Steven Tan: Chinoy leader with a borderless perspective

In keeping with the #1CH1NOY campaign, CHiNOYTV, in partnership with CNN Philippines, unveils a new season that aims to spotlight modern Chinoys. They are personalities from different walks of life who showcase the Chinoy cultural values, and one of them is Steven Tan, the newly minted president of SM Supermalls.

Steven grew up in a very Chinoy family, and one proof of that is his family could speak Fukien, Mandarin, and Tagalog in one sentence. “It couldn’t be more Chinoy than that,” Steven tells CHiNOYTV. 

Another representation of his Filipino-Chinese household is in one corner of their house, you would see a Sto. Niño figure and on the other, you would see a scripture of Taoist Buddha. To Steven, it’s a great symbolism of the fusion of cultures he embraced growing up. And he couldn’t relate more to the “Chinese by blood, Filipino by heart” tagline because for him, it’s exactly who he is. 

After Steven finished his elementary and high school education at Chiang Kai Shek College, Steven flew to Hawaii. It was also the start of his exposure to the Western culture, which Steven’s late Father would always point out, “you’re not Chinese enough” for imbibing so much of the Western culture. Because of this, Steven was sent to Taiwan to get reacquainted with his Chinese roots. 

“That is where the journey begins,” Steven looks back. “I lived in Taipei for almost nine years. I worked there until the late ’90s,” But, according to Steven, even though he speaks Mandarin, a lot of Taiwanese would ask him where he was initially from because they felt he isn’t Chinese enough. “When I say I’m from the Philippines, they tell me I’m not Filipino because I don’t look like one. So, there’s always this ambiguity with people’s perception of me, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m used to it,” Steven expresses. 

From East to West

Steven has always wanted to work in the hotel industry. So, during his stay in Taipei, Steven started to work as a management trainee for Hilton Taipei. “I was a waiter. I even cleaned the bathroom. I did housekeeping. And that was when I realized that there is no such thing as odd jobs. There are only experiences,” he reflects. He ended his career in the hospitality industry in Taipei as one of the youngest front office managers at 27. 

After Steven’s stint in Taipei, he decided to earn his MBA in Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Paris. And just like his experience with the Taiwanese, French people would also ask him about his origin. “I always say I’m from the Philippines. And then they would say, ‘but why do you speak Chinese?’ So there’s always that ambiguity. So I tell them, I’m Filipino-Chinese,” he explains.

For Steven, Paris is the city that fascinates him the most. So much so that his friends describe him best as a “Francophile.” 

“My love for Paris, even when I was growing up in high school or during college, I would watch European movies more than Hollywood movies. I’ve always been fascinated by The Big Blue and Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish director, and West Anderson. I’ve always been fascinated more by European culture than American culture,” Steven expounds. 

Since Steven turned 25, there’s not a single year that he missed going to Paris. “I think the reason why I was so in love with Paris is because of the grandeur, the architecture,” the 51-year-old describes. 

“I’m very fortunate that I was able to travel early on and to live in places like Taipei and Paris. There’s no better teacher than traveling for me. I would encourage every one of you to travel whether it’s local or international, even to the next province there’s always learning,” Steven encourages.

Back home for SM

As soon as Steven finished his MBA in Paris, he went back home to the Philippines to work for the Barcelo Group, and one of the group’s properties is Taal Vista Hotel. “Through Taal Vista Hotel, I got exposed to the Sy family,” Steven looks back. After his stint with the Barcelo Group, Steven was poised to go back to Paris when he received a fateful call from Tessie Sy-Coson, the vice-chairman of SM Investments Corp. 

“I think it was 9 p.m.,” he recalls vividly. “She [Tessie] said, are you interested in working for SM? I was caught off guard. Then she said I should come to see her the next day in her office so we could further discuss.”

Long story short, he accepted the offer, and staying in the country for SM has been one of the best decisions Steven has ever made in his lifetime. 

“I started working for the smallest mall of SM Supermalls, which is The Podium. Back then, there were only 17 SM malls. Then after a few months, they asked me to open Mall of Asia,” he shares.

Steven got his start with the smallest mall, the then Podium, but transitioned to the biggest and most ambitious SM Mall of Asia. After handling the premiumization of SM Megamall’s Mega Fashion Hall, SM Aura Premier, and The Block in North Edsa, the Sy family entrusted Steven to manage the entire SM Supermalls altogether, including the branches in China. 

As of this writing, SM’s Shopping Center and Management Corp. handles 81 SM Supermalls—74 in the Philippines and seven in China under Steven’s watch. 

“I read and write Mandarin, so that helped me understand and do business in China, which we are currently expanding a lot,” Steven continues. “In the Philippines, even during the pandemic, we’ll be opening another two malls by the end of the year.” 

On Chinoy values

One of Steven’s great lessons from the late Henry Sy, Sr. is “in good times we work hard, but in bad times we work harder.”

At the onset of the pandemic, Steven took this as guidance on how to run SM Supermalls in a time that brought disruption to everything. “Nobody had a playbook. Nobody knew what was going on or what would happen. But I look at the pandemic as an opportunity for us to improve how we serve our customers,” Steven reflects.

In 2020, SM pivoted into e-commerce, then in the latter part of this year, they will fully launch the SM app. “We did a lot of tweaking with the business during the pandemic. The problem will always be there, pandemic or not. You just have to look for solutions constantly,” Steven says positively.

To those who dream of succeeding in business, Steven has three pieces of advice. “First is to find a mentor who could guide you through. Second, do not be afraid to do odd jobs. And lastly, you have to enjoy what you’re doing. As for me, I’m very fortunate to have mentors like Mr. Hans Sy and Tessy Sy-Coson. They’re great mentors,” says Steven.

If there’s one thing Steven is very much proud of as a Chinoy, it’s his ability to communicate in Chinese, Tagalog, and English. “If I travel around, if I go to Europe, go to the US, even if I go to China, I could communicate with people. So I couldn’t be more proud of being Chinoy,” he says. 

When asked how he defines a modern Chinoy, without batting an eyelash, Steven concludes, “A modern Chinoy for me is somebody who’s not afraid to explore. Explore new things, explore new cultures, travel and all the things that you don’t know, absorb all the things around you but also at the same time keeping the tradition of the Chinese family.”

Catch Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart #1CH1NOY only on CNN Philippines via Free TV Channel 9, Sky Cable Channel 14, Cignal Channel 10. It will also simultaneously air on CNN Philippines’ webpage 

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