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Driven to succeed

Architecture is perfect for those who want to do both art and science,” says Bernie Liu of Golden ABC Inc. (GABC), the company behind clothing brands PenShoppe, Regatta, Oxygen, Memo and ForMe.

“In our business, the marketing side is primarily artistic. But logistics, quality control, innovation require technical aspects [of science].”

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A licensed though nonpracticing architect, Bernie is stellar proof. As a boy, he was not the typical stiff-upper-lipped Chinoy male.

“I was considered a bit sensitive,” Bernie says. Instead of concealing such sensibilities, he gravitated toward expressive pursuits such as drawing.

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“We should not suppress, but instead, we need to augment our creative side,” Bernie says.

His father, Lim, a prisoner of war during the Japanese occupation, drove jeepneys to help support the family. Afterward, he and his wife Norma started a lumber business in Cebu.

While growing up, Bernie and his siblings saw the sacrifices their parents made for the family, so right after graduation, all of them started working for the family business.

Bernie wanted to venture into building houses, a natural extension of the lumber business. He wanted to hone his technical expertise, but to satisfy his artistic bent, instead of engineering, he majored in architecture at the University of San Carlos.

Bernie was then living with college friends in a rented room, and as students with limited resources, they were constantly looking for ways to help pay the bills.

At that time, his parents had also invested in a friend’s fledgling garments business.

“We were able to get raw materials—shirts,” Bernie says. “Not for free! We were accountable for our expenses.”

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Bernie and his friends designed the shirts, then sold them at school intramurals. They made a tidy sum.

“We were teenagers then, we were the market, we knew what we liked.” Computers were not yet ubiquitous at the time. The pen was the architect’s indispensable tool, “the symbol of our creativity.”

PenShoppe debuted in 1986.

To reach a bigger market, Bernie turned to SM.

“We were unknowns,” he says. “I lined up for hours. A lot of people wanted to talk with SM. I am forever grateful to the Sy family for giving us a chance.” PenShoppe was the first in SM Department Store to use bar codes.

“People were [staring] at us,” Bernie laughs. “We were pushing this big [machine] on a cart around the store. The [original] program ran on DOS.” PenShoppe did so well that after five years, a stand-alone retail shop opened at SM North Edsa.

“We were greeted with the biggest fireworks ever at 3 p.m.,” says Bernie wryly. That was the day that Mt. Pinatubo erupted.

GABC started with manufacturing, but it has shifted solely to retail.

Eighty percent of the clothing manufacturers the company works with are Filipinos, though it might be cheaper to work with those in China or elsewhere.

“Going local is sound business.” In the mid-1990s, to meet “market-driven, customer-centric” demand, Bernie knew that the company could not be complacent.

“I want to do more,” Bernie says. “So at age 45, I went back to school.” Bernie enrolled at Harvard University’s Owner/President Management Program. His wife Alice Tio Liu, GABC chief marketing officer, signed up for the Key Executives Program.

“Our reference point is no longer solely the Philippines,” Bernie says.

“We may think that we are a big fish,” Alice says, “but the world is a big place. We aim to be world-class.” At Harvard, Bernie focused on organizational development; Alice, on marketing innovations.

A household name with international endorsers such as Zac Efron and One Direction, GABC invests in top-notch global advisers. Former executives of fashion powerhouse Zara became consultants, immersing themselves in company operations.

“To grow, we access global talent,” Bernie says. “Knowledge is power, and people are key.” In the coming months, the company will pioneer robotic technologies in its warehouse, another first in the country.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the Board of Directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at www.lazada.com.ph or call National’s Jennie Garcia at 0915-421-2276. Contact the author at blessbook. [email protected]

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