F J Benjamin makes fashion-forward bets on wellness, skincare as founder retires

SINGAPORE – Mr Frank Benjamin, who helmed retailer F J Benjamin for 63 years, always had a knack for sniffing out new, in-vogue fashion brands each time older labels went out of style.

Knowing what Singaporeans want in fashion enabled the 88-year-old to steer his company back to profitability whenever changing trends led to a drop in demand for the brands F J Benjamin manages and distributes.

But the pandemic has upended the business it is in. Covid-19 has helped to cement a preference for online shopping among many consumers, making the fashion industry a more complex and competitive business for the largely bricks-and-mortar-focused company, he said.

The trend-spotter, who retired as founder and chairman of the Singapore-listed retailer in December, noted that fast-fashion Internet retailers such as Shein and Zalora are rolling out cheap and trendy labels much faster than their more established bricks-and-mortar-focused rivals.

He leaves behind a company that is taking a different path from the one he founded.

Now helmed by his younger brother Nash, 73, who took over as chairman on Jan 1, and his elder son Douglas, 59, who replaced Nash as chief executive, F J Benjamin has also diversified for the first time into wellness and skincare.

“Every decade is different from the next in terms of fashion,” Mr Benjamin said. “But shopping in an actual store was always very important to people. They want to go to a shop to see the merchandise and be served. But Covid changed everything.”

The preference for online shopping puts F J Benjamin on the back foot, as it derives just 10 per cent of its revenue online.

“We closed eight stores during Covid and went into the health and wellness business after signing a contract to distribute Airfree air purifiers,” Mr Benjamin said.

All this presents a unique set of circumstances for the company’s new management, which is already under pressure from shareholders to deliver better profits and share price performance after struggling with losses for years.

F J Benjamin was placed on the Singapore Exchange watch list in December 2016 after it posted pre-tax losses for more than three consecutive years and had an average daily market capitalisation of less than $40 million for more than six months. Mr Benjamin said the losses were mainly from two American lifestyle brands, Gap and Banana Republic, which were no match for international fast-fashion brands like H&M and Forever 21 in terms of variety and pricing. Meanwhile, it overspent on developing an in-house clothing label, Raoul, which failed to take off.

“We had to stop carrying these brands, cut salaries and close unprofitable shops to recover the business,” he said.

The company managed to turn a small profit of $177,000 for the year ended June 30, 2019, and was removed from the SGX watch list in February 2021. It also transferred its listing from the SGX mainboard to its secondary Catalist board.

Those fortunes were short-lived however, with the company falling back into the red when the pandemic struck during the financial years of 2020 and 2021.

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