The serial entrepreneur: The Assembly Ground

With eight menswear retail outlets under their braided calfskin belts, Nelson Yap and his business partner Damien Tan have nailed what men want when it comes to fashion. Starting their Benjamin Barker brand of trend-setting and affordable formal wear in 2009, the former college roommates weren't content to simply sell suits.

"I lived in Melbourne for a couple of years where I worked as a barista and cook during my university days, so I became really interested in the cafe scene there, especially their strong coffee," says Mr Yap, who majored in film in Melbourne University.

"Damien, the group's general manager, did a stint in Naples, Italy where he pursued his passion for cooking as an apprentice under a pizzaiolo, Gaetano Fazio. So naturally, when we became business partners, The Assembly Ground was born."

Last year, the duo opened a 64-seater cafe The Assembly Ground at The Cathay next to a new multi-label boutique, the Assembly Store, serving coffee and pizzas, pastas, burgers, brunches and home-made desserts.

"The cafe sits beside The Assembly Store as its food-loving (but equally well-dressed) other half," adds Mr Yap. "It was borne out of a shared love for clothes and food, coupled with the belief that a well-made, fitted shirt is just as important as a comforting and tasty panini."

And to think that Mr Yap never had ambitions of being a retail mogul, or even running his own gig to begin with.

"To be honest, I never wanted to be a businessman," admits Mr Yap, who would sell digital single-lens reflex cameras on Ebay to pay his school fees and rent when he was in university. "I have always indulged in the creative arts and after my graduation, I pretty much thought I was going to end up as a film maker, musician or struggling artist."

Upon graduation, he had planned to stay on in Australia to pursue a career in the creative industry or advertising. However, his father was diagnosed with cancer and he had to return to Singapore to help out with the family business, which sold discount suits on Telok Ayer Street.

His father passed away soon after and the business was heavily in debt, and Mr Yap decided to start his own company instead - with a S$100,000 loan from his mother, who had to re-mortgage the house to fund the first Benjamin Barker store in Marina Square.

"To be honest, aside from store renovations and the first shipment of stocks, we only had enough capital for the first month of rental at Marina Square," says Mr Yap. "Luckily for us, we managed to pull through and for the first year, profits for each month were pumped back into the business to finance our stocks and store rentals etc."

In the first two years, Mr Yap would personally man the store, deliver stocks, travel overseas for buys and enlist his wife to be a salesperson on weekends. In the third year of operations, Benjamin Barker's second store opened in Suntec City, and the third in Orchard Cineleisure was unveiled a year after.

Even today, all profits are pumped back into the company to further expand its retail presence. While some stores were more profitable than others, all outlets are now in the black. Mr Tan joined the business in 2013.

"I don't think eight stores is a lot compared to quite a number of other brands that I know who have 20-over stores islandwide," says the ambitious retailer. "I also always had in mind that 10 stores is the maximum number of stores that I wanted in Singapore. From here on, we will be looking to expand Benjamin Barker overseas."

While both Mr Yap and Mr Tan have experience in F&B, neither planned to open a cafe so soon - until they were offered a sprawling 6,000 sq ft space in The Cathay. They then conceptualised the space as a lifestyle destination offering products from brands like Swedish labels Happy Socks and Fjallraven, and local brand Fabrix, alongside the cafe.

"Given my passion and experience in F&B, setting up The Assembly Ground actually felt more natural than when I first started Benjamin Barker," says Mr Yap.

"In fact, fashion was a totally new industry to me and I jumped into it with no experience, skills or industry contacts. However, my experience with Benjamin Barker helped with the business side of things, such as human resource management, brand management, creating a work culture, system and experience - all of which were what we built our business on," he says.

This article was first published on May 23, 2015.
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