SME Spotlight

Good fit for menswear label

Helping people look and feel good is still an extremely lucrative market. This week, Jose Hong speaks to Mr Nelson Yap, the 33-year-old founder and creative director of Benjamin Barker, about how he has carved out a niche for himself in this competitive market - and how his company is now expanding overseas.

Having opened eight stores in Singapore, Benjamin Barker has reached the limits of its expansion in the country, says founder and creative director Nelson Yap, who is opening two stores in Melbourne next month.
Having opened eight stores in Singapore, Benjamin Barker has reached the limits of its expansion in the country, says founder and creative director Nelson Yap, who is opening two stores in Melbourne next month. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Q What does Benjamin Barker do?

A We are a full menswear brand, but our core product is shirts. We have very creative detailing with character and a story. It's something to look at without being flamboyant. Essentially, we are selling an aspiring and exclusive lifestyle.

Q How did it all start?

A I studied film in Melbourne around 2005. My parents had a garment business selling discounted suits in a warehouse when my dad got terminal cancer. When I finished my degree, I was called back to Singapore to help with the business. We had incurred a lot of debt and I worked in (the business) for two years and turned it around.

There are a lot of constraints in a family business, and that's when I decided that if I wanted to do something different, I would have to do my own business.

Q What was the push for Benjamin Barker?

A When Benjamin Barker started in 2009, there were not a lot of menswear options in Singapore. A lot of the suits didn't fit the local physique, so when we began we were just very focused on getting the right tailored fit.

At the same time, we brought in a better variety of colours. Coming from Melbourne where people would wear pink, purple, orange and red, we delivered a palette of different colours for executives. This slowly evolved as we got feedback that our customers wanted more casual wear.

Q What was your greatest challenge when you first started out?

A Getting into malls. Space in Singapore is so limited so landlords know that they have commanding power for rental. When we tried to expand, we spoke with 20 to 30 malls in Singapore and got a lot of closed doors.

Q How have the challenges changed for you now?

A Now that I have eight stores, every decision you make is crucial for what's next for the company. At first I reacted, now I direct.

There are also lots of opportunities out there, so the challenge is to discern what to say no to and not to be distracted by all the opportunities that come about.

Q Are there other challenges specific to Singapore?

A In Singapore, rental and manpower are the two biggest challenges. We find that many locals don't want to work in service. Finding the right people who are passionate about service and keeping them are difficult.

Q How do you solve this?

A By giving employees a vision for the company and by creating a culture where we celebrate their achievements. They know that the company is there to empower them. We're like a family where no one is being left out.

Q How big is your company?

A We have grown to eight stores in Singapore, with two stores opening in Melbourne next month.

We have over 60 employees and have a turnover of about $10 million. My business partner is exploring franchising in Asia.

Q Why are you planning to expand to Australia?

A Originally, the Benjamin Barker brand is from Australia. We registered in Australia, and the conception and DNA of the brand are part of the experiences and lifestyle my business partner and I had there.

In Singapore, we've reached the limits of our expansion and don't want to overcrowd the market. We knew we had to start looking out and that's when we created a new line for the international market.

Melbourne has also become very vibrant and the exchange rate is so good, so we believe it's the best time to go in.

Q Which government bodies are helping you and how?

A We work with International Enterprise Singapore and Spring Singapore. IE Singapore has taken us on mission trips to different countries like Thailand and Indonesia to help us market to them.

Spring Singapore helps us to develop the productivity and the right systems for our company to be able to market it overseas.

Q Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs?

A The first few years are definitely the toughest, and it is very important to get involved in every aspect of your business and not be afraid of getting your hands dirty.

In my first two years, I was working on the floor and personally interacted with the customers.

Empathy is very important, especially when working with your staff. If you understand them and their challenges well, you'll be able to help them resolve difficulties they have or may have brought along from previous employment.

Telling someone they're wrong doesn't solve the problem. A lot of it is understanding why they do things a certain way. When you find the root of the problem through empathy, you can solve the problem.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline Benjamin Barker founder Nelson Yap's advice for budding entrepreneurs. Subscribe