(Millet Manangquil) I have many favorite images of Ben Chan on my mind.
One is a scene I still vividly remember when his mother died in 2003.There, in a vast airy memorial garden just before her burial, the silence of sadness was broken only by the shrill cry of a chicken from which blood was being drawn—a symbolic funeral rite. I looked at the face of Ben, and I saw his saddest face ever, his eyes moist with pain.This is a man filled with filial piety and love.
In stark contrast, I remember a funny Ben Chan trying to keep his balance atop a camel in Egypt in 2005, wearing a silly hat just like the rest of us newsgirls out for a zany photo-op with the great pyramid in the background. It was the same ever-smiling Ben that would laugh with us everytime we found something amusing among the ruins of temples and the pharaohs’ tombs. This is a man who cannot live without laughter.
But my favorite picture of Ben—yes, it is a photograph— is one where he wears long hair, yeah, yeah. a la Beatles, standing by the display window of Mitsukoshi Department Store in Osaka, looking hip in his bell-bottom pants. ”When I came back from studies in the US, my hair was even longer, up to the shoulders. The first thing that my brother Carlos did was to send me to HongKong and then Osaka for a year-long training under his Japanese friend who owned a steel company. My Japanese boss brought me to a salon for a hair cut, and on to a tailoring shop for my first business suit,” recalls Ben. It was surely love at first cut for Ben who has since returned regularly to Japan, one of his style meccas. This is a man with a flair and passion for fashion.
When people think of Ben Chan, they think of his fashion retailing stores, his giant billboards featuring the country’s sexiest stars, and his much-awaited Bench extravaganza. But once, I asked Willie Revillame over dinner at Ben’s house about his thoughts on the man. Willie said: “When I think of Ben Chan, I see a man seated on a bench. And as he sits,his feet are firmly planted on the ground. Nasa lupa ang paa.” The man’s humility is so huge it will humble you.
Ben Chan at one of his 60 Bench shops in China: “My mantra for work is taken from the words of Jonathan Swift — ‘Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.’”
Over a plate of Oishi vegetarian chicharon, we decided to ask Ben Chan about the filial piety and love, the laughter, the passion for fashion,and the humility that define him and make him a billboard-worthy icon:
THE PHILIPPINE STAR: The ‘70s is obviously your favorite decade. Why?
BEN CHAN: The ‘70s definitely! This was a memorable time for me because this was when I traveled alone to study in San Francisco. I was definitely culture shocked because everything there was different from my traditional Chinese upbringing. I met a whole lot of new friends. I was so carefree and didn’t care much about the future. I was living by the day. It was probably what I can call my age of exploration. The ‘70s was my heyday!
From that decade, I can guess your favorite singers, bands, songs, movies, artistas, fashion designers, and stores.
Yes, I loved listening to the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach, ABBA, and Sergio Mendes. The movies I loved were The Graduate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Two For The Road, Saturday Night Fever and The Way We Where. Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, and Barbra Streisand were the top artistas. For fashion it was Halston and YSL. The stores I would frequent were Louis Vuitton, GAP, Banana Republic, and I. Magnin where I held a job in the ad and promo department. This was my favorite store because they always had windows that were visually arresting.
Was fashion retailing your first ambition? What was your dream when you were much younger?
My ambition was to be a flight attendant simply because I wanted to travel to different places and go on different adventures. I figured that by becoming a flight attendant I would be able to go to exotic places and lead an exciting life.
How did your father start out in business? Tell us about his journey from China to the Philippines.
My father, Chan Lib, came to venture in Manila as a single man. He started a business in trading. When he had enough money he went back to Fujian province to get himself a bride. He met my mom, See Ying, through a match maker. This is traditional in Chinese culture. Together they went to Manila to start a family. They continued the trading business until the war broke out in the mid ‘40s. In the crossfire during the Japanese occupation my elder sister was killed. The memory of her loss also left an indelible mark in the right hand of my dad as he also lost his pinkie — his little finger — while trying to save my sister. The opportunity to start on Liwayway Marketing came after the war, when the whole of Manila was devastated and needed to be reconstructed. The trading company grew fast to include distribution of coffee, candles, and starch.
What was the role of your mom in the business? What did you learn from her?
My mom had very good organizational skills. She taught us all to be hands-on. She set the example by always being visibly present in the office and in the factory. She knew everyone’s responsibilities. I would always remember her telling all of us to take care of the family name. We should not do anything that would put the Chans in a bad light. “Pay all your bills!” she would always tell us. From her I also learned the value of dedication, perseverance, and hard work.
When I was a kid, my dad suffered a heart attack. This left him half of his body paralyzed. It was my mom who continued with the business. As a woman, she had to be strong in ruling the business and running a family. After all, there were seven of us she had to nurture.
From Carlos Chan, what did you learn?
My brother Carlos was instrumental for our venture into China and I consider him a visionary for having been able to successfully establish his business there. He started out early and was ahead of everybody else when no one would take risks in a country that years later would jumpstart to become a major economic superpower. Today, his brand Oishi is an established brand leader for snack foods with a distribution and supply system that covers the entire country.
Carlos was able to help me nurture my business instincts through his leadership and foresight. He led by example and made me realize the vast opportunities that lay ahead. He made it easier for me to identify potential growth areas for Bench.
What was your first job ever? How much did you earn?
My first job was manning the ticket box office of a drive-in movie in San Francisco. I was earning US$2.25 an hour.
What was the most life-changing or defining time in your life?
My four-year stay in SFO made me realize the value and importance of my family. After the “good times” and “merry making,” reality set in and I realized that I did not have much of a future in the United States. I figured that if I were serious in embarking on a career and doing real business, it would have to be in Manila. My mom always told us when we were growing up that, “In America, you go to earn a living, while in Asia you go to make a fortune”. I guess, my mother knew best. I was torn between coming home to start all over again or giving up my green card and whatever life I had in the US. It was a difficult choice and I had to weigh options between two entirely different worlds. I ended up coming back home.
What was your first business venture?
From designing accessories for Chan C Brothers, I eventually moved on to designing furniture. I thought it would be great to start working on a concept store that showcased office furniture so I set up Dimensione, my first business venture.
How and when did you start Bench?
It was my sister Nenita Lim, who initiated our foray into the apparel business. She first opened a children’s boutique, Suyen at the designer’s row in Harrison Plaza. It did quite well and its success got the nod of the SM group for us to open a concession at their prime department store, SM Makati. This opportunity gave me the idea to design a line for men, specifically t-shirts and jeans that eventually became branded as Bench in 1987.
What made you focus on T-shirts and underwear?
I chose to market T-shirts at the start because I wanted the basic white undergarment to become fashionable outerwear.
What have you observed about the Filipinos’ tastes and buying habits? Are Pinoys too trend-conscious? Brand-conscious?
Filipinos just love to shop. Anywhere I go, from Manila to Milan, New York to London, I always see Filipinos shopping around. They are always out hunting for good bargains and good quality clothes that spell value for money. Filipinos go for the basics. T-shirts and jeans are a must in their wardrobe. In general, they usually go for modified designs coupled with seasonal colors. More recently however, we have become more experimental and trendy, thanks to the influx of a lot of big name brands that have slowly and steadily invaded the local market. The acceptance of these brands has paved the way in making us more fashion-conscious and in synch with the global trends. These trends are regularly adapted from the latest forecast of the fashion industry. I view this development with optimism as in some ways it helps the Bench brand to become more globally competitive.
Now aside from Bench, Kashieca and Bench Fix Salons, you have foreign labels as well – like Aldo, Charles & Keith, Celio, La Senza, The Face Shop, Chaps, Pedro, Fox and Lyn.
The world is getting smaller. Anytime soon, these foreign brands will be dominating the local market. And instead of them competing with us, I’ve come to realize that I could co-exist with them by bringing them in as part of our portfolio.
Let’s talk about your big Bench shows. Did you ever imagine it would be a big event?
Every time we finish the Bench denim and underwear show, I just feel exhausted and vow not to do it anymore. You just can’t imagine the amount of work involved in staging the event. From artists, designers, stylists, choreographers, crew and production staff, there are more than 2,000 individuals to complete this spectacle. The show has become an event that people look forward to every two years.
The show was founded in 1998 when we launched the Bench Body underwear line to coincide with the launch Joemarie Yllana as the product endorser. We also had the biggest billboard in Manila at that time.
What are your favorite cities in the world? Which places inspire you most?
New York City! It really is the center of the universe. Where else can you find a place where everything and anything you need is within a four-block distance. Manhattan is filled with creative energy, and visual inspiration. It’s a big magnet that draws everyone in every field of arts: designers, artists, architects, chefs, have come here and are inspired with what the city can offer.
Tokyo is the place to see what street fashion will be 10 years from now. I go crazy with Japanese food and can eat it every day.
London and Paris are places I go to slow down, unwind and to take it easy. In London, I can go see a musical at the West End, check on the exhibits on the museums, browse through the weekend market of Portobello and get inspiration from the windows of Selfridges.
In Paris, I can go on walking from morning to evening just wandering around the city to admire the grandeur and poetic beauty of the cityscape. Museums are pit stops to get recharged and be inspired.
Most recently, I have come to discover and love Rio de Janeiro. I have come to admire their lifestyle where they give equal importance to working hard and still being able to party and play hard just as well. They all frolic on the beach after a day’s work sipping a glass of Caipirinha before calling it a day.
Who are the top five fashion designers/tastemakers you respect?
Diana Vreeland, Yves St. Laurent, Alexander MacQueen, Nicolas Ghesquiere and Chona Kasten.
Who or what do you consider overrated?
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Who or what do you consider underrated?
The underdeveloped tourism potential of the Philippines. We are one of the most scenic places on this side of the planet, but we fail to capitalize on the natural beauty of this country. I believe that tourism is the way to go for the Philippines to survive in global competitiveness. The Filipinos are a breed of fun-loving, hospitable, and service oriented people. The ingredients of becoming a world-class destination are already here. It’s just up to the government to plan and create a positive image of the country. Look at our neighbors, particularly Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They are case studies right before our very eyes. In the end, it’s all about marketing.
If you could be president for a day, what is the first thing you would do?
I would invite for lunch different individuals related to various causes in the field of arts and sciences so we can renew interest of the public to Philippine arts and culture. Art reflects the fabric and soul of our society. It defines our identity. It gives us dignity. We have a rich pull of world-class talents in the field of painting, performing arts, composers, sculptors, movie and stage directors, etc. All these seem wasted because we lack the proper venue and funding to celebrate their creative wisdom. If only we can organize ourselves, we can become the culture capital of South East Asia.
What is your biggest frustration as a businessman?
Not getting good support from the government in terms of providing incentives and tax breaks the way the government in our neighboring countries support home grown brands to make them competitive vis-a-vis with foreign brands. In Singapore, the government is able to provide infrastructure in terms of subsidizing a 50-year property lease to businesses that helps employ a substantial number of locals. They are also able to encourage their work force to work in local companies and even providing allowances for them for a year. Should you decide to keep them for employment, that’s the only time you start paying for their services. We lose so many talents who would rather work somewhere because there are not enough jobs to sustain our working population. This is such a pity considering we are a hard working and creative people. The government should make a thorough study on what our neighboring countries are all doing to support their local businesses.
What is your favorite advocacy?
I would say providing education through scholarship programs is the best advocacy I am involved in. I’ve always believed that through education, one can help eliminate poverty. Education offers good opportunity for anyone to move up and improve their lives. It is perhaps the most tangible legacy I can leave to any deserving individual and I know it would surely make a great change for their betterment.
If you could host a dream dinner for people from the past and the present, who would you invite?
It would be an eclectic mix of personalities from different fields whom I have great admiration for. It would be great to seat/have these personalities in one table: Audrey Hepburn, Corazon Aquino, Gilda Cordero Fernando, Yves St Laurent, Rei Kawakubo, Fernando Botero, Brazil president Lula da Silva, Steve Jobs, Miuccia Prada and Oprah Winfrey.
Now that you are a top retailer, is there anything else you want to achieve?
The completion of our very first high rise head office building at The Fort, bringing in more exciting international brands, expanding our portfolio and growing existing lines to other potentially-related categories like food and beauty.
What would you consider your biggest achievement?
Successful Filipino brands like Bench and its affiliates, which, in turn, give pride and livelihood to millions of Filipinos.
What advice would you give to young people who want to start in business?
There is no substitute for hard work. Do not let disappointments stop you from reaching your dreams. Think out of the box and go global.