Giving hope to traditional businesses

Bynd Artisan, winner of STB's Best Shopping Experience award this year, also wants to embolden a new generation of entrepreneurs.

STEP into Bynd Artisan's new atelier at Raffles City and what greets you is their signature display of rainbow-coloured paper and customised notebooks, stacked fastidiously alongside well-crafted leather goods. But look further, and you'll notice exhibits that harken back to the brand's rich heritage since the 1940s.

Essentially, Bynd Artisan is a "reinterpretation of my grandfather's business", says co-founder Winnie Chan, who started the company with her husband, James Quan, in October 2014. The company's logo, comprising three open books, is a reference to her being the third-generation of her family's business, Grandluxe - a manufacturer of stationery and leather accessories.

Bynd Artisan came about as Ms Chan wanted to revive craftsmanship in a way that would reach out to the younger generation. She notes that diversification was necessary as functional products that Grandluxe produced, such as account books, had been superseded by technology.

When Grandluxe moved its factory to Malaysia and retrenched some older production workers, Ms Chan roped some of them in to join her new business. Her foresight proved worthy and with re-training, the elderly workers soon adapted. Today, they even serve as "poster boys and girls" for the company.

Amalgamation of old and new

Mr Quan says: "I think it's important that they have people understand that they're not just a warm body, that they do have skills, and have transformed themselves because they want people to appreciate what they're doing."

He vouches that retirees are a core group of people that businesses should leverage. One such master craftsman at Bynd Artisan is Chong Beng Cheng, a sprightly 74-year-old who joked about his age being 47 instead. Including his days in Grandluxe, Mr Chong has been with the family business for over 30 years. Now, he devotes his time to conducting workshops and imparting skills to younger employees such as Chang Yuen Lyn, 21. Ms Chang says that working at Bynd Artisan is akin to working with family.

Creating a positive work culture has been effective and co-founder Ms Chan says that being responsible for her staff gives her a sense of purpose. The firm's egalitarian working environment keeps employees happy, which translates to greater revenue and recognition - Bynd Artisan bagged Singapore Tourism Board's Best Shopping Experience award this year, while sales tripled between 2014 to 2016.

The firm is targeting another 30 per cent increase in sales annually. Both founders see the potential for growth and are game to put in the extra hours to attain their goals.

With its brick-and-mortar stores established, the firm is shifting its focus to augmenting its digital prowess. Ms Chan says that 50 per cent of their business is derived from corporate clients, while 40 per cent is retail-based. The rest comes from their webstore and workshops, ranging from calligraphy to leather crafting. To expand on this last segment, a revamp of their website is underway, expedited by a grant from Spring Singapore.

Interestingly, Mr Quan reveals that while e-commerce was already the buzz a few years ago, the company did not dive immediately into it.

"We realised that if we had gone the e-commerce way from the beginning, then maybe people won't want to come in to experience. At the end of the day, I think we're a big proponent of the omnichannel business," he says.

As the company scales, more craftsmen will be needed and the company is exploring a scheduling app which employees can use to clock in their hours. In the words of Ms Chan, "we're old school, but we want to make use of technology".

In fact, even the interior design of their new atelier was influenced by social media. Ms Chan says that the intent was to "make every corner of the store as instagrammable as possible". She explains that when pretty pictures are tagged along with the company, word-of-mouth advertising ensues.

Challenges and innovation

However, as the company expands, a key challenge is maintaining high service standards. Ms Chan says that the firm attracts many applicants, but more remains to be done about the mindset of Singaporeans, as there seems to remain a stigma attached to working in the service industry.

She adds that ultimately, employees need to be customer-centric, which is why she hires based on "heart", more so than paper qualifications. "I think I hire people who buy in to our vision . . . (because) only then you know that in non-standard situations, they'd react how you'd react."

Another conundrum is to constantly improve and attract customers - "coming up with the next killer product", Ms Chan calls it. One way Bynd Artisan continues to excite customers is through collaborating with designers spanning diverse fields.

Their most recent partnership with local industrial designer Olivia Lee is a collection entitled "Books of Life" that applies traditional leather bookbinding methods in ways that imbue new meaning to books.

Similarly, 5stones, a dessert collection with one-Michelin star restaurant Iggy's, taps that nostalgic factor the brand is intertwined with. Both founders say that establishing collaborations have taught them tenacity, and given them new insights when designers challenge their methodologies.

Asked how Bynd Artisan ensures business sustainability, Ms Chan notes that continual innovation is of paramount importance.

"We're always open to new ideas. That only happens when you're out there, talking to other business owners and going for seminars to know what's trending," she says. Mr Quan adds that forward thinking helps too - as soon as he delivers products to corporate clients, he's thinking about new offerings one year ahead.

Future plans

And true to their brand ethos - "Something's worth sharing" - Ms Chan says she has no qualms sharing how the business has successfully reinvented itself. "I think that's the mindset that future business owners should have. The old typical towkay-type is to hold on to everything. But I think if you're really afraid of someone coming in to replicate you, that's when you stop innovating."

Bynd Artisan's partnership with Pedder Group - which owns luxury department store Lane Crawford - has led it to expand overseas to Hong Kong, paving the way for future tie-ups in Shanghai and Chengdu.

Beyond Asia, the company is now in the final stages of discussion to set up shop in the Middle East, starting with Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Both founders are confident that the brand would do well as people there are very "big on gifts", they say. Additionally, staffing will be handled by a local partner, which means they wouldn't have to worry about losing manpower in Singapore.

Bynd Artisan believes its local branding will stand them in good stead, given Singapore's good reputation. Mr Quan hopes that Bynd Artisan's success gives hope to those in traditional businesses and emboldens a new generation of entrepreneurs.

Speaking of the next generation, Ms Chan's daughter, Vera, a second year student at the Singapore Management University, has expressed interest to join the family business.

However, both Ms Chan and her husband would prefer that she not join them fresh out of university. Being in a family business is no easy feat as employees might not dare to teach family members, shares Ms Chan. This was also her personal experience.

Mr Quan says: "It's very difficult to teach your own children, and we may not be the best teachers. So if I had a choice, I'd want her to do something outside, to learn from somebody first, before making the decision to join us, if she wants to."

He adds that the same applies to their son, Josh, a year-five student at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), and says that their children have been willing to help whenever the business required.

Mr Quan concludes: "Many people have said there's no such thing as a sunset industry, only a sunset business. I think it's nice to be a flagbearer for the Singapore brand. We may not be the biggest, but we're one of the newly created Singapore brands that hope to inspire the current generation."