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Lessons from our boss

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Cesar V. Purisima with Washington Z. SyCip

By Cesar V. Purisima

Former Philippine Finance Secretary

Parts of this article were delivered by Mr. Purisima during SGV & Co.’s tribute to Mr. SyCip at SMX Convention Center last Oct. 24.

I was dreading receiving an invitation from SGV to speak at this memorial service for my late boss and mentor Mr. Washington SyCip because, as many of my friends know, my tears have a way of flowing too easily against my will — especially in public occasions. So I’ll try my best to keep it light, for my own sake.

Mr. SyCip knows this. As ninong to my wedding with Corrie, he was sitting in one of the front pews, all stately and dignified. And there I was — mind you, my wife-to-be Corrie hasn’t even walked the aisle yet — bawling my eyes out. My late father was rubbing my back and trying to calm me down but I just couldn’t contain all the emotions. Embarrassed, I glanced at the audience and my eyes met Mr. SyCip’s. He had this look. It was the kind of look that he gave you — one you can’t really describe but would immediately understand everything he meant.

And lo and behold, I calmed down in time for the wedding ceremonies to proceed. I guess that’s how he was to a lot of people here and everywhere he went. When he spoke, no matter how faint his voice grew with age, (and to many SGVeans, even when he doesn’t speak), people listened. Like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings or Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, he had this sage quality to him, and his words were either laced with dry wit or peppered with deep wisdom. His back hunched by the weight of the respect he’d earned through many decades, he stood tallest among all the global Filipinos and commanded the universal respect of the business community — here, in Asia, and the US.

Perhaps one of the reasons why he was such an effective leader and advisor was that he lived his life as a walking example of virtue. Last week, I wrote a piece on Entrepreneur Magazine about the 10 key lessons I’ve learned from encounters with him. Today, let me highlight just some and add a few more anecdotes.

Humility of Learning

One of the best lessons we have learned from him was that of lifelong learning. He was a man of nonstop thinking — there’s never a dull moment with him. Of course many in the SGV family are aware of how continuous education is institutionalized in the firm through programs and investment in talent. But it’s his personal touch that made the most indelible marks.

I remember on one of my first trips after I’d just been recently promoted to head the audit division of SGV, I was upgraded from business class to first class. So there I was, sitting in 4C, I think, so so ready to enjoy the perks of the high life for the first time. Then I saw the slender arms of someone sitting in 2B. He turned around, and I saw that it was Mr. SyCip. That was the end of my plan to sit back and enjoy the flight. Throughout the flight he’d pass on articles for me to read, complete with notes and underlines. He could sleep while sitting, too. So that meant that whenever I thought he’d already dozed off and I was safe to sleep too, he’d wake up from his nap and start handing me articles again. I stayed up most of the flight catching up on what he wanted me to read, straining to think of what to say when we deplaned and he’d start picking my brain.

At a certain point he even sat down on the empty seat beside me, took his meals, and engaged me in a deeply enriching discussion about global issues. I guess this is why WS was such a tough but rewarding boss. There was a challenge to constantly learn, to be humble enough to keep your mind young. This humility has kept SGV and many of us from being obsolete as the world changed rapidly in the past few decades.

He was also very forward looking, always living life like a chess player thinking two moves ahead. For example, whenever there’s a new President — be it Philippine or American, you’d be surprised to find that there’s already a picture of him with the newly elected President on his desk. This just goes to show how vast his network was, that he has taken the time to engage brilliant people in different stages of their career to have already known the person by the time he became President.

I’m using a light-hearted anecdote, of course, but one cannot fathom how SGV achieved dominance and relevance all these decades without WS’ foresight and planning.

Frugality and Prudence

Mr. SyCip always referred to himself as “only a simple bookkeeper,” and he espoused that all throughout his life. His innately simple taste for clothes only got an upgrade when he reached a certain age and figured he could use his stature to promote the local silk industry. I could never pull silk off by the way. If I wore silk like he did I’d look like I’m preparing for Halloween. My kids will never take me seriously. I recall also in one Management Committee meeting, WS noticed a male ManCom member wearing a huge diamond studded ring. He looked at him and said, “Your clients may think that you are so well compensated in SGV, they may think the fees you charge them are high.” “Only a simple bookkeeper” is not just a phrase to espouse modesty — it is a wise way of life for any accountant.

Attention to Detail & Hard Work

WS was inarguably the principle of hard work personified. Punctuality was a sacred virtue. He’d be in the office at 7 a.m., and if you weren’t inspired to do the same you’d be ashamed you weren’t. Work on Saturdays (and during typhoons!) could not be lifted for so long as the client is likewise on the clock. In the auditing profession where leaving no stone unturned is our bread and butter, he preached and lived thoroughness.

WS also showed us how hard work is reflected in the little things. He had great attention to detail, even planning Christmas gifts and exact seating arrangements for dinners way in advance. He’d meticulously prepare for meetings: Celso Vivas for example related how he was once quizzed about Malaysia’s external debt position in preparation for a meeting with the governor of Bank Negara, only to find out WS already knew the answer. He was also known for regularly quizzing partners on accounts they handled. Celso Vivas recounts how WS interrupted his game of golf and asked to meet him on Monday morning, causing him a weekend of sleepless nights. At 7 a.m., WS quizzed Celso about the stock price of an account he handled, only for the latter to find out it’s because WS is having breakfast with the head of the corporation. Even for breakfast, WS thinks ahead and thinks in minute detail to prepare — perhaps belying the magic behind SGV’s strong relationships with clients.

In the old days, WS would do a “dreaded” annual interview of partners. Once, a tip was circulating that the new accounting standards was the subject of the interview. One partner, who like everyone has mastered all the new standards, confidently seated himself across WS. WS instead focused on one of his major clients and asked simply, “Where are the manufacturing facilities located?” I’ve been told, that partner had the worst mental block as the question was most unexpected. WS expected us to know our clients inside and out — I actually wouldn’t be surprised if he knew our clients better than they know themselves!

As for me, one of the first encounters I had with WS when I was a young staff back then was in the elevator, where he spotted me carrying working papers without a bag. “Young man,” he said, “who is your partner-in-charge?” I proudly gave him my superior’s name, not knowing he was going to dress my boss down for letting me carry working papers without a briefcase. I guess hard work also means taking great care to attend to even the minutest details of the job. He believed that if we took great care with our work, our actions would show it.

Expecting hard work doesn’t mean he was a slave driver though. One time, at around 6:30 a.m. and expecting a fax from abroad, he knocked into the fax room to see if the fax has come in. And when he opened the fax room and turned on the lights, lo and behold, he found the floor receptionist sleeping in the fax room! The receptionist was trembling in fear and explained that she was catching some sleep because she left the house at 5 a.m. to avoid the traffic. Expecting a reprimand, WS instead tapped her shoulder and said he just wanted to get the fax and left the room smiling. Later, WS waved at the receptionist on seeing her already at her post at 7:30 a.m. This endearing recollection shows you how WS was a challenging, but thoroughly fair and considerate boss.

Dealing with People

He was extremely good at dealing with people. I was never able to learn how to emulate his cool. He was so good and economical with words he didn’t need to lose his temper and raise his voice — only a few choice, cutting words would do the job.

I recall the story about how two partners were in the men’s lounge in a posh hotel to relieve themselves and were talking about WS. Apparently, WS was in the cubicle between them and simply said “I hear you.” That was enough to cause them to learn their lesson.

He would invest heavily in people, both institutionally and personally. He opened his entire rolodex and introduced you to society, an invaluable gift I along with many of his other mentees will forever be grateful for. He’d always give sometimes unsolicited but always appreciated advice, and even went the extra mile. I recall sharing the lift with him as a young staffer at SGV. He noticed the tie I wore. “Nice tie,” he said, “let me show you how to do it better.” Not many bosses would bother doing this for virtually a nobody, as I was during that time. But he did. He was one of those class acts you only come across very rarely.

He was a master in the lost art of listening. Where we sometimes preoccupy ourselves thinking of what to say during conversations and trying to get a word in edgewise, WS would patiently listen. He’d encourage us to aggressively network with other people, and discouraged us from mingling just amongst ourselves as young staffers were wont to do.

He firmly believed in the power of networking, in developing and cultivating a web of diverse individuals one could either learn from or to synergize and work with. To this day, I can’t think of any other person with a more extensive and powerful network as WS.

Finally, I recall one time during a dinner, I saw him observing a partner who was speaking with two Japanese clients. The clients were speaking in Japanese, and the partner kept nodding. Later on, WS would ask the partner, “Oh, I didn’t know you understood Japanese?” “No, no sir, I don’t,” the partner replied. To this WS said, “Then why were you nodding?”

It’s funny, but it shows you the light, personal touch he took to mentoring people with great attention and care. He’d make sure you weren’t embarrassed, but that you’d learn from each encounter.

Service and Integrity

Above all, Washington SyCip lived a life of service to the country, with integrity as his primary virtue. Country first — even above the firm. WS devoted his life to advancing the development of the nation any way he could — from serving as both the institutional and personal advisor to entrepreneurs to philanthropic pursuits in education. This is also why he so willingly agreed to allow so many of us SGV alumni to join and serve in the government. Consulting him about my decision to join government, he had two things in mind: first he asked me, “is the firm in good hands?” I said yes. He then counselled, “Your only currency is your name, take care of it.” This I remind myself each and every day. WS always preached that there is one overarching value in the accounting profession, and that is of integrity. No matter which market we operate in, professional credibility is our common currency. Reputation takes lifetimes to build but only a mere second to destroy, he would always remind us, so our actions, decisions, and relationships must always put a premium on integrity.

And with these virtues, he did so very well in building SGV’s reputation and credibility across Asia and even the world. He was so successful in upholding a stellar standard and record of excellence that having SGV on your CV became a door opener, a badge of honor, an asset for anyone who walked through its doors — the Asian equivalent of Goldman Sachs in Wall Street — your passport to socioeconomic advancement.

Indeed, WS made sure SGV didn’t care where you came from. As long as you’re willing to put in the hard work, the firm will take you in and mold you into someone better during the process. I often think of SGV as an economic equalizer in its own way, facilitating upward social mobility for anyone who dare work hard under the firm’s roofs. And long after his passing, I firmly believe SGV will continue to play this role for many decades to come.

This is how I’d like to pay tribute to Washington SyCip, the grand old sage of the Philippine business community. By remembering his lessons, and striving each and every day to live his wisdom out. I know all of you will honor his memory by doing this just the same.

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