Money & Power

SM's Tessie Sy-Coson Shares 7 Tips to Kickstart a Business

The SM Corporation vice chairman recounts how she started working in her family's business as an inventory clerk and then a cashier.
IMAGE JENNIE CASTILLO
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Some of the Philippines' most successful female entrepreneurs shared their insights with the approximately 10,000 women who attended Go Negosyo's 10th Filipina Entrepreneurship Summit.

Many of the speakers are considered mentors in various fields, and they shared lessons they’ve learned through their own ventures. Among the speakers was SM Corporation’s vice chairwoman Tessie Sy-Coson, who gave the crowd practical advice on how to kickstart a business.


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The panel for the first forum of morning, which was aptly called "WOMENtorship"

These were her key points:

1. In conceptualizing a business, find a gap that needs to be filled.

When the Sy family began one of their biggest companies, the idea for BDO Unibank sprung from the need for smaller change for their department stores, as none of the bigger banks at the time would take on a bulk of coins. “It started as a need, so we started with only four [bank] branches at that time to serve our four branches of department stores,” she told the crowd. The bank would deal with coins and small change, convert them to larger bills, and deposit them to the bigger banks. “Then we grew out of serving only SM, so we [expanded] into 18 branches, then 23, and the rest is history.”

2. Find a mentor. Your greatest mentor could be closer than you think.

Sy-Coson didn’t need to look far for hers. Henry Sy Sr. served as both father and business mentor. “You learn from everyone in an organization but the mentor I really look up to is my father,” she said. Another unexpected mentor masked itself as the immense pressure Sy-Coson faced as her father’s heir. “The best mentor is pressure,” she confirmed.

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Tessie Sy-Coson

3. Start from the bottom and earn your title.

Being the daughter of the owner was no guarantee that she’d take over the family business one day, so Sy-Coson immersed herself into the business early, with her first job as an inventory clerk and then a cashier. Unlike the echoing list of achievements that accompany the SM name today, the business was essentially a small family business when Sy-Coson was growing up. “Through the years, I learned the ropes and took on more responsibility and that’s how you learn.”

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She stressed that the value of responsibility pushed her even further. “With those behind me, I really had to work and learn,” she said. “I really had to learn the ropes and earn respect as the one leading.”

4. Save as much as you can.

Knowing what it was like to start from the ground up, the Sys learned to value every centavo. And since they were paid mostly in coins, “people called us the five and ten cent store,” she said, a clear reference to the American discount establishments popular in the past. “We were very frugal. Kailangan matipid because you really have to control the cost.”


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Sy-Coson with Go Negosyo's Joey Concepcion (left), moderator Issa Litton (right), and fellow speakers Georgina Wilson Burnand, Merle Arnaldo-Paete, Clarissa Delgado, Anne Curtis Smith-Heussaff, Natividad Cheng, Lizzie Eder Zobel, and Vicki Belo.

5. Don’t be afraid to take the unexpected route.

If there’s anything the entrepreneur thinks any business needs to succeed, it’s perseverance coupled with passion. Sy-Coson always looks to exercise her passion even after years in the business. “I do things which are not within the corporate management’s expectations but I need to do it because I need to keep that passion alive in me,” she said.

6. Big or small, entrepreneurs should help other entrepreneurs.

With a panel of fellow female entrepreneurs, some with years under their belt or just starting out, Sy-Coson believes that there’s always an opportunity to help other businesses grow. “As a big business, we provide small businesses with the opportunity to showcase their products and their talents as a part of mentoring,” she shared. It’s always about the customer and if businesses need to partner for the sake of the customer's needs, then it’s better to work together.

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7. Pattern your growth after demand.

The idea that the customer is always right rings true in Sy-Coson’s business values. It’s looking at the customer’s needs, the quality of a product or service that fuels the business and will eventually bring it to growth. “It’s not a matter of wanting to expand just because we have the funds,” she explained. “It’s because we follow the customer.” She added that when a business has amassed more customers, then it’s time to scale upward. “You start small, but in the future, you will grow big.”

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The speakers pose with the Go Negosyo crowd

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Hannah Lazatin
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Hannah is originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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