In 1984, Bernie Liu, then a fresh college graduate from Cebu, first worked in the family lumber store along North Edsa, Quezon City. “I was a salesman dealing with the hardware stores,” he recalls.
Twenty-seven years later, the site is now a visually-arresting, 12-story building which has become the latest landmark along the highway. It is the headquarters of Golden ABC Inc. (GABC), the fashion company that focuses on six home-grown brands—Penshoppe, Oxygen, Memo, ForMe, Regatta and Tyler.
Designed by Australian and Filipino firms, the place says a lot about the management style and core values. As president and CEO, Liu envisions Golden ABC Inc. to be one of the most admired Asian brands. A licensed (but non-practicing) architect, he understands how the corporate building reflects the corporate identity and how a new building can influence people’s perception of the company.
The colors are modern-black, white, anthracite and the finishes in sleek-graphicote walls and granite.
At the executive private lounge, the head honcho arrives in a black Versace jacket over a chambray shirt and black jeans.
“My brands don’t carry my size,” says Liu. Penshoppe jeans have to be customized for him. Nonetheless, he looks younger and trimmer after losing 30 lbs.
In his career in fashion, Liu and the company have received many awards in retail and management. The latest feather on his cap is the MVP Grand Bossing Award, organized by the PLDT SME Nation. One of the criteria for the merit is Liu’s concern for his people.
“I’m very transparent,” says Liu. “A lot of companies have a great vision but, it is not felt below. Genuine leadership provides the vision, shares it and engages everyone.”
His precept is reflected in the design of spaces. The 25,000 sqm edifice houses 500 employees. It is so spacious that it can accommodate as much as 1,000 employees in the future. Liu’s aim to increase the number of GABC stores from 600 to 1,000 in the country.
Majority of the spaces are made to encourage business and social alliances and worship. Among the striking elements are the two-story atrium with a garden deck, 30 meeting rooms with views of the cityscape, pods, training rooms, and a laboratory for experiment. Even in the offices, the layout is an open plan to encourage teamwork.
“Our work environment is collaborative. It is ingrained in our culture. When people have ideas, there are short huddles for pods and discussion rooms. Then there are vendors and suppliers who come to show their samples. We can have 25 groups meeting at the same time,” he says.
The two-level cafeteria provides a space where employees can hold their own private functions such as birthday blow-outs.
There is a three-story car park which can accommodate over 200 cars. Thirty percent of GABC’s colleagues drive their cars to work.
“My employees have nicer cars,” says Liu. “I sometimes ride in a 10-year-old Suburban.”
At the lobby, the corporate vision and philosophy are emblazoned in bold graphics across the accent wall, titled “House of Contrasts.”
“We are a creative company but we also expect discipline,” says Liu. “People have to do their work right and well so that the person, who receives their work, can serve the customers better. I’ve had to struggle with that in the past. Some creative people don’t come to work on time. Somebody suffers. Meetings are not held properly. You may be creative but lack discipline, then you are not for us.”
Underscoring the importance of balance, he explains, “If there’s an occasion or a milestone, we celebrate. We know how to party because we are demanding. When it’s time to perform, people understand you have to perform. But we don’t take the fun out of work. Fun has to be embedded in a creative organization. If it’s all performance, the workplace can be boring and stressful.”
He keeps the employee morale high. On moving to the new headquarters last March 4, Liu ordered yellow-gold T-shirts splashed with the company initials for the 500 employees to wear. After the Mass and socials, they enjoyed Pinoy ice cream all-day.
The hard work is acknowledged. In 2011, when Penshoppe celebrated its 25th anniversary, he flew in the 500 employees and store personnel to Cebu, where the brand was established. They savored a three-day stay at Mactan Shangri-La.
In the past decade, the company annually rewards employees with an Asian trip for their professionalism, integrity or going the extra mile in their jobs.
“In other companies, employee recognition is given to those who make the numbers. As values-based organization, we recognize the positive qualities that our people manifest,” he says.
The elegant building is a long way from what started out as a mom-and-pop operation. A second-generation entrepreneur, the CEO acknowledges his parents, Lim Liu, a Chinese émigré, and his mother Norma, for his success.
When they were studying in Cebu, his mother invested in a floundering garment company in Meycawayan, Bulacan. It would produce T-shirts for corporate give-aways. Since she spent most of her time in Metro Manila, the factory was moved to Cebu in 1980.
Liu and his classmates at the San Carlos University College of Architecture and Fine Arts would use Norma’s garment factory to produce varsity shirts. Being businesslike, they sold the shirts with their designs at double the price. The profits were used to pay for the rent of the pad where they could work all night or take a quick nap.
After graduation in 1984, Liu was sent to Manila. However, the loneliness of big city life drove him to come home. Liu called his former college buddies to start Penshoppe in 1986.
The first 10 years were challenging. “Although it was not financially attractive, the market share was growing. We were opening shops, making our presence felt not just in Visayas and Mindanao but also in Manila. We weren’t recovering. I almost gave up,” he says.
“There were mistakes like any start-up company. We made wrong decisions, and we didn’t understand our customers. The economies of scale and volume were not there. The costs were not efficient. It took me 10 years to scale up to the level where we could be competitive.”
Still, his parents encouraged him. “They were entrepreneurs who also took risks. Like most supportive parents, they saw the son took an interest in something better than gambling the money away. They saw my pursuit and passion.”
Back to the center
The experience has given him the patience and determination in developing other brands. The direct-selling company, Red Logo, a subsidiary, also had its difficult beginnings.
“For mass retailing, you need to hit a certain scale to make money,” says Liu.
Founded in 2008, it was a strategy to target the lower classes. “All my retail brands cater to the ABC market. This is a chance for us to bring sophisticated fashion at very affordable prices to the bottom of the pyramid.”
With over 600 stores and 20,000 dealers, business today has surpassed expectations.
On the whole, GABC posted double-digit growth in sales turnover last year. However, it was not as hefty as in the past years because of the influx of foreign brands.
Unfazed, Liu has been setting his sights overseas. Penshoppe is thriving in the Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Bahrain because of the strong brand recognition from the Filipino community.
He then partnered with Mitra Adi Perkasa or MAP, the largest lifestyle retailer in Indonesia, which opened two Penshoppe stores in Jakarta and hopefully a total of 150 in a decade.
Ultimately Liu says he offers all the success to God. Known for valuing quiet time and worship in the workplace, Liu sent local architects to Rome to study religious architecture. The headquarters houses a contemporary GABC Holy Family Oratory. It is decorated with the Holy Family done in Murano glass and religious paintings by Rafael del Casal, no less.
“It’s the architect in me. I’ve always wanted to build a nice clean chapel. It’s good to remind our people to take time to pray. In the fashion business, everything is intense, so we have to remind ourselves of going back to our center,” says Liu.