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The French side of Steven Tan

By MILLET M. MANANQUIL, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 06, 2023 5:00 am

There is something not many people know about Steven Tan.

Steven Tan is well-known in the corporate world and the retail industry as the president of SM Supermalls. 

He oversees SM’s 94 malls—85 in the Philippines and nine in China. He carries forward the goals set by SM’s visionary founder Henry Sy Sr. in 1958.

Tan has received many awards and when applauded for his leadership skills, he humbly says: “We are simply people helping other people, and giving back to the community has always been a part of SM’s mission and DNA.” This was part of his speech at the ASEAN CEO Awards.

His latest award is something that makes his heart skip a beat, something reaped from his previous life—the French fragment of his life, which brings back nostalgic memories.

Empowering women: French actress Emmanuelle Beart with SM Supermalls’ president Steven Tan

Tan received a French Alumni Achievement Award as “a sterling product of France’s education excellence, the diversity and fruitfulness of French academic credentials and the cross-cultural exposure.” The awards were initiated during the 75th anniversary of Philippine-French diplomatic relations last year.

French Ambassador Marie Fontanel, and Cameleon Association founder Laurence Ligier

The awards were given by the French Ambassador to the Philippines Marie Fontanel to Tan and three other French-educated achievers: film historian Nick Deocampo (Atelier du Formation Au Cinema), Balai Palma chef Aaron Isip (Le Cordon Bleu), Design Center of the Philippines’ executive director Rhea Matute (Master’s in International Brand Luxury Management at ESSEX in Paris).

Tan took his Master’s in Business Administration at the Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Paris.

Steven looking very French in a Saint Laurent jacket

In a private interview after the awards night, Tan talked about his French experience.

“I lived in Paris for two years and to this day I count it among the best years of my life. I stayed at 16th arrondissement at the Right Bank. It suited me well because it was near Place de Passy, home to the best market, and Bois de Boulogne, a wooded park with hiking trails.

French alumni achievers: Nick Deocampo of the University of the Philippines (UP) Film Institute, internationally recognized Balai Palma chef Aaron Isip, Design Center of the Philippines executive director Rhea Matute, Emmanuelle Béart, Steven Tan, Ambassador Marie Fontanel, Makati City Mayor Abigail Binay, and Embassy of France counsellor for cooperation and cultural affairs Marc Piton

“I always had—and continue to have—an enduring fascination and love affair with Paris. I consider it a great privilege to have studied in Paris because it forever changed my perspective in life. It remains, to my mind, my beacon of culture, art, sophistication, and raffinement. My time in Paris opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of life.”

No, I am a student of the world. I take in learnings where I can find them. The eye must travel, the soul must be fed. Imbibe the sights and sounds, take in the good and bring it home for others to experience. That’s what I do.

A very determined and goal-oriented person, the young Tan dreamed of studying in Paris, “so that even as a first jobber in Taipei, I made sure to squeeze in French lessons at Alliance Française.” Tan was a hotelier in Taipei and China in the 1990s.

It was in 2004 when Tan joined SM, working on the opening of Podium. When SM was building the Mega Fashion Hall, Mall of Asia and Aura Premier, Tan lent his work ethic and creative input wherein his Parisian experience served him well.

(Standing, from left) L’Oreal Philippines managing director Yannick Raynaud, Steven Tan, Philippine Airlines president and chief operating officer Stanley Ng, French Embassy’s Mr. and Mrs. Remy Tirouttouvarayane; (Seated, from left) Mr. and Mrs. Roger Ferrari, Philippe Gauthier, Hubert D’Aboville and Aracelli D’Aboville.

“Shopping in Paris is pure pleasure. From antiquing in the Clignancourt market to the local artisan shops in Le Marais. A must-visit there is L’Eclaireur Sevigne, a stockist with beautiful curation of wares. I discovered Thom Browne in Colette in the late ’90s and I am so sad to see Colette go. Le Bon Marché is a firm stop in my shopping itinerary.”

Tan confesses: “I am a born shopper. I remember asking for a denim jacket instead of toys for my birthday when I was in kindergarten.”

Damien and Marjorie Huppert

You see the French side of Steven Tan as he walks tall, a naturally elegant man with a distinct air of refinement. “Paris taught me how to live, simply but with your own personal flair. For example, in fashion, it’s not about the brand you’re wearing, but how it captures your own style. Paris for me is an appreciation for what’s truly beautiful and elevating and seeing past the immediate superficiality of things. I always carry this attitude with me.”

Paris played a big part in opening his eyes to appreciation of the arts and culture. “But honestly, it’s all about opening yourself up to new ideas and persuasions, regardless of where you currently are,” Tan adds.

Chichi Laperal

He is a well-traveled person, and when I tell him that he is a citizen of the world, he replies with humility: “No, I am a student of the world. I take in learnings where I can find them. The eye must travel, the soul must be fed. Imbibe the sights and sounds, take in the good and bring it home for others to experience. That’s what I do.”

Tan goes every month to China where SM has nine malls. “We will open one new mall each year starting 2024 for the next three years. We opened the first mall in 2001 in Xiamen, Fujian, the home province of Tatang (Henry Sy. Sr.).

Cesar Montano, Emmanuelle Beart, and Film Development Council of the Philippines chairperson Tirso Cruz III

Revisiting Paris every year is something that Tan never fails to do. “When I am there, I like to fully immerse myself in everyday Parisian life. I like strolling and stumbling upon pocket gardens and small museums. I shy away from crowded, touristy spots and prefer quieter spaces like the modernistic Park Citroen and Musée Picasso. I like to unwind at Canal Saint Martin with quaint café restaurants flanking the quaint watersides.”

Being president of SM Supermalls is no walk in the park, especially for Tan, who is a 24/7 workaholic. Once, I teased him that he is very French indeed, for he often does French exits during socials. Obviously there are work-related socials and events he must attend. But Tan has a lot of homework to finish, mall concerns to attend to, even at night. Plus, this no-nonsense executive’s working day starts early in the morning.

Embassy of France cultural attaché Martin Macalintal

In this digital age, malls are stronger than ever in the Philippines, where malling is already part of our culture. Malls are places for shopping, eating, playing, praying, bonding with family and friends. SM has redefined malls to mean places where you can file your income taxes, renew your passport, and now, even register or vote in elections. The brick-and-mortar side of retailing is here to stay. If you see a dashing guy in a hurry in SM Malls who bears a resemblance to Chinese superstar Dylan Wang (especially in Only for Love, where Dylan is a bespectacled company president), that would be Steven Tan.

Celebrating courage and hope

The awarding, held at Lanson Place in SM MOA, was part of the Charity Gala Dinner hosted by the Embassy of France and SM during the 26th French Film Festival week showing 20 films at SM Megamall and SM MOA cinemas.

Karen Davila: No to violence against women

Held in observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Children, the festival had French cinema icon Emmanuelle Beart (Mission: Impossible), as guest of honor.

A victim of incest in her youth, Beart confronts her reality with that of other victims in her documentary Un Silence Si Bruyant (Such a Resounding Silence), which was shown during the festival. Beart hopes this will help give a voice to more women to have the courage to speak up, move forward, and rebuild their lives.

Cirquera de Cameleon: Soaring high for healing

The gala also aimed to raise awareness and support for the Cameleon Association, an organization founded by Laurence Ligier, who has worked the past 26 years for the protection and healing of young female survivors of violence and abuse. It was touching to hear some of the girls talk about “the monster” that destroyed their lives. And see them perform acrobatic artistry, which they learned as part of their healing process.

The audience, which became teary-eyed, included SM Hotels president Elizabeth Sy and Makati Mayor Abigail Binay seated with Ambassador Fontanel, Beart, Ligier, and Tan.

SM Hotels and Conventions Corporation president and chairman Elizabeth Sy

Awards for Filipino achievers who immersed themselves in French education. A French iconic actress championing the cause of abused women. A French woman crusading for young girls victimized by violence. That night when we saw the French side of SM Supermalls president Steven Tan, we were moved. We had it all—pride and glory, courage and hope.

“Women’s welfare will always be championed by SM,” says Tan. “About 65% of SM employees are women. And 60% of SM executives are women.”

Tan adds that he grew up in a home of strong women—his sisters and his mother.

And now, he says he works, inspired by iconic women like Tessie Sy Coson. 

When Emmanuelle Beart visited SM Supermalls for the French Film Festival, “I felt we had an instant connection,” says Tan. Not only because they talked about the City of Lights. There were more enlightening matters to discuss.