By Raïssa Robles
Having watched SM grow from one Manila shoe store into a giant conglomerate today, I believe the founder Henry Sy Sr. would have stopped tree-cutting as soon as he saw the sharply negative reaction of Baguio residents.
I believe this because it was not all business with Mr Sy, who willingly spent millions just to house a giant ice skating rink inside his mall in this tropical country.
I’ve noticed a sea change, though, after his children took over. They are not that hands-on like their father, who took the trouble to walk through his giant malls every day looking for things to fix here and there.
That was how I got to talk to Mr Sy – by approaching him in one of his long walks in SM Megamall in late 1997. I introduced myself as a reporter and asked him how long he thought the global financial crisis would last for the Philippines. He said, well into the next millennium – about four or five years. He was right.
Now that I recall, no bodyguard had stopped me from approaching him although I assumed they must just be about somewhere because it was also the height of the kidnapping crisis in the Philippines.
Mr Sy is now in a wheelchair and his children are running the business. Of course the takeover of the new generation has led to the influx of more professional managers unrelated by blood to the family owners, and to a rapid depersonalization of the business.
The move has enabled the SM group to grow by leaps and bounds but it could also be a source of weakness. And that is seen in the way the SM Group is now mishandling the issue over the pine trees inside its shopping complex in Baguio City.
Why cut trees
I listened with disbelief this afternoon at the explanation of SM Supermalls president Annie Garcia over radio station DZMM to justify uprooting 182 pine trees. She told anchors Karen Davila and Vic Lima: “It is our attempt to find a solution to a topsoil erosion problem. We need to uproot trees for us to be able to create a wall structure.”
She said they had local and international consultants to look over the problem and “one solution was to put up a new structure” not just a wall but a structure that could strengthen the area and prevent soil erosion.
Her explanation rings hollow, though, when one considers that SM intends to build there a seven-storey structure with underground parking for a thousand vehicles. In other words, SM’s real motive is to make more money. And sorry, the trees are getting in the way.
Because if its real motive was to solve soil erosion it would plant even more trees and would put something in the area to make the trees cling to the top soil better.
One other thing that Annie Garcia said that really grated in my ears. She said: “We are talking of a hundred trees. In our own lot there are 1,180 trees.” She also said SM would be planting thousands of more trees elsewhere in Baguio.
And then co-anchor Vic Lima asked her: “Are you saying you could remove those?”
She replied: “We could have done so maybe if we got the permit to do so, but we did not.”
To me, her subliminal message was that SM “owned” those trees and could well do what it pleased with them.
Legally, it does own the trees.
But I think Annie Garcia forgot something which she herself once said: “The secrets to SM success are sheer hard work and in knowing your customer.”
In this case, SM customers do not want the mall owner to cut trees.
If SM persists, it may well have its way through the courts but could lose customers.
The draw of SM has been what its slogan says: that in SM, “we’ve got it all for you.”
Over two months ago, my hubby Alan – a former science and environment editor – said on the social networking site Twitter that the mall’s slogan seems to have changed to – at SM, “we’ve cut it all for you.”
Soon enough, someone else was inspired to paste this on a poster:
Trees have been cut with great abandon
Millions of trees have been cut through the years in the Philippines and no protest against tree-cutting ever gained ground. It would be interesting to see whether SM would find itself at the losing end of the first successful protest against environment degradation in the country.
If angry Filipinos somehow manage to protest by emptying SM malls all over the country for one day, that would deliver a stronger message than any Earth Hour would.