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Going beyond sharp suits
A DECADE on from the leap of faith he took to launch Benjamin Barker in the middle of an economic downturn, founder and CEO Nelson Yap hasn't stopped dreaming. In fact, with plans to harness technology and embrace novel franchising models as the brand goes global, his ambitions for Benjamin Barker have only grown bigger and bolder.
"Our vision is to build a globally recognised lifestyle brand that is in retail, in F&B (food and beverage), and in hospitality even," says Mr Yap.
Significant strides have already been made to transform the home-grown menswear label - which will continue to be known for its classic and vintage-inspired suits and shirts tailored to the Asian gentleman's physique - into one that embodies a lifestyle.
Buying an experience
Ever since its 2009 debut on Singapore's sartorial scene in a quiet 60 square metre corner of Marina Square, and before Mr Yap knew the industry lingo for it, Benjamin Barker has been "designing its stores based on customer journeys, designing customer experiences".
Scale has enabled it to do more, he says. Automated scent dispensers fill its stores with customised fragrances, while interior décor - from oak panelling and brass accents, to vintage posters and fixtures such as vinyl record players - seek to evoke a different experience for those who enter.
"They're not just buying a shirt, but an experience. They buy a shirt that is inspired by travels. Whether it's functionality, or design, there's a global perspective woven in," explains Mr Yap.
Part of Benjamin Barker's journey from menswear label to lifestyle brand came about in response to the retail spaces it could find. "Ever since we moved into more youth-oriented locations, new demographics opened up to us too."
Hence, its multi-brand B store at The Cathay stocks everything from spiffy Benjamin Barker suits to ones with softer tailoring, and a selection of more casual international brands of T-shirts and accessories.
Expanding into F&B, meanwhile, was in part a pursuit of passion. Benjamin Barker's two cafes meld Mr Yap's own passion for coffee (he used to work as a barista) with chief operating officer Damien Tan's passion for good food (he learnt the art of pizza-making in Naples and used to run a pasta shop).
Building Benjamin Barker, the lifestyle brand, throws up numerous other possibilities, Mr Yap says. A barber shop for the modern man's grooming needs perhaps, or a space to host hands-on artisan workshops that facilitate the "immersive experiences" he wants the brand to be known for.
This, he puts down to his film-making background. A film graduate from the University of Melbourne, Mr Yap had intended to stay on in Melbourne to teach and make films. But, when his father fell ill with cancer, he decided to return to Singapore to help with the family's debt-saddled discount suit business instead. It was two years after his father died in 2007 that Mr Yap launched Benjamin Barker, in part an attempt to haul the family business out of debt.
"Films allow you to escape reality and immerse yourself in another place. That's also why we go on holidays, visit exotic places - to have a different experience from the day-to-day. That's what we want to offer our customers," he points out.
It is also why Mr Yap hopes to venture into hospitality. "It's about storytelling, inspiring and evoking emotions. I feel a hotel would encapsulate all of it: touch, tactile feel, the food, where one sleeps at night, the experience when one wakes," he adds.
Realistically though, starting a hotel is at least five years away. His focus for now is thus to harness technology to maximise growth while expanding the brand's global reach.
Countering retail headwinds
Growing that two-man outfit in 2009, to today's Benjamin Barker - which has more than 70 full-time employees, rakes in eight-figures in annual revenues, and has picked up business accolades such as the Enterprise 50 award - was not without its challenges.
It faces the same perennial woes Singapore's retailers lament - manpower shortages and rising retail rents.
"It's always hard to find good people in the service sector, especially when we want to provide service of a much-higher level," points out Mr Yap.
The company does invest heavily in training, and not just classroom training. "We invest in a one-to-one coach for every one of our service staff to help them to be more confident, more expressive," he shares.
But such investment only pays off when the persons invested in are teachable, humble and willing to learn. "And that's hard to find. Usually, foreigners are more motivated workers."
High retail rents are here to stay too, according to Mr Yap. He believes Singapore to be a great place for entrepreneurship. "That also means, there's no shortage of businesses sprouting up. So even in an economic downturn, rentals don't necessarily fall."
Benjamin Barker's strategy has been to be prudent in choosing store locations. Avoiding the most expensive prime locations and opening stores in adjacent areas instead has worked so far. "So, we're not in ION but we're at Wheelock Place. And we've worked hard from day one to create good products and provide good service so that growth is organic, by word of mouth."
Costs are also only one side of the equation. To grow its topline, the company has been investing in technology to integrate its systems from front-end point of sales to back-end purchasing, and deploy data analytics more effectively. "This has really helped our merchandisers and buyers to make more informed buys, and helped us in the last year, to grow up to 20 per cent just on buying better using data analytics," says Mr Yap.
Indeed, despite a challenging retail environment, Benjamin Barker has been able to adapt and innovate to remain relevant, says Lee Hwee Boon, managing director, head of middle market and services, global enterprise banking, OCBC Bank.
"Their focus on consistently delivering better design, service and experience, coupled with the use of technology to improve cost efficiencies, put them on a strong footing to become a well-recognised lifestyle brand," she adds.
Exceeding its initial target of opening eight stores locally, Benjamin Barker currently has 10 outlets across the island, with an 11th soon to open at the new Funan Mall. Along with its two F&B outlets, Mr Yap believes Benjamin Barker's Singapore footprint is quite complete and wants to take the brand global in a bigger way.
Franchising is Benjamin Barker's main mode of internationalising at present. Its two outlets - in Melbourne, Australia and Phnom Penh, Cambodia - are both run by franchisees, with the Cambodian franchisee set to open a second outlet this November.
The brand is also stocked at retailers abroad such as multi-label menswear boutique Pocket Square Clothing in Los Angeles in the United States, and Robinson's in Kuala Lumpur.
"Malaysia is definitely one country that we're focusing on," says Mr Yap, which is why the group opened its own store there in June. He also sees more Benjamin Barker shops opening in Australia.
And there is strong potential for growth via franchising in the South-east Asian markets too - Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Benjamin Barker has found success so far with traditional franchise arrangements in Australia and Cambodia. But in markets such as Indonesia and Thailand, which are more competitive, Mr Yap is prepared to embrace alternative franchising methods.
"Franchising has changed. When we go to our lawyers, they have a set template of how franchises are always done. But we've found that in this season, we are open to exploring different ways of doing franchising."
He cites the novel approaches taken by Chinese retailers. Instead of the traditional franchise fee, wholesale sales and royalty fees, for instance, one more innovative model involves allowing franchisees to open stores and sell stock that still belongs to the franchisor under a profit-sharing arrangement. This is unlike a joint venture, since there is no upfront cost to the franchisor other than putting clothes that he owns in a store that he does not, but the risks are shared.
Mr Yap is convinced that franchising is the way to go for Benjamin Barker. "It's always better for a local person to handle local operations. They understand their culture better. They understand the demographics better."
It is also best that such arrangements are demand-led, he feels. "It's harder for us to go out, fish for franchisees. It is when they come to our store, experience it, like the brand, that it all happens very organically."
A range of prospective franchisees - from China, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka - have come knocking on Benjamin Barker's doors over the years, but the company is choosing to work with mature, experienced retailers. "For now, that's our strategy because I don't think we have the capacity to handhold (newer franchisees)."
A similar principle applies with potential investors. One of the most exciting developments for Benjamin Barker this year is a partnership with an experienced, international retailer that it has recently secured.
That retailer will take a minority stake in Benjamin Barker, but Mr Yap says this was not about obtaining funding. "We don't really need the funds or investments to grow. For us, it was strategic: how can they help us to grow in the areas that we want to? That's what made them the right partner."
The new partner has a strong presence in the United Kingdom - where Benjamin Barker will strategically expand its e-commerce platform - and brings to the table experience in hotels too.
Which was a bonus given that a boutique hotel is one end-goal of the vision Mr Yap continues to pursue for Benjamin Barker - to be a lifestyle brand that is internationally known.