News Features

The Bookkeeper For Keeps

By Francis Anthony T. Valentin Originally published on Business World on October 16, 2017. Washington Z. SyCip, co-founder of the most successful professional services firm in the country, SGV & Co., and a greatly admired business icon, passed away at the age of 96 on the night of October 7. Former Finance Secretary Carlos F. Dominguez, a mentee of Mr. SyCip, was one of the first to break the news of his mentor’s death, in a Twitter post the following morning. “Wash SyCip passed away last night en route to New York. Wash was 96 years old and lived a very full and meaningful life,” he said, using Mr. SyCip’s nickname. “I will miss you.” Mr. SyCip was born in 1921 to Albino SyCip, a co-founder of China Bank, and Helen Bau, and had four siblings. He was an indubitably precocious fellow. He was accelerated three times while at Padre Burgos Elementary School and earned a bachelor’s degree from University Santo Tomas in just two and a half years. At the age of 18, Mr. SyCip was already a certified public accountant. After teaching at his alma mater while finishing his master’s degree, he flew to the United States (U.S.) to pursue a doctorate at Columbia University. His academic pursuit was followed by a brief stint as a cryptographer in India for the U.S. during the Second World War. The postwar period saw Mr. SyCip starting and helping grow what would become the largest and most prestigious professional services firm in the country – SyCip, Gorres, Velayo & Co. It was the product of the merger between SyCip, Velayo, Jose & Co., which Mr. SyCip formed together with Alfredo M. Velayo, a childhood friend, and Vicente O. Jose; and Henry Hunter Bayne & Co., whose accountants included Ramon J. Gorres. The firm observed meritocracy, in accordance with Mr. SyCip’s desire. In a 2010 interview with BusinessWorld, he said, “My father would always tell us not to work in the bank. He would say, ‘If you do well and I promote you, they’re going to say it’s nepotism, and it’s embarrassing. If you don’t do well, it’s also embarrassing.’” He even said, in a 2013 interview, “When I started SGV, I said, ‘Even when I get married, my children will not come into the firm.’” SGV continued its rapid expansion decades after its inception, setting up branches in cities outside Metro Manila and reaching neighboring countries. “I never expected [the company] to grow so fast,” Mr. SyCip said. SGV found a home on Ayala Avenue, two buildings simply named SGV I and SGV II.          In 1996, which marked its 50th anniversary, the firm’s assurance service line was awarded the International Standards Organization (ISO) 9001:2000 certification, which it has upheld since then. It was also during this year that Mr. SyCip decided to retire. But he did not isolate himself from the firm; up until his death, he maintained an office on the 14th floor of one of the firm’s buildings.          Even in his retirement, Mr. SyCip continued to be an active member of the business community, holding memberships in a number of corporate boards and committees. His counsel was prized.          Aside from being a sage businessman, Mr. SyCip was a prominent advocate of education reform. Among his key achievements was the establishment of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), which is now a world-renowned business school.          In a statement released after the news of Mr. SyCip’s death became public, AIM said, “A staunch believer in education and its critical role in uplifting lives and eradicating poverty, Mr. SyCip was one of the key proponents behind AIM’s full-time MBA program that was attuned to a developing Asian region. His passion for excellence and commitment to mold business leaders, combined with his unfaltering generosity, led to the foundation of the Washington SyCip Graduate School of Business at AIM, which will celebrate its 50th year in 2018.”          AIM added, “His passing is a great loss to the institution and the country ’s business community, but his legacy will live on in the AIM alumni who strive to be ethical and responsible business leaders, and live up to Mr. SyCip’s call to lead, inspire and transform.”          Mr. SyCip was also a generous donor to the schools that educated him. P. Burgos Elementary School; University of Santo Tomas (UST); Victorino Mapa High School, where he graduated as valedictorian; and University of the Philippines, where he spent a semester as an undergraduate before transferring to UST, have received funding from him.          “I always believed that whatever the nationality of the person, if they had the same [quality] education, they could compete,” he said. “I am very confident of the ability of the Filipino to compete.”          The news of Mr. SyCip’s demise prompted an outpouring of grief and gratitude. Jose “Butch” Dalisay, Jr., who wrote the biography of Mr. SyCip, titled “Wash: Only a Bookkeeper,” wrote on his Twitter account, “Sorrowful to hear that Wash SyCip passed away at 96, still on the job.” Accompanying the post was a photo showing a letter Mr. SyCip had sent him, and his gift, a pen with an engraved image of an owl.          J. Carlitos G. Cruz, SGV chairman and managing partner, speaking on behalf of SGV, expressed sorrow for the passing of the firm’s founder in a Facebook post. “His vision from the very start was to develop Filipino professionals to be globally competitive as the Firm’s contribution to nation building. In his 96 years, he espoused and lived the values of integrity, excellence, hard work, and meritocracy. Mr. SyCip was an exemplary mentor and steward,” he said.          “His legacy will endure in all whose lives he has touched.” — Francis Anthony T. Valentin
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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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The Immortal Gift

By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran Originally Published on Business World on October 16, 2017. The country’s business community is mourning the loss of one of its most stalwart titans, Washington Z. SyCip, the co-founder of the country’s biggest accounting firm and renowned philanthropist. For more than half a century, Mr. SyCip of SyCip, Gorres, Velayo & Co. (SGV & Co.), has been one of the pillars of Philippine business, and his contributions to the local community is such that the country will no doubt feel the void that he will leave behind. Perhaps even more so will his passing be felt in the country’s continued pursuit for quality education. Ever the champion of education, Mr. SyCip believed that education is a powerful, transformative force that can lift millions of Filipinos out of poverty and destitution. In a column published in BusinessWorld, Mr. SyCip wrote, “Education, I believe, is a basic necessity for the development of all human beings… Specifically, I have always believed that education should be available to all because it is the greatest equalizer in society. Not only do educated individuals improve their lives but they also contribute to national development. And over the course of his long life, he has strived to live up to his beliefs. He has contributed much to the education of Filipinos everywhere, young leaders and managers especially through the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), which he cofounded in 1968. His legacy is such that on his passing the AIM issued this statement: “A staunch believer in education and its critical role in uplifting lives and eradicating poverty, Mr. SyCip was one of the key proponents behind AIM’s full-time MBA program that was attuned to a developing Asian region. His passion for excellence and commitment to mold business leaders, combined with his unfaltering generosity, led to the foundation of the Washington SyCip Graduate School of Business at AIM, which will celebrate its 50th year in 2018.” "Mr. SyCip was deeply involved in AIM’s on-going transformation to revitalize its role in an emerging ASEAN , and strongly supported its efforts to rebrand and expand program offerings for the next wave of business leaders,” AIM added. “His passing is a great loss to the institution and the country’s business community, but his legacy will live on in the AIM alumni who strive to be ethical and responsible business leaders, and live up to Mr. SyCip’s call to LEAD, INSPIRE and TRANSFORM.” As someone who was proudly a product of the Philippine public school system, Mr. SyCip yearned to bring back the golden standard of public education to the masses. To this end, he served on the Board of Trustees of the Synergeia Foundation, a non-profit organization working to improve the quality of basic education in the Philippines. “The Philippine public educational system has been neglected for many years, and this is shameful. I will not go through the factors that have caused this decline but suffice it to say that Government would have to constantly revisit the national budget for education. Compa red to our neighbors, the Philippines is spending the least on education, especially in the elementary and secondary levels. Basic education is inadequate while college education is misaligned with the country ’s manpower needs,” Mr. SyCip wrote.   John Silva, trustee of Synergeia Foundation, recounted how the tycoon had been instrumental in the development of the organization, and how Mr. SyCip delighted in sharing his vision for improved public schooling. “In the many forums where he spoke he would be asked why he concentrated on education as his philanthropy. His eyes would light up, thankful for the opportunity to tell a story I heard many times from him. He was, he related, a product of the public school system in Manila and he remembered the very high standards exacted on students. The American public school system which was planted in our country at the turn of the century was rigorous and molded students to excel in all areas. A secular education was intent on making students smarter and imbued with democratic ideals rather than the cloistered, feudal, and devotee students emphasized by the Catholic schools,” Mr. Silva said in a Facebook tribute to Mr. SyCip. “Mr. SyCip was quite proud of his public schooling and Synergeia, trying to overhaul and upgrade the country ’s broken school system was the likely choice to part with his largesse and return the gratitude to the schools that made him.” To the poor Filipinos who could not afford even to send their children to get a basic education, Mr. SyCip also extended a helping hand. Through the Zero Dropout Education Scheme (Zero Dropout), which he fully initiated and funded with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, Inc. in 2011, he has helped send the children of the country’s poorest to school and minimize dropout rates through providing loans to their parents. As of August 2017, the Zero Dropout Program had reached out to over 450,000 children that would otherwise not be in elementary school. Truly, it could not be clearer that Mr. SyCip held his advocacy for education close to his heart. In his passion to bring about ‘the great equalizer’, the immortal gift of knowledge, he has touched the lives of countless students and given them a new lease on a life that otherwise would have been bound to poverty and hardship. Mr. Silva recalled something that Mr. SyCip had once said to him. “I want the students not just to be literate and can read instructional manuals. I want them to read and be inspired by a poem, to read and enjoy a museum. I want them to love a ballet and be moved by an orchestra. All the wonders you and I take for granted.” Perhaps through this, his legacy will live on. — Bjorn Biel M. Beltran
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