Meet the Man Who Ditched Paris and Became a Retail Superstar

Steven Tan, chief operating officer of SM Supermalls, is living his dream job.
IMAGE Kai Huang

What’s the first thing you usually do when you wake up?

Keep abreast of the latest news and current events while having my morning cup of Bulletproof coffee.

What time do you head out to work?

8:30 a.m.

Do you entertain at home?

A lot! I love having friends over.

Dream dinner guests?

Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Elon Musk, and maybe Steve Jobs.

What periodicals do you read regularly?

Monocle. I am fascinated with the design and culture of other countries.

Any favorite websites?

None in particular. I browse online for ideas when I have the luxury of time.

What music is on your playlist?

It varies. Right now I am listening to old school Daft Punk. I wish they’d hold a concert in Manila.

Lunch today: Business or pleasure?

Business with pleasure.

Where? What’s on the menu?

China Blue at the Conrad Manila. I like chef Jereme Leung’s subtle interplay of flavors.

Favorite mealtime companions?

Mostly I have lunch with my team and we do a quick round of updates.

Fill in the blank: if you were not in the retail industry, you would be…

A furniture designer.

Walk us through a regular day at work.

On the road, I use the time to place work calls and check on our different SM malls. My day is structured as meetings are usually set a week in advance. But retail can be very up-to-the-minute so there is always room for flexibility if needed. I make sure to carve out some free time to just go out, see what is out there and learn. One cannot be an “armchair manager.” I go on mall rounds here and abroad. I like to travel and gain inspiration.


Today and every day I am grateful to God for the gift of life, family, friends, and work.

What do you find particularly meaningful in your role at SM Supermalls?

SM Supermalls is a big company and yet a small one as well, because people have ready access to anyone and everyone in the network. We are agile in that sense and try to cut the bureaucracy. The opportunity to work with a variety of people is a joy. I especially like dealing with the younger ones; their energy is infectious. The ability to teach young people and learn new ideas from them at the same time, to be in a position that allows that two-way dynamic is especially meaningful to me.

What has been your proudest moment thus far?

I have been with SM Supermalls for quite some time now and we have witnessed many milestones. Particularly memorable for me in the recent past was the opening of SM Aura Premier. SM Aura was a strategic move to evolve our offerings. Essentially, we are chameleons and we adapt to the community we are in. Seeing the tremendous potential of Bonifacio Global City, we decided to go for an upgraded tenancy. It has proven to work for us in attracting new markets. We have continued this strategy with the Mega Fashion Hall, a new wing in Megamall that is home to various global flagships.

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You almost ended up in Paris. Tell us about how you ended up working at SM.

I lived in Paris from 1997 to 1999 and took my MBA at Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris. Upon graduating, I returned to Manila to work for the Barcelo Hotel Group. Part of the assignment was to manage one of our properties, Taal Vista Hotel. My stint was almost over and I was headed back to Paris when I got a call from Tessie Sy-Coson. She’s a very persuasive woman and the rest is history.

Greatest breakthrough of your career?

Opening the Mall of Asia. I was the designated mall manager at that time and Mall of Asia was our massive landmark project. It was built on reclaimed land, in an area that was not central, the southernmost tip of EDSA, and on such an enormous scale. People thought we were crazy. It was sheer passion and vision that propelled us forward. It is true when they say, “no guts, no glory.” SM Mall of Asia was the one project that tested me the most. I am grateful for that experience.

What challenges you right now?

E-commerce is an interesting new development in the retail industry. You can look at it either as a challenge or an opportunity. We prefer to see it as the latter and there is definitely a way to harness e-commerce to complement brick and mortar.

Many people look up to you because you are one of SM’s youngest executives. Who do you look up to?

I look up to Mr. Henry Sy Sr. Just recently I was invited by the International Council of Shopping Centers to do a talk on disruption and I modeled it after Mr. Sy Sr. He is the chief disruptor—the innovator, the man who changed the face of retail to what it is today. In 1958 he started with a shoe store in Quiapo and today we have over 60 malls in the Philippines and seven in China. In 60 short years, he has changed the fate of SM. What an achievement!


What is your uniform of choice?

Stylish comfort. I am mostly on the go, so it must be something that takes me from day to night. But I also like a bit of whimsy. Let’s keep it fun.

What are your favorite clothing labels?

Thom Browne, a little bit of Gucci for color. Off-duty I like Vetements and OffWhite. I also like COS.

Favorite shoes?



Patek Philippe.

What scent are you wearing?

Tom Ford and Hermès. I like the woody earthiness of vetiver-based fragrances.

How do you keep in shape?

I have a personal trainer and we go on rounds every morning.

Any specific diet you follow?

Some days I do ketogenic. Definitely low carb, low sugar. But sometimes I am also on a seafood diet: “See food, eat food.” Haha.

Tell us about your family.

I am very close to my mother and my siblings.


What activities do you do with your family in order to bond?

We have weekly lunches. And if the opportunity comes up, we travel together.

The opportunity to work with a variety of people is a joy. I especially like dealing with the younger ones; their energy is infectious.

Favorite cities?

Paris will always be a sentimental favorite, just because I lived there for some time. I also like the cosmopolitan cities of New York, London, and Tokyo. In Asia, I enjoy Taiwan and Bangkok.

Heading anywhere soon?

I’ve made it a mandate to visit new places I haven’t been to. In the past years, I’ve been to South America, Reykjavik in Iceland, and soon I will be off to Russia and the Baltic states.

Favorite restaurants?

I’ve been fortunate to have tried Eleven Madison Park before it topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I like trying chef-driven restaurants but I’m happiest walking the street food markets of Taiwan for small bites. And restaurants serving excellent Chinese food are my go-to places.


Favorite cheap thrill?

A simple dinner and a night of horror movies, that’s my secret cheap thrill.

Conversely, what is your favorite splurge?

I don’t really splurge. I’d like to think that I’m a prudent shopper.

What would your last meal on earth be?

A whole bucket of fried chicken.

Any causes you advocate?

I’m passionate about the environment. As much as possible we look for ways to inject green into our malls. In SM Supermalls, we are very keen on keeping sustainable practices in our operations.

What do you do as soon as you get home?

I spend quality time with my loved ones.

Best decision of your life?

To join SM Supermalls! It was life-changing.

Biggest mistake of your life?

None so far. In life, you shouldn’t regret anything. If you do something wrong, at least you learn from it.

Pet peeves?


Values you appreciate most in a partner?

Honesty, transparency, joie de vivre!

Love of your life?

Always, always my mother. She is everything to me.

Where are you having dinner tonight?

I’m hosting dinner for friends.

What’s for dinner?

Definitely a serving of stories and laughter.

What else are you up to tonight?

Would it be funny to be completely honest and to say I will be panic-packing for my vacation?

What are you most grateful for today?

Today and every day I am grateful to God for the gift of life, family, friends, and work.

This story was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Town&Country.

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Manica C. Tiglao
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