuming the title of “chairman emeritus” and leaving his children and trusted executive leadership team at the helm.