Leap of faith leads to Benjamin Barker menswear label

SOMETIMES, a million-dollar business can be carved out from a bad situation.
Just ask Nelson Yap, the 34-year-old founder and managing director of homegrown menswear label Benjamin Barker.

Keen to pursue his passions in film and the creative arts, he enrolled in the University of Melbourne in 2002, majoring in cinematography and film production.

By all accounts, he had a good run Down Under.

“I did a lot of jobs, from being a cook, to a barista, to a courier and a photographer . . . I loved it,” Mr Yap tells The Business Times. “The culture, the people, are different.”

Upon graduation in 2005, he had planned to stay on in Australia to pursue a career in the creative industry or in advertising.

But fate had different designs. His father was diagnosed with terminal cancer; his family’s business, which sold discount suits on Telok Ayer Street, was mired in debt. For the self-professed creative, it was a brave new world.

“When I first came back to Singapore, I didn’t know how to run the business; it was a very tough time, and I had to give up my dreams of pursuing film as well. I fell into depression,” he recalls.

After two gruelling years, he managed to stem the losses and keep the business afloat. Chomping at the bit to be his own man, Mr Yap decided to take “a leap of faith” and establish a menswear label that he could call his own.

“You couldn’t really change much in a family business,” he says. “I felt that it was time to start my own business, so that I can implement my own ideas, and all that I’ve learnt from running the family business.

“At the same time, I went to see what were the other menswear brands around. There was G2000, there was Zara, and then you had the luxury brands – but nothing in between,” he adds. “I wanted to fill the gap, to provide quality, stylish clothing for the local physique without having customers pay a designer brand’s price tag.”

Drawing upon his faith (which he credits as being key to helping him combat his depression), Mr Yap took inspiration from the story of Benjamin in the Bible.

He says: “Barker was a type of tan of leather. I wanted to combine elements of my faith and what I knew, which was fashion, and out came Benjamin Barker.”

To finance the business, his mother remortgaged the family home and provided a S$100,000 loan to the budding entrepreneur, who started the first Benjamin Barker store in Marina Square in 2009.

In the first two years, he would personally man the store, handle the logistics, travel overseas to purchase fabrics and enlist his wife to be the sales staff on weekends.

Today, the menswear label has more than 60 employees, 12 outlets in Singapore and Melbourne and rings in more than S$10 million in revenue every year.

Yet, the then-fledgling brand’s journey could have ended before it had even taken flight.

“When I first started, it was end-2008, and I was looking for a store – but it was too expensive,” says Mr Yap. “It was 10 times the rent I used to pay for a warehouse or a shophouse.”

Eventually, he cast his sights on a 60 square metre space at Marina Square, and met the mall’s leasing department for “more than 10 times” to haggle over the proposed rent.

“In the end, I submitted a bid which was half of what they were asking. I thought to myself, ‘If it’s no, then it’s no, we will close (our) doors.’ Surprisingly, they accepted the bid, and we were able to open.”

Adds Mr Yap: “Then I realised it’s because of the economic crisis (in 2008), and that was my first lesson. You have to look for opportunities even in bad times.”

He took the advice to heart.

Originally, the menswear label was to have reached its limits of expansion in Singapore with eight stores, Mr Yap tells BT, so as to “preserve a sense of exclusivity”.

But opportunities arising from Singapore’s softening economy meant that the firm got the chance to move into the suburbs – Tampines, and then Jurong East, bringing its total store count to 10.

“If times are good, there’s no way we could have gone into them (the suburban malls), due to the massive human traffic,” says Mr Yap. “It’s a good time for retailers to negotiate rentals.”

And it was opportunity too, that led to the establishment of what Mr Yap considers to be a “deep passion” – a cafe.

When offered a sprawling space at The Cathay in 2014, he jumped at the chance, and along with his college roommate and the firm’s general manager, Damien Tan, he set up a 64-seater cafe, The Assembly Ground.

“It’s an extension of who we are. The cafe was a very natural choice for me, because my passion is in coffee – I worked as a barista in Melbourne, and I fell in love with the coffee culture there,” says Mr Yap. “Damien is the food guy; he spent time in Naples making pizza.”

When queried, he acknowledged that the firm “might be looking into” establishing more cafes, as he “loved the hustle and bustle of working in one”.

But for now, Mr Yap is focused squarely on expanding the menswear label overseas. The firm is set to open its third Australian store in a shopping centre in Doncaster, a suburb of Melbourne, by the end of the third quarter. “It’s where all the Asians are,” he quips.

Franchising within South-east Asia is another avenue of growth that the firm is exploring; last year, it tied up with enterprise development agency Spring Singapore to develop a robust franchise programme.

The firm expects to debut the programme by next year, says Mr Yap.

But despite his label’s successes so far, the sprightly entrepreneur maintains that “it’s just the beginning”.

“We still have a long way to go; we are like a baby still, and it’s just the start for now. We have built a platform, so now what? That’s exciting.” 

Read more about the 2016 winners here: Emerging Enterprise 2016

Read more about the 2017 finalists here: Emerging Enterprise 2017