SUT_5_mainMr Yap believes that the earlier experience with his family business has taught him to be prudent now when managing Benjamin Barker. Photo: Chong Jun Liang

In the third part of a four-week series, three companies tell Aaron Tan how they expanded from humble beginnings to make their mark at home and overseas.

The Sunday Times
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September 20, 2015

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SINGAPORE menswear label Benjamin Barker is well known among fashion trendsetters for its affordable casual and business shirts and suits tailored for the Asian physique.

Yet, the label, founded by Mr Nelson Yap, materialised only after he took a leap of faith and joined the family business that sold discount suits. His father was very ill and the business was mired in debt.

Armed with a creative arts degree from the University of Melbourne, Mr Yap came home to turn around the family business. After two years learning the ropes, he took a loan of $100,000 to repay the debt and launched Benjamin Barker.

“We saw a gap between the luxury and mass market brands we could fill with Benjamin Barker,” Mr Yap says. “Unlike European brands, we offer shirts and suits with an Asian fit, which are more accessible to Singaporeans through competitive prices and quality.”

Mr Yap started with a small range of formal wear comprising mainly suits and leather shoes. Over the past six years, the company has expanded its collection to include casual menswear and accessories such as wallets, socks and hats.

Edgy and streetsmart

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To differentiate Benjamin Barker from the pack, Mr Yap took a leaf out of the retail scene in Melbourne, a city dotted with edgy-looking shops and street art. “We wanted our store to have more character, because if you want men to dress up, you need to present a streetwise image,” he says.

That image is evident at Benjamin Barker’s VivoCity outlet that has been decked out in a distinctly masculine, industrial style, complete with cement flooring, vintage cabinets and chrome racks.

Despite the store’s luxurious look, Mr Yap makes sure that every cent the company spends counts – a virtue that has stayed with him since he entered the fashion business.

“Coming from a family business faced with constraints has helped us to think out of the box and make full use of our resources. We are prudent and don’t splurge unnecessarily on things and the cost of everything we do has to be justified,” he says.

Mr Yap’s biggest setback came in 2011 when Suntec City Convention Centre was renovated.

Business at its Suntec City mall outlet, which depended a lot on the conference crowd, was hit hard when foot traffic fell by more than half.

Months later, Mr Yap was forced to pull out of Suntec when renovations started at the mall itself. “We lost the capital that went into renovating the Suntec store and we weren’t really sure if we could pull through,” Mr Yap says.

Serendipitous find

Forced to source for alternative sites for a new store, he found Orchard Cineleisure, which is popular with youth shoppers, to be a suitable location.

Mr Damien Tan, Benjamin Barker’s general manager who joined the company in 2013, says: “Today’s youth are willing to invest in looking good. Our high-quality products at accessible price points are attractive to discerning shoppers.”

Having reached his original goal of setting up eight stores in Singapore, Mr Yap has set his sights on expanding in the region, starting with the launch of a franchise development programme supported by Spring Singapore. Benjamin Barker is also opening a store in Melbourne next month.

“Over the years, we’ve had inquiries from customers from around the region who were interested in becoming our franchisees, but we weren’t ready,” he says, adding that the programme offers a set of technology tools, operational guidelines and marketing materials for franchisees to bring Benjamin Barker to local markets.

Mr Tan, who was Mr Yap’s university roommate, says: “We worked with a consultant to map out the programme, which was ready within three months.

“It’s the only way for us to scale up without incurring additional manpower costs. We are in talks with a couple of franchisees, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

For more information on the retail sector and stories on how retailers have built their capabilities, please visit www.spring.gov.sg/retail or email lifestyle_division@spring.gov.sg.