How Henry Sy Began with Ten Centavos and Ended Up As One of PH’s Richest Men

From having a small store, Henry Sy had become the owner of one of the largest holding companies in the Philippines. Take a look at the story of how the SM founder transformed from a shoe seller to one of Philippine’s wealthiest men.

Henry passed away on January 19, 2019 but his legacy lives on in the empire he built and the inspiration he passed on to generations of entrepreneurs.

Photo credit: PhilStar

While Henry was born in Xiamen, China, his family moved to the Philippines in search of a better life. His father ran a simple sari-sari shop on Echague Street in Quiapo, which was later on devastated by the Second World War. With nothing left, Sy’s father returned to China. Determined to succeed even despite having only 10 centavos, Henry remained in Manila.

Henry worked tirelessly to survive while learning English and Tagalog. He was also attending school while trying to make ends meet.

After graduating from Far Eastern University with a degree in commercial studies, the young entrepreneur entered the shoe business and sold surplus G.I. boots. This was his first taste of his entrepreneurial success, as it led him to open his first Shoemart – Meaning of SM.

Henry opens first SM

During the 1960s, he decided to open ShoeMart. It was the first air-conditioned shoe store that displayed shoes in a stylish manner that attracted many customers.

He went on to open more shoe stores after the success of the first one, but he couldn’t find enough suppliers because of the high demand. Rather than limiting himself, he saw this as an opportunity to expand his product line.

Henry expanded into selling other products, such as childrenswear, after marrying Felicidad Tan, a lace vendor. At around the same time, Shoemart was renamed SM Department Store.


Henry ventured into the banking industry when he bought Acme Savings Bank (Banco de Oro) in 1967. This allowed him to build a bigger portfolio of companies. Thus in 2006, SM acquired and merged Equitable PCI Bank with BDO.

The golden era of SM

Following the success of SM North EDSA in 1985, SM opened three malls in the years that followed: SM City Sta. Mesa in 1990, SM Megamall in 1991, and SM City Cebu in 1993. SM Prime Holdings, Inc. was formed and listed on the stock exchange in 1994. This further increased SM Prime’s funding capabilities and led to development of more SM malls and shopping centers.

Image by SM Investments


Following the expansion of his empire, SM ventured into the residential market through SM Development Corporation (SMDC).

In 2003, SMDC launched its first project, a condominium called Chateau Elysée in Paranaque. Now, has projects in Makati, Mandaluyong, Manila, Paranaque, Pasay, Pasig, Quezon City, Taguig, and Tagaytay. More projects are expected to expand in key cities throughout Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Henry Sy’s Legacy

Following his death in 2019, Henry passed on to his children the value of discipline and hard work as they lead his various businesses.

Sally Mae
Share this:

Leave a Comment