Dr. Washington SyCip is, quite simply, one of the greatest Filipinos of our time even if, technically, he has been an American citizen since the 1940s. The third of three sons of Albino Z. SyCip—whose father had migrated to the Philippines from Xiamen in the late 1800s—and Helen Bau SyCip, the newborn Washington was also, incidentally, named after the capital of the USA, following Mr. Albino the topnotch lawyer’s victory in arguing a case before the United States Supreme Court at the time of his youngest child’s birth.
Dr. Washington SyCip has scored a host of victories in his own, epic life. For starters, the young “Wash” blazed through his school days in Manila: at Burgos Elementary School (where he took up basic education after five pre-school years spent with his maternal grandmother in Shanghai), he finished seven years of schooling—starting in 1927—in just five and a half years, quite effortlessly leaping over three grades; at Mapa High School, he excelled in physics and mathematics, ultimately graduating in 1936 as the class Valedictorian at age 15; and for college, he studied accounting at the University of Santo Tomas where, by taking more than the usual load per semester and going to summer classes, he earned his Bachelor of Science in Commerce degree in just two and a half years—and graduating Summa Cum Laude at that.
“I suppose I was impatient, and maybe it was not such a good thing as I missed a lot of fun at the time,” he reminisces in our interview for UE Today in his office at SGV & Co., where he gave UE Manila Chancellor and former SGV & Co. Partner Antonieta Fortuna-Ibe and I almost two hours of his time early this month. (It was Chancellor Ibe who invited Dr. SyCip to be the inaugural Speaker and Guest of Honor in this January’s launch of the UE Accounting Lecture Series, which is co-sponsored by the Philippine Institute of Certified Public Accountants.) “The dean of the UST business school then, an American named Stanley Prescott, told me to open the dance at our graduation ball, and for that I had to learn how to dance from two of my female classmates.”
Such was the young Wash’s academic repute at UST that Dean Prescott recruited him to teach while he waited for the result of his certified public accountant licensure board exam—this first teaching stint finding himself in the unique position of mentoring an accounting seniors class where the students were all older than him. “One of my students then was [Alfredo] ‘Fred’ Velayo, who has actually been a friend of mine since grade school,” he says of the man who was later to figure prominently in Dr. SyCip’s professional life.
While it was an amazing feat, the young Wash’s having completed college and the CPA board exam sooner than most yielded a disadvantage: when he passed the exam, he could not, by law, receive his license yet, being two years shy of age 21. In the interim, and thinking he could go further into teaching, he then convinced his father to let him pursue graduate studies in the US, leading to enrollment at Columbia University in New York for his doctorate education.
He was just a dissertation away from earning his postgraduate degree when World War II broke out. “My father was imprisoned by the Japanese, for not cooperating with them,” Dr. SyCip recalls. This situation compelled him, in late 1942, to join the US Army; completing three months of basic infantry training at Camp Cook in California was enough to effectively make him a naturalized American citizen. Having the highest IQ score in his regiment—the Second Philippine Regiment, to be exact—Staff Sergeant SyCip was recruited to a special training program to learn Japanese and then to learn cryptology or code-breaking. He recalls enjoying the work but his mind was optimistically set not just on eventually rejoining his family back in Manila but also in at last practicing the profession he had studied for. When V-J Day (“victory over Japan”) came forth, Wash finally got the chance to formally leave the US Army, return to a war-ravaged Manila and be reunited with the family.
While his father went about rebuilding China Banking Corporation, the bank that Mr. Albino SyCip and some associates had established in the 1920s and which the Japanese shut down during the Occupation, Wash initiated his own accounting practice in 1946 (the same year that Dr. Francisco T. Dalupan and company began holding CPA review classes that would be the precursor to UE). “My father discouraged me from joining China Bank because he felt that having relatives in the company would embarrass him,” Dr. SyCip tells us, then quips, “And had we been there and we didn’t do well, we would have also embarrassed him.”
Still, his banker-father had a positive, threefold influence on him. For one thing, just as China Bank was one of the Philippines’ earliest local banks and had formidable competition from foreigner-run banks, the young SyCip’s office was one of the country’s earlier domestic accounting firms, a young underdog in a field already bustling with three big British firms. Secondly, as his own accounting firm grew, Dr. SyCip permanently discouraged nepotism. Thirdly, his father and China Bank had such a sterling reputation among its clients that the young SyCip vowed to follow that example. But the Firm’s client roster initially grew in part because “My father had such a good reputation in the community that my own clients found it attractive to deal with me,” Dr. SyCip remembers. “His good name was good for me.”
Of course, his putting up a firm of his own was no piece of cake. As Dr. SyCip recalls in his book Asian Perspectives on Business and Management, Economic Success and Governance: East Asia, Oceania, the Philippines, and SGV (published in 1996 by the University of the Philippines Press), “Knowing full well the odds against me, I opened a one-man accounting office…in Manila’s Chinatown. I had an unusual experience of being the senior partner, the junior accountant, the messenger and the janitor at the same time!” In our interview, Dr. SyCip was quick to deflect that jack-of-all-trades period, citing that, soon enough, he got to recruit his childhood friend and fellow accounting enthusiast Alfredo M. Velayo to join the Firm in 1947. With Vicente O. Jose also coming onboard, the firm became SyCip Velayo Jose and Company. (In 1953, Ramon J. Gorres came onboard, resulting in the name by which the firm has been known for internationally ever since: SyCip Gorres Velayo and Company, a.k.a. SGV & Co.)
It was in 1948, scant data shows, when Mr. Sycip, as well as Mr. Velayo, began teaching at the Philippine College of Commerce and Business Administration—before the PCCBA became the University of the East. “We taught CPA review classes in the evenings,” Dr. SyCip remembers, noting that such a schedule owed to their spending the daytime on work at the Firm. But while teaching at PCCBA helped them make ends meet while the Firm was in its relative infancy, they had a nobler objective: to develop the accounting profession by nurturing its young hopefuls. Thus came the PCCBA’s—and UE’s—legendary streak of topnotchers, and Top 10 and Top 20 examinees in the annual CPA board exams.
Credit for Mr. SyCip’s PCCBA stint goes to no less than its founding President, Dr. Francisco T. Dalupan Sr. Recalls Dr. SyCip, “I met Leonides Virata, an uncle of Cesar Virata [who, like Dr. SyCip, is presently a Board Member of the Tan Yan Kee Foundation, Inc.], in New York and he wanted me to meet Mr. Dalupan, himself a CPA, who then convinced me to teach in UE.” Later on, Mr. SyCip also handled classes in Intermediate Accounting, among others, and quite naturally helped fashion the accounting program that would earn for UE the reputation of being the business school to be in. “Having produced CPA topnotchers” is what Dr. SyCip deems the fondest memory of having taught at UE, adding that “I enjoyed teaching and hearing the viewpoints of my students.” He also remembers that “There were many prominent people teaching in UE at the time, such as Prof. Ramon Sunico, who was very good at Commercial Law. Dr. Dalupan attracted a lot of good people to the University.”
However, Mr. SyCip’s PCCBA-UE stint was not to last, as he was simply too busy to teach while running the Firm “six and a half days a week, counting Sunday mornings,” he recalls. So sometime in the 1950s, by which time the PCCBA became UE, he and Mr. Velayo concluded their professorial work here. “The practice was growing,” Dr. SyCip explains, “and we lacked time, not to mention travel time, even if the traffic then wasn’t as heavy as it is now.”
“Mathematics was easy for me,” Dr. SyCip elucidates on why he took up accounting back in college, adding that “I did consider going into business.” But more than being comfortable with numbers and figures, it appears that Dr. SyCip’s greatest asset has been his gift for deduction, analysis and foresight. For one thing, in putting up SGV & Co. amid a Philippine, and an Asian, business landscape where the locals served foreign bosses in the established firms, he early on championed the rise of the homegrown professional, wisely anticipating this as the way to go for us and the rest of Asia to become globally competitive.
One key element that has led to SGV & Co.’s success is in the training of its people. While initially, Messrs. SyCip and Velayo themselves conducted such employee training sessions at night and on weekends, the Founder realized a better, less on-the-fly approach: full-time training. “I recall my first encounter with Arthur Andersen & Co. when it was still based in Chicago,” Dr. SyCip says of the firm—specifically the Arthur Andersen Worldwide Organization—to which SGV & Co. would eventually be an international member from 1985 towards the end of the 20th century. “I learned that their style was to take over a campus during the summer and, there, conduct full-time training sessions. Indeed, full-time training pays off more than after-office training does, as employees are less exhausted and more focused.” Thus began SGV & Co.’s comparatively costly but ultimately more rewarding practice of shouldering the graduate studies of its bright, deserving employees.
Inextricably linked with this practice is SGV & Co.’s other strong suit: the concept of meritocracy. That is, the Firm rewards employees with growth opportunities such as scholarships based on merit, sending them to graduate school or on-the-job trainings, here or abroad, at company expense regardless of their social standing.
Of course, the SGV Group’s first order of business has been towards its client companies, for which the Firm provides, to date, accounting, auditing, tax and management consultancy services. From its first ever office in Binondo, SGV & Co.—whose main offices have remained on Ayala Avenue in Makati City since the 1960s—grew into a national, regional and global force, assisting companies on the complicated matters of auditing and accounting, including bridging entrepreneurs with sources of capital and funds.
Such has been dr. sycip’s expertise and accomplishments in the profession that not only did burgeoning or established companies and corporations, local or foreign, seek his and SGV & Co.’s services, he has also earned a slew of titles and awards over the decades—just a few of which are the following...
As far back as 1967, the Management Association of the Philippines had awarded him as Management Man of the Year. He has been the Chairman of the Asian Institute of Management since its inception in 1968 up to the present. The Philippine Government conferred on him the Maginoo Order of Sikatuna in 1980, and he was in the 1980 edition of The Outstanding Leaders of the Philippines. He is a Past President of the Philippine Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and has belonged to PICPA’s Accounting Hall of Fame since 1980. He is an International Associate of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and is a Past President of the International Federation of Accountants (elected in 1982)—the third, first Asian and sole Filipino-born professional to have headed the Federation. In 1992, he was named the Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for International Understanding. He has five honorary doctorate degrees: Doctor of Philosophy, major in Financial Management, from De La Salle University; Doctor of Laws, conferred by the University of Melbourne in 1993; Doctor of Accounting Education, from UST; Doctor of Development Management, from the Iligan Institute of Technology, Mindanao State University; and Doctor of Laws, conferred by UP in 2001.
On top of all that, Dr. SyCip, via SGV & Co., is to be credited for molding not just its clients but also its own people—the thousands that had worked and those who continue to work at the Firm including UE graduates, many of who have become successful in accountancy or business in their own right. When I point out that he has numerous accomplished offspring, professionally speaking, Dr. SyCip is quick to dismiss the thought that they owe him a great deal. “I owe them,” he retorts with a smile, “because one man can’t do everything. Our work has always been as a team.” (For the record, Dr. SyCip and his wife, Anna Yu, whom he married in 1948, do have their own successful offspring: Victoria, George Edwin and Robert Raymond, all born in the 1950s.)
Of late, having retired from active work at SGV & Co. since 1996—the year of the Firm’s golden anniversary—Dr. SyCip is proud of the fact that even without him directly at the helm, the Firm remains a leader in the profession—“thanks in large part to meritocracy”—and continues to gain clients despite a now crowded, more competitive, more global and more regulated field. (SGV & Co. has been a member firm of Ernst & Young International since June 6, 2002.)
Moreover, retirement aside, he remains professionally active—in fact, still tenacious and indefatigable at 86 years old—developing companies in various countries either as a board member or consultant and, even better, nurturing his home country in various respects. “I try to confine my travels abroad during weekends, so that I can be here from Monday to Friday,” he divulges. In fact, when I ask if he still has any unattained goal at this stage in his storied and success-filled life, he evinces a quiet but patriotic fervor with just two words: “poverty alleviation.”
Indeed, Dr. SyCip is very much involved in efforts to uplift Filipino lives, collaborating with Synergeia Foundation Inc. with regard to basic education; with the San Pablo City-based Cards, for microfinance; and is increasingly involved with Gawad Kalinga, with regard to housing for the poor. In fact, he even longs to add rural health development to his present roster of endeavors.
Given Dr. SyCip’s having lived through the post-WWII period when the Philippines was second only to Japan in terms of prosperity, I could not help but ask if he foresees our country ever regaining such glory. He replies that it is possible but “The solutions need to be for the long term, and not just for the sake of winning elections. There are many bright people in many countries, including the Philippines, but there has to be willpower and determination for us to really move forward. I have always believed that people are generally good; they just need proper guidance and leadership.”
Asked for the proverbial key to his success, Dr. SyCip opines that professionally, he credits “Believing in people.” As for the key to his continued health and having not just worked but lived far longer than most, he muses that “I cannot claim credit; health is really a matter of good luck,” although it has certainly helped that, he quips, “I never smoked a cigarette in my life, and probably because of all the walking I have been doing in airports.”
For all the multitude of feats to his name, Dr. SyCip wishes to be remembered most for two things: first, for putting the Philippines on the global accounting map, and second, for his commitment to basic education via upgrading of teacher and teaching standards and working directly at the community level throughout the country. He vocally views the lack of basic education as a hindrance to the country’s progress (“Only three out of 10 children get to finish elementary school in some of the Moslem areas,” he stresses), “which is worsened by the unrestricted population growth.” In addition, he laments that there is a dearth of national investment in developing human resources as well as infrastructure.
Yet, challenging as the country’s overall situation may be, Dr. SyCip wishes to impart this message to the Filipino youth, especially to UE students, accountancy majors or not: “Don’t give up on your country. Have confidence in it. There are opportunities for you to grow here professionally; you just have to know where to look.” Indeed, as Dr. Washington SyCip himself has epitomized all his life, victories can emerge from even the direst of circumstances.
Caption for the different photos of Dr. SyCip:
Dr. SyCip at work through the decades: with SGV & Co. Co-Founder Alfredo Velayo; at the inaugural meeting (standing, 2nd from right) of the Board of Governors of the Management Association of the Philippines in 1951; (middle row, from left) with US Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton; (bottom) and at the 50th anniversary of SGV & Co. in 1996, flanked by the Firm’s Officials, Partners, et al. (All photos of Dr. SyCip in this issue courtesy of Dr. SyCip and SGV & Co.) • Dr. SyCip, wife Anna and their children (standing from left) George Edwin, Victoria and Robert Raymond.