Last Saturday I attended the book launch of Wilson Sy’s Opportunity of a Lifetime at the Meralco Theater. Who is Wilson Sy? He may not yet be a household name among common Pinoys, but to anyone who invests in the Philippine Stock Market, it’s impossible not to know this formidable force. He, according to his mentor Washington Sycip, is the heart and soul of Philequity Fund, a mutual fund that has successfully delivered an average compounded annual return of 20% to its shareholders, beating the PSE index in 17 out of the 20 years in existence!
One of my favorite things to do is to interview people, both big and small, so last Saturday I requested for an interview with him. This happened last Monday. First, I sat in during COL Fund Source’s one-hour fund review with him together with his key people at Philequity. (Philequity is among the funds being distributed online by COL Fund Source.) After that, I had my one-on-one free wheeling conversation with him. It was indeed an opportunity of a lifetime to discuss his childhood, school days, first job, family, challenges, dreams, legacy and other interesting topics for a little over two hours.
Allow me to unravel what’s in the mind and innermost feelings of Philequity’s heart and soul.
CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOL DAYS:
Rose: Can you tell us about your childhood?
Wilson: I’m the eldest among four children and I grew up in Carriedo. We lived above the department store run by my parents called Carson City Bazaar selling soap, perfume and other things. Being the oldest, I learned early on about the value of money, hard work and responsibility. You sell a piece of soap, you make one centavo. And for you to make more, you have to sell more. You have to work hard, no time for gallivanting. You have to be industrious, patient and trustworthy. I consider our family then to be in the middle or lower middle class.
Rose: But you went to Xavier School?
Wilson: Yes I did but maybe I was comparing myself to my classmates who lived in Greenhills or Makati while I lived in Carriedo and slept beside boxes and boxes of Johnson’s baby powder, soap and other merchandise for sale. Going to school, we would hitch a ride with our cousins. During the holidays, while my classmates were already on vacation, I would still be working until 11 pm even on Christmas eve. I remember one time in 1969 or 1970 when I was scheduled to join a school trip to Japan, supposed to be my first overseas trip, while studying in Xavier. Unfortunately, our store got burned and we lost everything so I didn’t push through. We were able to start over again because the suppliers knew that my parents were trustworthy people who would not run away from their debt.
Rose: What was your ambition when you were a child?
Wilson: I don’t recall. I remember my mother wanted me to be a doctor, but as far as my childhood ambition, I just knew I wanted to be rich.
Rose: Why? What was your compelling reason?
Wilson: I saw the hard work of my parents. They had to open the store everyday including Saturday and Sunday, even Christmas. We were still working at the store while everyone was enjoying the holidays. I also saw the trauma of losing everything during the fire. I wanted a better life for my parents. Although when someone asked my mother how she raised us, she said, “I spoiled them!” because it’s true, she tried to give us what we wanted. Being the eldest, I felt the responsibility and I also made sure I didn’t abuse by asking too much. I see the same trait of being a responsible first born in the likes of Henry Sy, Tessie Sy Coson and my other friends.
Rose: How were you in school? Were you an honor student?
Wilson: In Xavier I was among the top in my batch, I graduated with honors. It’s funny how recently, I got together with some of my Xavier classmates during the 35th wedding anniversary of our valedictorian Ramon Ty and we recalled how we used to be called Nerds by our batchmates. Then we said, “We were not really nerds, we also played basketball and loved music, right?” We saw a common denominator among ourselves – we were not the rich kids but we worked harder, we were also the favorites of our parents so we became more responsible; consequently, earning the respect of our younger siblings. This reminds me of how I felt when it was time to decide on my father’s medical condition. He already had Alzheimer’s and his left lung collapsed and we were supposed to decide whether, at the age of 99, we would still keep him on his ventilator. It was a big burden for me, I cried a lot in making that decision because I knew that whatever I would say, my three younger siblings would agree with me.
Rose: Is your mother still alive?
Wilson: Yes. She’s 85 years old. (More on the mother later.)
Tell us about your ME days at the Ateneo.
Wilson: It was luck or destiny. I really didn’t know about this course called Management Engineering in Ateneo but our Xavier Guidance Counselor said I should take up ME, at that time it was still a five-year course. So I did. Little did I know that it was going to be that difficult. Mangiyak-ngiyak kami! I wanted to shift in my third year pero kahiyaan na lang. My grades were not so good but I stayed on and from an original of four blocks in freshman year, we were down to 20+ ME graduates in 1975, among the first batches of the course.
FIRST JOB AND FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE STOCK MARKET:
Rose: Tell me about your first job.
Wilson: I had a summer job at Multinational Investment Bancorporation. They assigned me at the equities desk. After that I joined Bancom Development Corporation. At that time, the employers to go to were either Bancom or Ayala Corp. I went to Bancom in April 1975 with a salary of P550/month. I worked at the investment banking division but they were going to assign me to their newly acquired stock brokerage. That time, the Manila Stock Exchange wanted names of individuals instead of corporations so the stock brokerage firm was Barcelon Roxas (named after the chairman Augusto Barcelon and president Sixto Roxas). I was a telephone clerk/trader on the floor, that’s how I started.
Rose: Was it love at first sight with the stock market?
Wilson: Not really, but I worked hard. During our weekly meetings we were asked to give our take on the market. Somehow, my take was more accurate than the others, including those of the more senior ones. When management chose the head for the Barcelon Roxas, they chose me over the more senior ones.
But you see, I almost left Barcelon Roxas before this happened because Ayala acted on my earlier application and offered me a salary of P750/month as a management trainee. I was about to take it but Barcelon Roxas matched that salary and requested me to stay. Had I gone to Ayala, I would have been a different person. I stayed in this firm from 1975 to 1982.
In 1982 I joined I.B. Jimenez where I was given a portfolio to manage, with profit sharing (half-half). I owe a lot to the people who asked me to manage their money, even back in Barcelon Roxas. They taught me how to be courageous as they would say, “Ang hina ng loob mo, lakasan mo!” It was like destiny.
At this point in Wilson’s life, he started to fall in love with the market. In his book Opportunity of a Lifetime, his brother Valentino Sy at the beginning of the book says that Wilson spends days and nights immersing himself in research papers, studying why the stock markets here and abroad behave the way they do and explores ways on how to profit from them. Some say he eats and breathes the stock market. He even installed computer terminal screens in his toilet at home, something picked up by Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima during his keynote speech at the book launch and joked, “Wilson turns the shit into gold!”
MARRYING HIS LOVE & OTHER FAMILY MATTERS:
During the book launch, it was mentioned that wife Florence was already used to knowing that his first love is the stock market. I asked Wilson to tell us how he met his wife and their love affair. While still in college, they met at a birthday party of a common friend. She was two years younger and studying to be a doctor. Listening to their wedding day account was like watching a movie of either a workaholic or a superhero. They got married on February 10, 1980 a Sunday. At that time, gold prices shot up to $800 so the next day he had to go back to work because they were all depending on him on what to do in the market. They had their honeymoon in Singapore after a few months.
A typical day for Wilson starts at 8am and ends in the wee hours of the morning because he also trades in the international markets. His love for the stock market was shown when he had a hard time answering the question what’s the longest time you abstained from the market. He said, “During the wedding of my niece in San Francisco, but I would check on the opening and closing prices.” Then I pressed on how about total black out from the market? He said, “During the cruise, because inside the ship it’s so expensive to check, but once we dock and my Globe data comes back, I checked!”
Not an absent parent:
Fortunately, when the kids were growing up, he was able to devote time for them. He said, “I was their tutor in Filipino, Math and CLE. I also became Class Parent Rep of my children in school. It was easier then because trading was only until noon.”
Wilson’s family including his mother, three children, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren live under one roof, “Yes we all live together so I see all of them everyday. So I’m happy everyday.”
One thing that really struck me about him was his devotion to his mother, “Since my mother had a stroke when I was still in college and up to now that she’s 85, I make it a point to accompany her (and even my father when he was still alive) when they go see a doctor, no matter how busy I am. I drop everything to be with them on these hospital visits, like this Wednesday (that’s today the publication of this article), I will accompany my mother to her doctor. And I always talk to her. When I get home, I see to it that I spend time with her talking to her before I sleep. In the morning, I say goodbye to her. When I’m abroad, I call her up just to say hi and talk about anything. My mother is a very bright and intelligent woman.”
I was quite surprised, and frankly, I felt guilty and wanted to call my mother right away.
BUILDING HIS EMPIRE, THE COLUMN AND THE BOOK:
After having earned good money from his stock investments, he had enough to buy a seat at the stock exchange, which was auctioned off. He bought it for P1 million (now a seat may cost around P12 million) and set up Wealth Securities right at the heart of the EDSA 1986 revolution. At the start, he had to ask Florence, who was then an intern at the Chinese General Hospital, to help him out because he only started with five people.
Again, he finds himself to be in the favor of Lady Luck because he was able to ride the bull market. Of course, I had to remind him that it just so happened that when Lady Luck knocked on his door, he was ready. He was very happy with the bloodless revolution because he knew that had it been otherwise, all his positions would have taken a huge hit in the market.
Philequity mutual fund was later on set up in 1994 and started with a small number of investors composed of family, friends and a few clients. It was the same year he became chairman of the Manila Stock Exchange, prior to its merger with the Makati Stock Exchange to become the unified Philippine Stock Exchange. Today Philequity has thousands of shareholders with total assets under management of around P18 billion. And the pride of this fund is its track record of performance.
When asked what his investment style is, Wilson answers, “According to Edward Lee my trading and investing style is full height! I don’t just go for 10%, 20% or sometimes not even the consensus Fair Market Value, especially if I like the company and its management.” He runs his investments to their full potential and this he is able to do because of his vast experience in the industry. Raymond Ricafort, among his key people who were present in the COL review, said something like, “We have been trying to clone Boss Wilson in order to replicate his feel for the market but it’s hard!”
The Philequity Corner weekly column in PhilStar was born shortly after the fund was incorporated and this is where Wilson shares his investment views with the general public. During the launch, it was shared how Wilson and his people at Philequity put in hours and hours conceptualizing, writing and re-writing, using up precious weekend hours to meet the deadline for its Monday publication. After two decades, it is now a book where important articles were picked from an array of over 600 pieces and put together to achieve a primary purpose – i.e. to help Filipinos improve their investment acumen and prosper.
PEOPLE HE ADMIRES:
Rose: Who do you admire and respect in the industry?
Wilson: Marvin Fausto, Joey Salceda, Noel Bautista, Anton Periquet, Robby Go.
Do you have a mastermind group?
Wilson: Well, of course my mentor Washington Sycip
Rose: You’re so lucky to have the nth wonder of the world, and the Philippine national treasure as your mentor.
Wilson: Yes, I am. He is still very sharp at age 92! I also have my board members. I used to hang out a lot with Edward Lee, Chony Jimenez, Felipe Yap, Choy Lorayes. We would go out for lunch at Marquina, Smart Restaurant. But now, it’s not possible because we have to come back for the afternoon trade.
Rose: What are you most proud of?
Wilson: (thinks for a while) My work. I’m proud of making the right calls. And these are documented in the book. However. I always remind myself, especially when people say I’m good, that I should not allow all these praises to get to my head, because I know that once I do, it will be the start of my downfall.
I’m proud of my family, that all my children turned out as good, honest individuals. I’m happy and they are now working with me (after their respective stints in other companies, Timothy, Kevin and Darlene are involved in the family corporations – Wealth Securities, Vantage, Philequity, etc.)
Rose: What else do you dream of? What legacy do you want to leave behind?
Wilson: It’s not anymore the money. I like what Edward Lee has done for the stock brokerage industry. He’s a visionary. In a way, I try to emulate the same thing, by helping more people learn how to invest properly. The book is my legacy. I want people to learn from both my mistakes and successes in investing in the stock market.
When Vince Perez asked me how I felt during the book launch I said, nothing. Then he said aren’t you relieved, proud? But you know, what’s playing in my mind are what the people who asked me to sign their books and the things they said like “Mr. Sy, dahil po sa Philequity nakauwi na ako ng Pilipinas.” “Nakapagpakasal po ako.” “Natustusan ko po yong panganganak ng asawa ko.” Some of them came all the way from Laoag, Bohol and other parts of the country. Parang naiiyak ako. But I realize that it’s also a burden.
Sometimes, I think of doing a George Sorros – he just returned all the money of other people he was managing funds for and just trades his own money, so that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. But hearing these people… And now I become conscious and feel uneasy with the things I can’t control. Like for instance, if our next government will be a corrupt one. No matter how well I read the market, no matter what I do, if the perception is corrupt administration, do you think our PE ratios will continue to trade at a premium of 18x? No way, these are the things that I worry about now because I realize I’m affecting other people’s lives.
We spoke about so many other things including a possible prequel to his book and this would be really something to look forward to, if it happens, because the stories are controversial, you can have them in movie dramas, and they were pivotal in shaping the Philippine history. We also talked about the difference of loving and being in love, how women think differently from men about this matter, some more about his love for his mother which really made its mark on me and many more.
What I notice is that the publication of his book brought him closer to his mutual fund shareholders, particularly, the simple folks and it was an awakening for him how something he just loves to do can affect other people’s lives in a profound way. When he was showing his frustration about the things he cannot control in the market and how he now carries the burden of continuing to do well with his funds, I just saw the heart and soul of Philequity exposed and unravelled before me. For me, it was indeed an opportunity of a lifetime.
Opportunity of a Lifetime may be purchased from Philequity 634-5038 and Fullybooked. All sales proceeds of the book will be donated to Xavier School and Ateneo de Manila University, for their scholarship funds.
Rose Fres Fausto is the author of bestselling books Raising Pinoy Boys and The Retelling of The Richest Man in Babylon. Her new book is the Filipino version of the latter entitled Ang Muling Pagsasalaysay ng Ang Pinakamayamang Tao sa Babilonya. Click this link to read samples of the books. Books of FQ Mom Rose Fres Fausto. She is also the grand prize winner of the first Sinag Financial Literacy Digital Journalism Awards.
Photo Attribution: Photos from my phone taken during the launch last Saturday and my interview last Monday.
This article is also published in PhilStar.com and RaisingPinoyBoys.com.