Work like you own it–SM’s COO Steven Tan

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(Source: Manila Bulletin | February 18, 2018)

Steven Tan was in a movie theater when he got a call, which he’ll never forget, from a woman, offering him a job. The woman was Tessie Sy-Coson, vice chair of SM Investments Corporation. “It was beyond ordinary that someone like Tessie, a tycoon, part of a family that’s one of Asia’s richest, made the call herself. She didn’t even ask her secretary to do it,” he said. “I was watching a movie. My phone rang and I remember thinking: ‘I wonder who this is.’ When I picked it up, I was surprised!” Tessie asked him, “When can you see me?” To which he replied, “Anytime!” Steven’s meeting with Tessie the next morning would become the start of his journey with SM—back then as a manager of the company’s smallest mall, and now as the COO, who handles a total of 75 malls, 67 in the country and eight in China.

“When I was just starting to work with SM, I never had the ‘I want to be the president, or the COO, or the CEO of the company’ thoughts on my mind. I was always focused on the task given to me,” he said. “I was just thinking of Podium. How can I make it work?” For Steven, putting your heart into what you do is enough for others to see your passion, and when you follow this practice, you’ll realize that the sky’s the limit.

“Thirteen years ago, I was asked to handle the smallest mall in our company, and then all of a sudden, I was asked to build and man the biggest mall in the country, or in the continent, which was the SM Mall of Asia,” he said. “At first, it was a daunting task. I wasn’t even asked if I wanted to do it. Before Mall of Asia opened, there was nothing in the area, just a church across where Conrad is now. It was an empty, grassy plain.” But what cancelled out all the ambivalence, for Steven, was his belief in the vision of Henry Sy. “I believe in him, in Mr. Sy, in Tessie, in this company. So I just put my heart into it, like I always did,” he said. “Learning from them is even better than going to an MBA school. It’s really priceless. No other company can match the quality of the relationship this family gives to me.”

Now that he’s the COO of SM Supermalls, Steven aligns his vision with that of Henry Sy’s: to elevate the shopping experience. “What we have done in the last five years, I would say, is to put lifestyle into the shopping culture,” he said. “We invited a lot of global brands while also making local brands more competitive. When the big brands came in, the Bench Group or the Penshoppe Group didn’t just sit and let the giants take over—they stepped up and became global as well. All of our other tenants also tried their best to really improve to be able to compete globally. When I first joined SM, I remember what came to mind when talking about dining in our malls was fastfood, and there’s nothing wrong about that, we all love it fast and quick and affordable, but today, the conversation is bigger. We now have a diverse selection of restaurants and dining joints. To expand the shopping experience, that is the vision, and it will always be.”

In one of his past interviews, when he was still senior vice president of SM Supermalls, Steven shared that he ate pressure for breakfast. “And I still do,” he said. “I think it’s because of my character. If there’s something I want to do, or if I am tasked to do it, I really make sure it’s done well. If I know I didn’t do it well enough, I couldn’t sleep.” Steven treats the business as if it is his own. He often tells everyone under him to work like an owner, but never act like one. For him, putting pressure in yourself is necessary for success.

“As the COO, I really watch the numbers and the little details. I have the files of all the 67 malls across the country, I know everything—who’s doing well and who needs improvement. And I know them by heart,” he said. “It’s important to look at the files and numbers because it reflects how the managers are running the malls. With 67 scattered around the country and eight in China, it’s impossible for me to visit all of them regularly. The numbers are my best guide to determine how the malls are managed.”

Aside from keeping tabs of the numbers, Steven believes that it is a must to stay innovative and young. “With this kind of job, you can never think that you’re growing old. Old is not in my vocabulary,” he said. “You have to stay young and relevant. Because let’s face it, the malling and shopping culture is all about the young and the new. People get excited over new things. The mall will never run out of young people in their 20s or 30s and, as a COO, you have to know what’s going on in the market. What’s fresh, what’s uso (trendy), and what’s not.”

This is why when Steven travels, for business or even personal purposes, he’s always on the lookout for new things. “When I’m in a foreign country I always end up in malls. I really enjoy being inspired. I always end up inside new restaurants, learning new things, which I can bring to the Philippines.” If there’s one thing Steven enjoys, it is innovating and developing.

“The main goal of running malls is making sure that it is productive, to deliver what we have committed to the companies, the tenants, and the public,” he said. “Our job is all about making sure that the malls remain interesting to everyone. There will always be newer malls and competitors will always come up with something unique. What’s important, however, is staying relevant. To constantly innovate, to create better marketing concepts, and to achieve those, you will need more than sheer luck. It will involve a lot of planning and hard work.”

With such a huge task in his hand, Steven sees to it that he manages his time well, and makes sure every minute is spent productively. “I’m an early riser. I wake up as early as 6 a.m. and the first thing I do is to check my phone,” he said. “In case a question or concern has been texted to me.” And as early as 6 a.m. or as late as midnight, work essentially starts, or never ends, for Steven. If something happens to one of the tenants, like a broken sprinkler or a fire, he is contacted directly. “Some, if urgent, would even call in the middle of the night, I’ll pick up and give them advice on how to go about it. The next morning, I’ll look into it myself. After checking my messages, I read the newspaper.” He’s always on the grind, and not just for the job. “Then I’ll hit the gym for a quick workout, which for me is the most important part of the day. From Monday to Friday, every week, at 7 a.m., I’m in the gym. I don’t feel good when I don’t work out, it helps me focus. Others feel tired after working out. For me, it’s the opposite. I am pumped after a good work out,” he said. After working out, when he has a clearer mind, he officially clocks in for work. “When I arrive at the office at Mall of Asia, I try to accomplish everything that needs to be done within the day, all that needs to be signed, reviewed, and approved,” he said “And If I still have extra time, toward the end of the day, I make an effort to visit a mall, or two, or three.”


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