Sub: Suyen Corporation VP for business development Bryan Lim doesn’t think about succession. His priority is to make a mark in the family company founded by his uncle, Ben Chan
By Marge C. Enriquez
Retail scion Bryan Lim is self-effacing, shy, and a man of few words. Yet, before the pandemic, he was the most visible among his siblings at special events hosted by brands under Suyen Corporation, including its flagship, Bench.
Although he seems to be the “next in line,” the 47-year-old vice president for business development demurs. He explains that Suyen is like a family, headed by his uncle, founder and chairman Ben Chan, with his parents, Virgilio (Suyen president) and Nenita (vice president for finance) Lim, by Chan’s side.
“Suyen is Uncle Ben, Migs (Miguel Pastor, head architect), my parents, my sisters, myself, and the employees who make up the family. We siblings don’t think about succession in business. Our priority is to play our roles as best as we can and make a contribution to the company,” he says.
If Suyen Corporation were a boat, his uncle and parents would be the steering oar and the rudders, respectively, while he and his sisters—45-year-old Christine, vice president for marketing and merchandising, and 34-year-old Suyen, brand manager—were the sails. (Suyen was born in 1987, which coincided with the launch of Bench. Hence, the name of the lifestyle company.)
Driven by the spirit of egalitarianism, which espouses teamwork and cooperation, Lim chucks the “I” for “we” throughout the interview.
“We call our teams and colleagues as Bench Family. You hear that often in the office. People have a sense of belonging as in a family. The culture can be competitive but it’s engaging. At the end of the day, we have a united goal. I don’t see any envy among us. Our relationships are straightforward. We understand each other. Our parents and uncle have laid a solid foundation of unity through leading by example, ” says Lim.
Lemon juice stand
Growing up in a close-knit family that often discussed retail with passion, Lim knew that he would inevitably join Suyen Corporation.
“The topic of entrepreneurship would always crop up in our conversations. Our parents would talk about competition, etc.,” he says. “We saw how hardworking our parents were. After a full day of work at the office, they would visit the malls to check on the stores. Before the pandemic, they spent their weekends there.”
During summer holidays from Xavier and De La Salle University, he immersed himself in Suyen’s office, learning the back end of the job, and worked at the stores as a salesperson or assistant at the counter.
After acquiring a degree in industrial engineering, Lim joined Suyen in the merchandising and product development departments in the mid-’90s. “We’d be talking to suppliers. Uncle Ben and Mom would ask you to develop products. You get to see how it sells or what doesn’t sell well. It’s like having your lemon juice stand,” he says.
It was a learning experience for a rookie in merchandising, a job that determines the appearance and supply of products in a store. A common mistake was to make too many orders for an item that didn’t sell well.
When he was tasked to develop undergarments, he recalls, “I thought men were still using jock straps or athletic supporters. Not any more. We substituted with compression shorts.”
Given his talent for seeing things objectively and for solving problems efficiently, Lim was promoted to head of business development. The position entails looking for new opportunities, brands, and business ventures. He meets up with principals, negotiates the contracts, oversees the execution of concepts until the store opening, and also looks into investments.
During the series of lockdowns, the company focused on strengthening its food brands by exploring new concepts and weeding out the underperforming ones. “In food, it was a plus or minus game. You push for the plus. We looked for ways to penetrate new markets,” says Lim.
Responding to the times
In pre-Covid family trips, Lim observed how his parents kept their ears to ground for trends and new products that could be launched in the Philippines. “That trait influenced me deeply,” he says.
Lim also credits Chan, whose thinking-out-of-the-box mentality greatly bore upon him. “You learn to think ahead and find innovations. I observed how Uncle Ben used his instincts and gut feel when making business decisions. At a certain point, you get to imbibe what he and my parents do. We saw the collaboration between our uncle and our parents. We likewise learned to have a collaborative relationship among us siblings. Still, everything is coursed through Uncle Ben, who has the final say.”
Suyen Corporation was thriving and basking in the media limelight, until the effects of the pandemic pushed the company against the wall. Yet it found ways to be resilient. As in most retail companies, e-commerce was enhanced. Lim notes that before the pandemic, it was challenging to determine the market’s reactions. E-commerce allowed the brands to quantify the market preferences. “You get to understand that it’s similar to shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. Like the store, the site must have visual appeal and the shopping tends to be on impulse. Before it was a grab from the rack. Now it’s just a click,” he says.
Bench responded to the shortage of alcohol by expanding Alcogel, its line of sanitizing products, which includes a handy disinfection spray. The work-from-home lifestyle has increased the demand for slippers and athleisure wear. The pandemic became an opportunity to introduce the sustainably produced line of basics, Better Made.
It was likewise a good time to venture into the medical field. The viral contagion and requirements for travel and work hiked up the demand for more labs conducting the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Suyen teamed up with doctors to set up its first testing lab, PCR MED, Inc. on Edison Street in Makati. The lab was convenient for Suyen Corporation employees who displayed Covid-19 symptoms.
“We are in a business where the members of the in-store team are the front-liners. It helps us determine if they are safe or not so we can easily adapt,” says Lim.
Surrounded by manpower agencies, the lab has been attracting many seafarers who need a negative result of the RT-PCR test before they can travel. Plans are afoot to add diagnostics tests as requested by its market.
“The lab has opened up new areas where we can be of help to other people,” he says.
The biggest challenge has been the survival of the brands and the people.
“You want to see continuity. You try to think ahead on how to maximize the opportunities where your people can grow with you while keeping an eye on your finances and resources. In store operations, you make sure you’re not spending more than what you are earning. Fortunately, our landlords gave the tenants rental breaks. Since the demand has decreased in this pandemic, you have to be prudent in managing inventory.”
Lim cites Aldo, an international fashion shoe label, which was popular among fashionistas before Covid. “Because less people go to the office now, there’s not much demand for shoes. How do you push the inventory so that you don’t get stuck with them?” He notes that sales gradually improved when restrictions eased and customers felt optimistic.
He says they also have to be prudent about retail markdown, the decrease in price because of its inability to sell for its original tag, and how it could impact the gross margins. Yet it is also a necessary tool to sell the stock before the next season’s collection arrives.
“You don’t want to have too many stocks,” he says. Another strategy is to offer the products in other online platforms in a more attractive way.
He adds that to work efficiently with reduced manpower, the people adapted to rotational shifts.
Some of Suyen’s companies have been luckier than others. The Bench Skin Expert aesthetic clinics have been experiencing steady business from the non-invasive procedures. With 70 salons, Bench Fix had to trim down its staffers because of government restrictions in operational capacity. Others employees returned to their home provinces to look for better opportunities.
Despite the setbacks wrought by the pandemic, Lim maintains that the company will continue to do what it does best.
“Suyen Corporation made a name by providing good design with good prices for our consumers. Now more than ever, this has become an important value for them. Moving forward, this is a commitment that we take to heart whether in providing the best haircut for the best price to offering the best quality of Italian hand-made furniture. These can be availed in ways that are safe, efficient, and seamless.”