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Innovator. Tycoon. Visionary. Philanthropist. Traveler. These words describe this private, gentle, soft-spoken man with a soulful smile whose unassuming ensemble of sneakers, jeans and buttoned-down shirt conceal the fact that he is one of the most successful people in the Philippines today. Julio Sy Jr. is the heart and soul of the Tao Corporation, one of the country’s top 500 companies and a trailblazer in the fields of health and wellness, distribution and marketing, resource development and financial services. Today, we get to know the man behind the powerhouse, the captain behind the wheel.
What’s the main ingredient behind Tao’s success?
It’s embodied in our mission statement. It’s all about the power of the human spirit. We believe that if a person has a dream and uses his natural talents to achieve that dream, then anything is possible. We believe in three things: that everyone has a natural gift for something, that we need to align their work with that talent, and that the people we get have to have a more meaningful purpose. From there, we ask ourselves how that combination can benefit society in terms of products and services.
Inspiring a person to identify and use his gifts is a key ingredient to make an organization successful. It’s our philosophy and you see it in our company name. Tao is “people” in Filipino. But Tao is also a Chinese philosophy of harmony and balance – yin and yang.
Tao spans almost every important business there is in the country. How do you keep track of all of that? Isn’t it overwhelming?
It’s simple, really. Once you’re surrounded by great people and leaders, it becomes easy to run our business. It’s a very decentralized approach; we look for the right team, we train them, then we let them forge their own path to achieve their dreams. We support them so they can reach their goals by giving them the resources they need. In my job, I only have three tasks: to find the best team, to allocate resources, and to instill our core value system in our people.
Tao also has a lot of advocacies. Is there one in particular that really hits close to home?
Actually, it is my hometown, literally. Dumaguete is a place that we’re developing.
Up until now, it’s still home for us; we hold our family reunions there. We’re always there for Christmas.
Dumaguete has a lot of potential for tourism. You can spend a week there and you won’t get bored. You can go spelunking, scuba diving, hiking through mountains, swimming across lakes. It’s a good place for outdoor tourism. Everything is not more than two hours away, even caves and waterfalls. I always invite people to come and visit.
What Dumageute really needs is more promotion. Right now, we’re helping to generate interest with a music festival there called the Elements Music Camp. Our participants are taught by veterans such as Ryan Cayabyab, Rey Valera and Ely Buendia. The range of talent is really wide. I want it similar to the Montreux Jazz Festival. We hope it’s an event people will want to go to, and in so doing, create interest in Dumaguete.
That sure sounds like a lot of fun.
I’m a very simple person. I don’t like fancy cars or big houses, but I love to travel. And the best way to travel is with family. My dad taught us that the experience of a family traveling together brings them closer. I wanted to bring that experience to my company; we have our annual Tao summer outing. We do two local destinations and one foreign location. We make it something special. We have Corporate Affairs plan the itinerary and activities for everyone, so it’s unforgettable. We have many stories of people like our staff or our janitors who have never ridden a plane or gone abroad before. It was amazing. They talk about the experience with tears in their eyes. They’d never imagined that they’d have the chance to go to these places and enjoy them. Travel brought my family close together so I want that same vibe with our community at Tao.
What are your favorite travel destinations?
My family’s weakness is food so our favorite destination is Japan. We love visiting Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto. Normally we try to do two major trips a year: Japan is the usual choice while the other is Coron for diving. Now, for long summer breaks, we go further, like Europe or Turkey. Travel also helps me find new businesses to innovate. I can do that best when traveling; you learn new things.
I like looking at supermarkets and stores to see new products and trends and ideas to bring here. We are also into tech so I like looking at gadgets to see what the latest trends are. It’s a great source for learning what we can apply to our business.
Have you got plans to go out of town this Christmas?
Christmas is always in Dumaguete. My parents, my four siblings and all our kids always go three or four days before Christmas and we’re there until after New Year. We stay in my parent’s home, where we all grew up. Recently, the whole family learned scuba diving. More than twenty of us go diving together. We also got into photography. I brought two photographers to teach us and we spent three days having morning lectures, afternoon shoots and evening critique sessions.
I’m gonna retire there someday. The only thing I won’t do is run for public office.
Speaking of the office, do you take your work with you while out of town?
No, because we’ve built a very strong culture where we empower our people to run our businesses. The only work I bring with me is to learn something new to bring back to the company here to innovate and challenge ourselves, to imagine something better.
What other things do you learn while traveling?
You learn a lot by observing other people, new cultures and other ways of thinking. You have to be self-reliant and have self-confidence when you’re in a new place. You have to know how to make do with your budget. You have to find your objectives, your goals for travel, what you all want to see and do, so everyone has a good time and a fulfilling experience.
It looks like you have a pretty systematic approach to going on vacation.
When I travel, I like to stay in one place. What I do is when we get to a new place, I try to get a private tour guide. We spend the first day with the guide to show us around. The next three days after are spent our way, leisurely, and without pressure. We explore restaurants, we plan the places where we want to eat – that’s a priority. My kids don’t normally like to shop, so we try to find different activities for them to do. In Europe, we rent bikes. We also like going to museums.
What’s the most important lesson you learned from travel?
All human beings, no matter how different our cultures are, we’re all drawn to the same universal values, that family and friendships are important to all of us. We all want to be free. People have this natural quest to learn and experience new things. These are universal human elements that you see wherever you go, you can be Asian, European, American, or from anywhere else but it’s the same. Mutual respect is important and everyone wants to learn new things. We’re all the same. We’re all connected.
Any specific destination you want to visit?
I can’t answer that because every place is special. What’s important is your attitude. You’ve got to find something nice about where you end up in. I want to go to as many places as I can. We are going to Tubbataha Reef in six months. My son is so excited. As my kids get older, they’re more interested in adventures and events. So I try my best to make our travels tied up to an event, like a concert or an activity. In the end, it’s the memory of being in a happy event that eventually becomes the most enjoyable part of the trip.