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Reflections at 90

Reflections at 90

By Washington Z. SyCip 

(This two-part article was first published in BusinessWorld on June 27 and July 4, 2011.)

First of Two Parts

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “The way to do is to be.” As I interpret it, what Lao Tzu meant simply is that for something to be accomplished, we would have to make it happen. And this is what inspired me, 65 years ago, to start a one-man accounting firm shortly after the liberation of Manila when World War II ended. I had big dreams, but I was also realistic enough to acknowledge that I had to take it one step at a time.
I had spent a great part of the war in India as a cryptographer, breaking codes of intercepted Japanese communications. My doctoral studies in Columbia University had been unceremoniously interrupted but I knew that I had to make myself useful. Decoding enemy messages in the middle of nowhere may not sound attractive to most but it gave me a perspective on how, in time, the world will become smaller through communication links. My experience there taught me that what would be considered remote will eventually be connected to the mainstream. Players in different industries will come from large, emerging and small economies; this makes it essential to speak a common financial language.
On the day Japan surrendered, code messages stopped and our unit was sent back to New York. In the 1980s, for example, we were the first to have a practice called contract services under our consulting group. This was the pre-cursor of what is now popularly known as outsourcing and which has become a major Philippine industry that will employ over 700,000 Filipinos by the end of 2011. The largest outsourcing company which we started will, in fact, have 25,000 people by the end of the year and many of its alumni are now with other outsourcing firms.
Lifelong learning is a value that has been ingrained in SGV’s corporate culture. Besides the training one receives on the job, it was the first professional services firm to institutionalize its training program. In addition, as early as the 1950s, staff members were already being sent abroad as scholars to the best graduate schools. Since the Asian Institute of Management was established in the late 1960s, generations of SGV professionals have graduated from the school.
Continuous knowledge breeds excellence — another SGV value. In a sense, SGV had been global even before the term became fashionable. Its standards have always been set against international benchmarks. While I no longer have any involvement whatsoever in running the firm, I understand that the current leadership continues to invest in learning tools, information technology and other resources for the firm to remain relevant to the public.
While training and excellence have been hallmarks of SGV, there is one over-arching value that I believe differentiates SGV and that is integrity. For a professional services firm, it is reputation that matters. From Day 1, it is instilled in every professional that integrity should be built into one’s actions, work, decisions and relationships. It is a weighty challenge for anyone, particularly in our society, but it can be done. To borrow another Chinese proverb, “A clear conscience never fears midnight knocking.”
Values such as excellence and integrity are intangible assets that define a person or company. Breathing such values into life is nothing less than hard work. SGV was built on this — that work cannot wait because market forces are so dynamic and that any inaction can cause impediments even to the progress of the nation. In fact, it has been my enduring belief that success can only be significant if it redounds on the advancement of other individuals, a community or even the country.
Well into the 20th year of SGV, we established the SGV Foundation to address the social responsibility projects of the firm. Later, I would help organize the Philippine Business for Social Progress. These two entities continue to be engaged in activities that give back to society and to aid in uplifting the bottom groups. And since my retirement from SGV in 1996, I have focused my energies on pressing social needs like improvements in public education, microfinance, entrepreneurship and public health. In the second part of this article, I will share my thoughts about these advocacies and how every Filipino can contribute to these causes.
For now, allow me to leave you with this thought: “It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing.”

Second of Two Parts

In the first part of this article, I ended with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that says, “It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing.” I hope that those who read it have pondered on what this means.
Fifty years after I established SGV & Co. from a one-man operation, I retired from the company and confidently left it in the hands of much younger partners. Today it has become a 2,700-strong firm, the largest in the Philippines. I had passed on the value of stewardship — that no one person owns the firm and partners are only caretakers of the company for future generations to come.
What retirement brought me was the freedom to be involved in various projects and to sit in the boards of companies. What retirement actually taught me is that it does not exist; that time is finite and too precious for anyone to waste. What keeps me preoccupied is the knowledge that there are so many problems to be solved in the country.
On my 90th birthday last week, I was given the opportunity to address a large group regarding my current advocacies. I welcome every chance to speak about these causes and I now would like to share them in writing.
There are three causes that I am passionate about. To reduce the high percentage of poverty in our country, I am convinced that we should concentrate our attention in three areas.
The first is to have every Filipino child complete basic education. If a child drops out and is illiterate, he or she is sure to be poor. It gladdens me that President Benigno S. Aquino III and Secretary of Education Bro. Armin Luistro are united in focusing on improving basic education and hopefully reducing to zero the dropout rate. This is a major component of the President’s Agenda for Basic Education which he spoke of in his very first State of the Nation Address.
What I know about basic education I learned from Dr. Nene Guevara of Synergeia Foundation. Synergeia works closely with local governments, the Department of Education, schools, parents, students and socio-civic groups to improve the learning and teaching processes in public elementary schools. Its programs aim to improve the proficiency in reading and math of students in Grade 1 to 6 so that they do not drop out and hopefully, can move on to high school. I have personally seen how Dr. Guevara worked with three Muslim communities, reducing their dropout rate in basic education from 80% to 30% in three years. This has completely changed the lives of the people in those three communities in Mindanao.
Another organization that works to enhance education is the Philippine Business for Education or PBEd led by Ramon del Rosario, Jr. PBEd believes that by filling the gaps in the system — such as providing quality training to teachers — what is wrong can be corrected. 
The second major concern that I am helping address is the cost of credit to the poor. This is an issue that has given rise to micro financing as an institutional option for the poor to gain credit. In this matter, I have worked closely with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development or CARD led by Dr. Aris Alip that has evolved into an outstanding microfinance institution in the Philippines. Since it started in 1986, CARD has reached out to more than 700,000 clients. It has a portfolio of over P3 billion with a repayment rate by its poor borrowers of 98.4%. Dr. Alip has a very successful small loan fund for basic education. He has enthusiastically responded to my suggestion of expanding this fund to significantly reduce illiteracy in poor communities.
My third advocacy is rural health. I am currently learning from the Zuellig Foundation about how to improve the health of the poor in rural areas. Stephen Zuellig, the best strategic thinker I have met, has kindly set a fund in my name with this Foundation to combine the improvement of rural health with the other factors to reduce poverty.
Filipino and foreign donors are noticing the positive results from Synergeia’s and CARD’s programs. This is important because we need more people who believe that poverty can be eradicated and who are willing to invest in the programs that address the problem. Very recently, an American investor and philanthropist, Paul Kazarian, has generously presented me with a fund to expand services in basic education and microfinance. The Kazarian Foundation has also set aside a second fund for research, education, and training on microfinance to see how their studies can benefit our microfinance industry and to assess how CARD can also help other microfinance organizations abroad. All these will supplement an amount that I have set aside to provide Synergeia and CARD with funds for basic education that I hope will help in President Aquino’s program to reduce poverty.
Being a public school graduate, I have always maintained that education is the greatest of equalizers. We all can help in improving the lives of our people through better basic education.
The late former President Cory Aquino led efforts to spread microfinance throughout the country and Stephen Zuellig ’s Foundation is working on improving rural health. All this will contribute to make a more equal and prosperous Philippines!
Lao Tzu’s words that I borrowed to start this article were meant to inspire you. We all know what problems exist but it is a matter of making a commitment to be involved in them. I personally hope to continue using my time and resources for these worthy causes for the remaining years of my life because as the great philosopher also said, “If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.” In other words, for as long as you keep yourself useful, life will be worthwhile.

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