Business Talk with Mr. Jeroen van Straten of Benmark Group Holdings, Inc.
In 2007, Benmark Group Holdings, Inc. was established and eventually became the master franchise holder of Japanese restaurants, Pepper Lunch and Shaburi, and many other businesses. Primer got the chance to interview Mr. Jeroen van Straten, the man behind some of the most successful franchises in the Philippines, to share about his insights and some tips on how to enter the industry.
What made you decide to go from being a chef to an entrepreneur as owner of Benmark Group Holdings, Inc.?
I started as a chef working for restaurants. I grew up in Netherlands, and then moved to Sydney, Australia where I worked as a chef. I came to the Philippines in 1998 and worked as a chef. I was asked to be a consultant for a food service company from 2000 to 2007. That time, I developed sandwiches for Starbucks. I also did consultancy for other restaurants and developed menus. I developed packed food items for convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Ministop, and fast food chains. Then, there was a time that I realize that I wanted to start something. With that, I started Benmark Group Holdings, Inc.
What are the establishments under Benmark Group Holdings, Inc.?
Pepper Lunch was the first franchise under the corporation. We opened its first store at the Power Plant Mall in May 2008. In 2009, I started the Air & Odor Management business. We then created Yakitori One, a yakitori steak fast food-style [restaurant].
We came across the branch director of Pepper Lunch who had moved to the company that owned Shaburi. He told me about this shabu-shabu concept in Japanese and asked if I would be interested in it; that’s how we ended up with Shaburi. I then moved into Definite Gaming, an online social casino game. After that is BMC Weltrade, a trading company. We then got a franchise from Canada called Mould Busters. I don’t know what’s next. It can come anytime.
What made you decide to bring Pepper Lunch to the Philippines in 2008? How were you able to bring it to the country?
It was actually my wife who saw Pepper Lunch in Singapore, even though Pepper Lunch is from Japan. I think there was only one store at that time. Then, she said: “We should try this.” I checked the branch there and thought that it is nice and that it would work in the Philippines.
We’re actually the third to apply for the franchise and to bring the franchise to the Philippines. We went to Singapore to talk to the Japanese there. They moved their regional franchise in Japan to Singapore, so if you want to bring Pepper Lunch to the Philippines, you had to go to Singapore.
[Out of all those who franchised,] I was the only one who was a chef and who was just starting. I was not a businessman; I was just a simple man. The managing director of Pepper Lunch basically liked how we talked to each other, and he allowed me to franchise.
How has Pepper Lunch fared over its long years of existence in the country?
We opened Pepper Lunch’s first store at the Power Plant Mall in May 2008. In December of the same year, we opened our second branch in Lucky Chinatown Mall.
We were busy. There were days that we had up to [one] thousand customers, so it was really busy. The timing we went to the Philippines was good; there were not many franchisers at that time. We grew up really fast. In fact, next year, we’ll be celebrating our 10th anniversary. We have [opened] 35 Pepper Lunch stores within nine years, and we’re still opening eight locations, all of which are signed up and under construction.
What are some of the problems you’ve encountered while running businesses in the Philippines? What are the benefits of working here?
It’s hard sometimes to work here as a foreigner. Some industries we cannot own because they have to be 100% Filipino-owned or are split 60-40. It’s always hard. It’s never smooth sailing. We also encounter issues with the local government.
Still, it’s nice to work in the Philippines because there is a big market here, making it easy to expand. To build something [from the ground] up here is less costly than in Japan or other Asian or European countries. The risk is always there, but I like it here. You can see over the years how many foreigners or expats have come here.
It’s nice working with them [Filipinos]. They are hard working, open-minded, and genuinely happy people.
If you could say one thing to someone who wants to bring international restaurant chains into the country, what would it be?
I would be very hesitant to bring something new because there are so many concepts and new franchisers. Everybody wants to enter the Philippines from all over the world. It is not easy to find the right location anymore. You have to be careful of what you bring in. Do your research well if you want to bring in something new.
What can we expect from Benmark Group Holdings, Inc. in the near future?
I can’t say much, but we’re working on new concepts. We’re also planning to go into the BPO industry, but not to set it up or to buy in. We plan to expand on the gaming business as well.
For me, I really believe in the online business. It’s risky but at the same time you can control it because we get so much feedback; we can see the analysis in Google Analytics.
How would you describe your management style?
I’m definitely not the type to control everything because only then I can focus on new ideas. I am simple, relaxed, and laid-back. I don’t want the office feel at work. It is easy to approach me.
Who are the people you look up to?
The people I look up to include my father-in-law, Manuel Zamora Jr.; Richard Branson, British entrepreneur; and also local businessmen like Andrew Tan of Megaworld and Henry Sy of SM Group. It is inspiring how they built their businesses from nothing. They started one and without them knowing it they make more.
From your experience, what has made the most impact on your role as the owner of Benmark Group Holdings?
I think that it is when all of a sudden we have a Christmas party, and I see so many people working for me. I didn’t expect this. I started as a dish washer, a cook, and then a chef. I did all of that. Now, I have hundreds of people working in my company.
Describe your typical day.
I wake up around 5:30 a.m. and eat breakfast in my house. I go to the gym every morning or go biking or swimming. I come at the office at 9 or 10 o’clock; not too early. [Once in the office,] I hold meetings, do some store visits, or meet my other business partners. I normally leave around 4 o’clock. I’d rather work smart than hard. I’m not really a person who likes to work long [hours].
What motivates you to do well in your job?
I like business. I like setting up something new and getting a new challenge. It’s hard for me to sit still. I get bored easily. I have too many ideas that I cannot do. I have to segregate in my head what I want to do. I don’t need any motivation. I just do it and go on [to the next one]. It is just like what Richard Branson says, “Screw it. Let’s do it.”
BENMARK GROUP HOLDINGS, INC.
Mr. Jeroen van Straten
Mr. Jeroen van Straten grew up in Netherlands. He moved to Sydney, Australia in 1997 and worked there as a chef. He came to the Philippines in 1998 to continue working as a chef. He later became a consultant for different restaurants and food service companies. He developed sandwiches for Starbucks from 2000 to 2007. He started his own corporation, Benmark Group Holdings, Inc., in 2007 and is now the master franchise holder of Japanese restaurants Pepper Lunch and Shaburi. Other businesses under Benmark include Yakitori One, La Lola Churreria, BMC Weltrade, Air & Odor Management, Mold Busters, Definite Gaming, and Telefun Transmedia.
As featured in Philippine Primer January 2017 Issue Vol. 10