How Penshoppe Grew Into a Multi-Million Business

It is not surprising how the country’s leading fashion powerhouse, Golden ABC, would trace its roots to a province in the Philippines known for its resilient and fiercely independent people. Cebu may bear traces of the beginnings of Spanish colonization from hundreds of years ago, but prior to that, it had always been a center of trade for what is now called the southern Philippines, whose people had long been doing business with China, Malaysia, Japan, India, Burma, and other parts of Asia. In a land that nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit, visionaries and business leaders are always on the rise.

Chasing his own fierce dream of building a company that would house the most admired fashion brands in Asia, Bernie Liu and his group of friends—all young architecture graduates when they drew up a blueprint for the business, so to speak—anchored their vision on the growth and development in Cebu that was reflective of what was happening in the rest of the country. It was, after all, the time of groundbreaking changes. The year 1986 had ushered in a “peaceful, bloodless revolution” for the Philippines—an upheaval fuelled by years of prior political unrest but unprecedented, just the same, in the unplanned yet historic triumph of People Power. It was a time when anything seemed possible. It provided the perfect opportunity for young idealists armed with a lot of guts and a fair amount of know-how—Liu’s family owned a modest-sized garment factory—to start their own revolution.

Early Beginnings

Legend has it that Liu had ventured into an informal business of designing and producing t-shirts for school and corporate giveaways even before he graduated from college and passed the board. After briefly working for the family’s lumber business, he had an epiphany regarding the potential of branded retail, and this would mark his return to the garments business. Lured by the growing demand in Cebu for colorful shirts, Liu and company zeroed in on what would be their biggest group of buyers—the young college students and new grads like themselves. They decided to name their brand after the students’ constant companion and writing implement, the pen.

Although none of its founders had any professional training on how to design and sell shirts, they ventured into a market already cornered by several other successful brands. What they had going for themselves, though, was that they were armed with bolder ideas. It was said that they were the first to pay special attention to individual shirt packaging before any other local brand did, and shunned ordinary retail racks in favor of customized (pencil-shaped) ones.  Indeed, what they lacked then in sales know-how was compensated by their sharp knowledge of design, translated successfully into catchy graphic images on brightly colored t-shirts. They also had a surprising grasp of marketing, committing to the principle of building a brand through focusing on image—that of youthfulness and being fun and hip.

On Greener Pastures

If they had indeed been told that they would never make it in Manila, the young Cebuano entrepreneurs failed to heed the warning, and this would prove to be one of their major feats. Penshoppe became the flagship brand of Golden ABC, a line of ready-to-wear clothing and accessories launched in March 1986, just one month after the EDSA People Power revolution. Five years later, the brand would officially go national, opening its first boutique in what was then the biggest mall in the city capital, SM North EDSA.

By 1995, Penshoppe was given the Award of Excellence at the 14th Philippine Advertising Congress, a recognition that underscored the brand’s consistent and solid focus on its market. Penshoppe’s evolution into an overall lifestyle brand also saw the growth of the mother company that by then had begun to cater to different market segments by establishing the chic and trendy high-street brand Oxygen in 1996; the affordable brand for young executives, Memo, in 2002; and the brand celebrating each woman’s uniqueness, ForMe, in 2004.

Penshoppe was also awarded the Most Outstanding Retailer by the Philippine Retailers Association and the Department of Trade and Industry in 2000 and 2001, and by the following year had been entered in the Retail Hall of Fame. It furthered its imaging and branding with winning media campaigns like the award-winning “Battle Cry” television commercial, which received a bronze award in the 2005 New York Festivals. In 2006, the same campaign received another bronze from the Advertising Foundation of the Philippines and the Adboard, and silvers in the Araw Values Awards in the print and television ads categories. 

Golden ABC continued its growth with the opening of its subsidiary Red Logo, a direct selling company, in 2008. The following year, it acquired Regatta, a leisure-lifestyle brand. Then, in 2011, it launched its first premium brand Tyler, offering day-to-night, business-to-leisure apparel for women.

Going Global

As the story goes, Penshoppe’s owners tried to crack the Manila retail scene with their dogged refusal to take no for an answer—they were said to have “literally walked all over the capital trying to sell their shirts and product concepts,” as related on the cebu-online.com website and their penchant for doing the unexpected. At that time, when other companies relied heavily on personalities and models to sell their products, they opted for the road less traveled and picked real people as their brand champions, and would launch its first batch of young and unknown, but cool models—the kind that most of their growing clientele would easily identify with.

These days, however, with increased globalization, Penshoppe steps up to the plate to make its own mark. On its way to becoming a global retail name to be reckoned with, it would become one of the local retail brands that would be endorsed by top Asian and Hollywood stars—from Thai superstar Mario Maurer and K-pop sensation Sandara Park, to Gossip Girl stars Ed Westwick and Leighton Meester, Vampire Diaries hottie Ian Somerhalder, heartthrob Zac Efron and pop music phenomenon One Direction. Most recently, it was represented by the fashion industry’s most sought-after models, Cara Delevigne, Kendall Jenner and Lucky Blue Smith. Its presence has become truly palpable and its claim solidified by improved clothing lines, bold media campaigns, and enhanced boutiques.

Armed with a formidable retail presence over 500 stores strong all over the country, Golden ABC sets its eyes to expanding beyond Asia and opening stores in the Middle East. Penshoppe’s success, bolstered by the equally impressive retail performance of its sister brands, has indeed given credence to the company’s goal of establishing itself as the most admired fashion brand builder in Asia, with its visionaries truly exemplifying the valiant spirit and high standard of excellence of the hardworking Cebuanos.

Q&A WITH ALICE LIU (COO, PENSHOPPE)

What was 1996 like for the company? What were its challenges then, and how was it resolved?

The year 1996 was a time of transition and growth for the country where fashion retailing saw the influx of completion. It was the first decade of our company and at this point, we were still continuing to learn the ropes of fashion retailing. We saw an opportunity in the developing fashion retail market though to offer an alternative brand to our flagship Penshoppe, which was Oxygen. Oxygen offered alternative merchandise for trendsetting youths.

Looking back at the last 20 years, what would you have done differently? 

There are no regrets in the journey we took in the last 20 years. All our experiences and learnings contributed to who we are today. Despite any of the challenges we encountered, we always harped on the positive and stayed true to our strategy of growing proprietary, Philippine brands. Should there be anything we could’ve done differently, it was maybe doing things sooner rather than later.

Can you cite via story what you think is the most interesting event that happened to the company — this can be funny, scary or seriously political. 

One of the most critical and transformative event that happened to GOLDEN ABC, was when we transitioned from being manufacturing centric to marketing driven. The company began in manufacturing and due to the limited capacity of our company to focus both on retailing and manufacturing, we were selling limited stock units and styles. We also limited ourselves to department stores as it was difficult to also manage a full scale boutique. When we shifted our gears to being a marketing driven company, we were able to focus on design, marketing, and creating multiple products. We became a lifestyle brand and we were able to pursue opening our own boutiques. Since changing our focus away from manufacturing, we were able to focus on creating more brands for the discerning consumer. After Penshoppe and Oxygen, we grew ForMe and Memo, and acquired Regatta and Tyler. We also put up our own direct-selling subsidiary, Red Logo. We are also able to provide more business opportunities for suppliers/vendors who are now manufacturing our products.

We continue to progress so now we are moving from being marketing driven to that of being customer centric. We want to focus on the whole customer experience, from their all-around boutique experience to where they can access our brands. We are taking our brands online and offline, engaging our customers fully and providing an omni-channel experience. 

At what point in the last 20 years were finally able to say that this company is stronger not weaker, tru the last 20 years, and why do you think that? 

Despite two major crises – the 1998 financial crisis and the 2008 sub-prime crises, we can probably say that our company came out pretty strong after weathering those particular storms.

One of the key validations we continue to have for our company though is when our products and brands become accepted both locally and globally. Opening in 12 countries outside the Philippines, with a combined total of more than 800 stores, continue to inspire us to do more. Having the top global supermodels and Asian superstars endorse our brand also confirms for us that we are doing the right thing and that we are on the right track. 

What new innovations would you consider for your industry in general and for your company in particular in the coming years.

The way we do retailing will drastically change in an increasingly digital society. In an environmentally conscious world, the science behind clothing and fabric production and recycling will take the forefront. Fashion will remain to be about creative individual expression.

As mentioned as well earlier, as we move from being a marketing company to a customer centric one, we need to use the digital platform to understand our customers better and for us to reach them as well, provide what they need and engage them through various channels.

How do you see your brand in the next 20 years? 

We continue to believe in our vision of “Being the most admired Asian fashion brands company.” We want to bring our products, our brands to newer markets and expand to more territories. We have said this quite a lot before and we continue to do so now, we are fortunate to be at the forefront of the Philippine fashion retail industry and to be able to showcase our brands not just locally, we want the world to recognize the talent, creativity, and products that we have to offer.   

  • Originally published in Zee Lifestyle, Dec-Jan 2017
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