By AA PATAWARAN
The quarantine is the longest Bench founder and business leader Ben Chan has stayed in one place—at home—and in the same city in recent years. “Eighty days and counting,” he says. Before the pandemic, he has been all over the world for business and pleasure, the latter a euphemism for his unceasing study of people and their changing conditions as well as desires and dreams. As you can glean from our conversation, Ben has seen the writings on the wall. “We are definitely not going back to the world as we know it,” he says. “Changes, as they should, will be happening. Some will be seismic, others have been slowly shifting pre-Covid. Definitely, the pandemic has accelerated these shifts in human behavior.”
What lessons are you taking with you as we ease into the “normalization” of our day-to-day activities?
It was clear to me that, at this time of a pandemic, public health is the priority even if it meant closure of all our businesses indefinitely. Like most people, our first instinct was to find ways on how we could help our immediate community. We are fortunate that Bench has its own local factory that can manufacture Alcogel and its other disinfecting alcohol by-products. With the help of our skeleton staff, we were able to prioritize production in industrial volumes for immediate distribution to hospitals, the military, and some LGUs.
We also banded together with other corporations to help urban poor communities in Metro Manila for Project Ugnayan, a private sector initiative, which shows how united efforts, shared resources, and exchange of expertise can be scaled to benefit a large number people.
As for the rest of our operations, our stores might have been closed but we used the time to learn new safety practices, equip them with deep cleaning devices, and enforce other protective procedures. Through the years, we have worked to make the retail experience to be multi-sensory: touch the fabric, smell the scents, try on makeup, and seek the personal attention of our staff. Now we have to re-orient our personnel to prioritize safe practices.
On a personal note, I’ve learned some of these life lessons. Family is precious, that’s one. My sister Nenita sends me food every day. Invest in your well-being. Health is your new wealth. House cleaning is therapeutic and also very tiring. I also learned that reading a text is good, listening to a familiar voice is better, but seeing a face is the best. Also, it is important to know your own frontliners—the security guards, delivery personnel, garbage collectors, et al.
Always on the pulse, you are able to see the trends or to get ahead of them. How are you preparing for the changed world?
The quarantine has taught us that there can come a time when a digital platform will be the only way to reach your market. The competition will thus shift from brick and mortar to digital flagship stores. The battleground will be the intersection of creativity and efficiency—who will offer the most relevant product selections, most engaging user experience, most efficient delivery system, most options for payment, and most considerate customer support. The new flagship store will thus be an online experience. Right now, Bench is on four major digital marketplaces: shop.bench.com.ph and our Bench flagship stores at Shopee, Zalora, and Lazada. Our e-commerce team has become busier than ever.
Work from home has been a looming suggestion amid Metro Manila’s traffic and transportation problems. Now, with only 50 percent of our office personnel at work, this is a good exercise to identify which personnel, departments, and tasks can be done productively at home. Our work, from design to packaging to marketing, has traditionally been collaborative in nature, fast-paced in turnaround, and tactile in experience. For example, we weigh the fabric used in a jacket, test its stretchability and fit to different body types. It’s a difficult task when our team of 10 is in different locations with only a video version of the product. This will be an experiment for us.
Fashion retail is one of the most heavily hit industries because of deprioritized spending on clothing. Consumers will thus be more conscious shoppers. “What is the value of this product?” will be a vital criterion in our future design and production. Partly because of our underwear and active wear businesses, we have been working for years on fabric technologies that feature anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, moisture-ticking characteristics. These are innovations that illustrate one solution in providing added value to a product.
You have always been an advocate of local. How is this heightened now?
We have always advocated a love for local industries because it supports a healthy economy. Truth be told, our company is both global and local. While global brands are inevitable in a free economy, we know from experience that homegrown industries provide more employment opportunities, support more local supply chains, and more accessibly give back to the local community. This is true for big businesses, as well as MSMEs.
In this crisis, we are realizing our responsibility toward the collective good. How will this translate in the way we produce and consume goods?
This pandemic has taught us that we can be equally vulnerable and inextricably linked. We are all part of an ecosystem. Without people, we have no business. Without a healthy planet, we have no future.
I think we will emerge from this crisis with a more cautious and conscious level of production and consumption. A landmark pact called the G7 Fashion Pact aims to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, sustainably source raw material, eliminate single-use plastics in business to business and direct to consumer transactions by 2030, and switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.
Locally, we are continuously shifting a large volume of our packaging to paper, reviewing how to reduce our product information labels, introducing better made products with recycled materials and bringing back more sustainable shopping practices that we have introduced in the past. In 2011, we introduced Green Day Wednesdays to encourage our buyers to bring their own bags once a week in an effort to reduce plastic consumption. The initiative wasn’t successful then but perhaps a re-introduction is now due with the consumer’s heightened awareness of environmental issues.
What do you look forward to in this changed world?
A kinder world.
There are just some days when an hour of world news can be a draining life experience. I pray we can learn openness to understand each other more, patience because the world will never be perfect, and humility to learn from both the right and wrong so that we can turn protests into better policies and petitions into action plans. I hope every revolution, big and small, personal and global, can, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, turn our winter of despair into a spring of hope.