Standing the test of time

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(This profile of the late godfather of the Philippine accounting industry, Washington Z. SyCip, who would have turned 97 today, was first published in BusinessWorld on June 30, 2010.)

By Anna Patricia G. Valerio

The turtle figurines in Washington SyCip’s office say little of the titan who collected them. Even at 89, the man is a far cry from the animal that has come to be associated with slowness.

“For longevity,” explains Mr. SyCip, the brains behind the one-man accounting firm that grew to become SyCip, Gorres, Velayo & Co. (SGV), the largest auditing and consulting firm in the country. A joint venture with Fred Velayo, a childhood friend, and Ramon Gorres, a former senior partner at Henry Hunter Bayne & Co. (HHB), the company recently became an affiliate practice of top global auditor Ernst & Young.

He points to a Chinese painting hanging on his wall: an old man is asking for advice from a turtle. The Chinese characters, which he had asked his friends to translate, say: “Take it easy” — a reminder that couldn’t be more fitting for the no-nonsense mogul who, from Mondays to Saturdays, and sometimes even on Sundays, can be found in his office at seven in the morning.

This is the same man who gave up a golf session with friends to accommodate the visit of Mark Shepherd, then chairman of Texas Instruments, as he was looking to invest in the country. Realizing that there were going to be more of these weekend visits from prospective foreign investors, Mr. SyCip decided to quit golf altogether. “I didn’t want [my friends] to get mad at me for not showing up,” he says. Choosing business over leisure proved to be a wise decision, as he has since attracted numerous ventures to the country over the years.

Washington SyCip’s story, wrote Palanca award winner and author of Wash: Only a Bookkeeper Jose Dalisay, Jr., is “a biographer’s dream:” He was accelerated three times in elementary school, and completed college in just two and a half years. Graduating summa cum laude at the age of 17, he taught and finished his master’s degree at the University of Sto. Tomas (UST). At 19, thinking himself too young to practice accountancy, he headed to Columbia University in the United States for further studies.

But for someone who very early on already seemed predestined for a bright career in finance — being the son of Chinabank co-founder Albino SyCip — Mr. SyCip, or Wash as he is known to his friends, is very much a self-made success.

Believing that his father was among those killed in the Manila bombings during the Second World War, he joined the US military, which sent him to perform code-breaking tasks in Calcutta, India. This was how he acquired his American citizenship — a prerequisite for working in the US security intelligence department. Mr. SyCip returned to the Philippines, however, to see his father alive and the market brimming with demand for accounting services due to a sudden surge in war damage claims.

At a time when British firms had a virtual monopoly of the market and took in mostly Westerners as their partners, Mr. SyCip sought local, up-and-coming businesses through his one-man firm, W. SyCip & Co., where he worked as an accountant, messenger, and his own company’s janitor. He set up shop at the Trade and Commerce Building in Binondo, a structure overseen by his brother Alex, whose law firm was next door to his office. Like another sibling, David, who operated an export-import business in the same building, Mr. SyCip occupied the space as a regular tenant, paying his brother rent for the room he was using.

As the firm grew, it had only to maintain the professionalism that Mr. SyCip had instituted on his own, a standard he says he got from his father. “I wanted the company to be a complete meritocracy,” he says. “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.”

The firm’s steady expansion, spurred mainly by mergers and partnerships, soon required it to relocate to bigger headquarters. For this, the company, which had by then acquired its current name, SGV, built its own buildings, SGV I and II, along Ayala Avenue. It would not be the end of its progress. The following decades saw the accounting firm branch out to Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Korea, and China.

“I never expected [the company] to grow so fast,” says Mr. SyCip. He sought to establish a regional network in another field, helping set up the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) with the late Ramon del Rosario, founder of Phinma, using a US$1.2-million grant from the Ford Foundation and aid from local conglomerates. Ayala Corporation had given the AIM 13,000 square meters of land in Makati, and Eugenio Lopez wrote it a P6.5-million check, which in the 1960s was the largest cash donation given by a Filipino donor.

For all his work in the Asian business sector, however, Mr. SyCip remains rooted in the Filipino community. He believes in the potency of education in alleviating poverty, a conviction that has benefited the schools he has been part of, either as a teacher or as a student: the University of the Philippines (UP), University of Sto. Tomas (UST), and Victorino Mapa High School all receive funding assistance from him. What could perhaps sum up the 89-year-old business pillar are the words of Carlos Palanca, Jr., who had described him as a man with “a Filipino heart, an Asian mind, and an American citizenship.”

In 2007, Ayala Land opened the Washington SyCip Park as a tribute to his contributions to Philippine business. Quick to downplay his achievements, Mr. SyCip pointed to his wife Anna, without whom he says he could not have gone far in his profession. “She was so patient,” he says. “She had to take care of the children while I was working night and day.”

Today, Mr. SyCip celebrates his 89th birthday. “So, life goes on,” he says with a smile that seems to say that this is just another day for the man who, amid all of his accomplishments, would rather be known simply as a bookkeeper.