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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

Numbers Man
From one-man auditor to management services multinational
By YASMIN GHAHREMANI and RAISSA ROBLES Manila


Washington CySip: High standards + constant training + hard work - nepotism = success
Ira Chaplain for Asiaweek
Businessmen looking to explore East Asia are often told to first "go see Wash." Small, slightly stooped yet impeccably dressed, 78-year-old Washington SyCip is the founder of Asia's largest accounting and consulting firm, SGV & Co. Though he is officially retired, he is still the man to see. In a calm, soothing voice, he can divine the opportunities lying untapped beneath rocky political and financial landscapes. He is on a first-name basis with taipans and political leaders in Asia and elsewhere. His mind is sharp, honed by voracious reading, frequent chats with CEOs and periodic visits to factories (his idea of sightseeing).

SyCip's first piece of advice is likely to be about professional management, his pet subject. Asian companies reeling from the Crisis, many of them family-owned, must become more professional and transparent, he says. "If they insist on family management regardless of the competence of children, then at some point they will be in trouble," he warns, "because it's not possible to have generation after generation of very competent children." SyCip's three children are not allowed to work in SGV. He gave them the best education available and says if they can't make it on their own after that, something's wrong.

    HALL OF FAME
Asiaweek Business Hall of Fame
Asiaweek salutes three business pioneers who helped make the Asia of today and stand as an example to those building the region's tomorrow
• Inaba Seiuemon: Through his computer-controlled devices, Inaba changed manufacturing
• Y.K. Pao: Hong Kong's first businessman of truly international stature
• Washington SyCip: From one-man auditor to management services multinational

Asiaweek Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame
The entrepreneurial ethic had never really caught on in Asia, where bigger was usually considered better. But those days may well be gone
• Adi Adiwoso: A maverick businessman looks to change Indonesia
• Liu Jing: China's get-rich ethic is changing private enterprise
• Daniel Ng: Are there riches in teaching companies about the internet?
• Park Soo Woong: Today's lesson: how to start a successful business

Past Laureates
Every year since 1994, Asiaweek has honored a selection of business people who have made a truly great impact on the region's commerce and industry

  RELATED STORIES
Asiaweek Hall of Fame 1998

Asiaweek Hall of Fame 1996

SyCip himself attended Manila's University of Santo Tomas, then went on to Columbia University in New York. He was working on his doctorate there when Pearl Harbor was bombed. "I thought I should do something more than just write a book," he recalls. After signing up with the 2nd Philippine Regiment, he was asked to join a decoding unit that required he become a U.S. citizen. He was sent to India to break Japanese codes. When the war ended, SyCip returned to Manila, not New York, hoping to help rebuild his demolished hometown. He formed W. SyCip & Co. in 1946 and eventually grew it from a one-man show to the Philippines' first successful multinational, based on four policies he laid down early on. First, SyCip aimed to match or exceed the high professional standards of Western accounting firms. Second, he recruited the best and brightest from schools across the country and sent them to the U.S. for training. Third, promotions depended not on pedigree but on hard, high-quality work. The norm is 16-hour workdays, says 39-year-old chairman and managing partner Cesar Purisima. After midnight in Makati, taxis queue in two places, he chuckles: in front of nightclubs and at SGV. Fourth, the promise that no child of SyCip would succeed him boosted competitive spirit within the company.

Over the years, SyCip picked up partners and changed the firm's name, eventually settling on SyCip, Gorres, Velayo & Co. SGV absorbed foreign accounting firms in Manila, used local partners to expand throughout the region, and forged ties with U.S. accounting and management consulting giant Arthur Andersen. It diversified its offerings to include management and professional services, including helping foreign firms set up local offices.

By the 1970s, SGV claimed 63 of the top 100 Philippines firms as clients, and was winning most government contracts. Rivals denounced it as a monopoly - and a national security risk since it was headed by a foreign citizen. Critics claimed that SyCip's highly-placed friends favored him in a 1967 law, which allowed Filipino accountants who became Americans for war purposes to continue with their local practice. Criticism like that was stilled when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972 and muzzled the press. Many of the company's young rank and file became disillusioned with SGV during the 1980s "confetti period," when yellow bits of paper rained down in protest throughout Makati (yellow was the anti-Marcos color) except around the SGV building. Still, the day after the Marcoses fled, SGV volunteered to audit the contents of Malacañang Palace for free.

Today, Purisima and 66 partners are investing in e-commerce and repositioning SGV to become the region's "leading professional services organization." To further expand its reach, SGV signed an accord with U.S. consultancy Kissinger Associates two months ago. SyCip hasn't run SGV's day-to-day operations for a long time, but he remains very much in the loop. He says he's most concerned about succession. Beyond that, he wants to "have fun, helping out organizations that may be doing something good for the country."

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