Cover Story: Stronger together

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 18, 2017 - September 24, 2017.

The Braun Büffel family celebrates its 130th anniversary in Singapore with Hollywood star Orlando Bloom

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IT has been a month of high-profile events for Braun Büffel — from a private party held at National Gallery Singapore on Aug 3 to the launch of a roadshow showcasing the Büffel Art Project in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 30 — to celebrate its 130th anniversary. Fourth-generation owner Christiane Brunk flew in from Germany to host the festivities, which saw Hollywood star Orlando Bloom gracing the cocktail affair, to great fanfare.

Attended by 400 guests, including regional celebrities, trade partners and digital influencers, the Singapore event paid tribute to the stalwart brand and its heritage in leather craftsmanship, the culmination of a legacy of excellence and evolution of over a hundred years. During her short but heartfelt speech after a four-minute video presentation that retold the story of the brand’s past, present and future, Brunk was visibly moved by the momentous milestone. The Braun family was represented by Brunk and her daughter, Lina.


Past and present

Brunk’s great-grandfather, Johann Braun — a master saddler and upholster from Kirn, a tiny town in Germany — founded Braun Büffel in 1887. His son, Alois Braun, quickly expanded the enterprise and though World War II brought destruction, the workshop miraculously survived and was rebuilt. Third-generation Hans-Werner Braun further refined the house’s fine leather craftsmanship prowess with his technical expertise. He was succeeded by his brother, Karl Heinz, who introduced the buffalo symbol in 1974 and established it as the icon of the brand in representing power and strength, as well as the close connection between the house and leather.

In the Eighties, inspired by the idea of globalisation, he brought Braun Büffel to Asia’s shores, beginning a new era for the brand. Singapore became its first Asian market, followed by Malaysia. Karl Heinz’s daughter Brunk, who inherited the business in 1992, can be credited with injecting a strong fashion spirit into the brand and expanding its product categories to include women’s bags, eyewear and sunglasses. Without a doubt, she is instrumental in Braun Büffel’s impressive transformation into its present-day status of a lifestyle brand.

At the Singapore anniversary party, Brunk praised the city state for being the brand’s “passport” to globalisation, besides introducing it to the Asian market and helping it gain insights into multicultural settings. Because of that, room was created for the brand to experiment and evolve in meeting the ever-changing interests and demands of its customers. In Singapore alone, the brand has among its many points of sale an admirable chain of five flagship stores at prestigious retail locations, including Marina Bay Sands and ION Orchard.

“We managed to survive 130 years and I think it’s been an interesting story that started from a small town in Germany,” Brunk reflects during my interview with her and Datuk Seri Daniel Chiang within the plush confines of a Kuala Lumpur hotel suite. “Nevertheless, we have to prepare for big changes despite having a very strong base in our tradition and principles of quality and craftsmanship. These alone will not be enough for the brand to survive in the future with the digital challenge. On the other hand, because of that, there are possibilities to expand as a global lifestyle brand.”

In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, circumstances emerged in 2009 that allowed Braun Büffel to  merge on the corporate level with a Malaysian-based group controlled by Chiang’s family.

“After I graduated [from University of Melbourne] and came back to Malaysia, the opportunity to merge with Braun Büffel was presented to us,” he says. “It was a seamless merger; things went through very well as we took on the responsibility to grow the brand for the future.”


Asia rising

Topping the factors that piqued the family business group’s interest and led to the team-up with the German brand was indubitably the expansion potential of an established European brand in the emerging Asian market. It was immediately clear that Brunk had successfully preserved the heritage of the brand’s origins and the spirit of the brand. “This has all been preserved by fourth-generation Christiane and this is her forte,” Chiang says.

“How I see opportunity in the emerging Southeast Asian market is derived from the fact that the group holds an advantage when it comes to funding, brand scalability, real estate and distribution channels. We have access to many channels of growth that we can tap to grow the brand in terms of visibility and footprint in this part of the world, including China.”

Brunk explains how in Europe, and especially Germany, customers are very traditional and distribution channels tend not to change owing to the maturity of the European markets. When travelling in Asia, she observes how dynamic the pace is, which makes the region a good match for the craftsmanship, tradition and story behind Braun Büffel.

“But [the brand] needs to get new influx of ideas and visions and a fashion-forward approach. In Germany, the bags have to be black — dark black, light black, middle black. That’s it,” she says in jest. “Here we have a lot of success in our latest collections with brighter colours and the Buffy and Bully collection — made of leftover leather — which promotes the idea of sustainability in a totally different manner.”

Chiang concurs. “It’s the perfect fit, business-wise. In Asia, we are curious and interested in many things. So we work together to bring over the cultural and craftsmanship heritage and the story of the brand to build the business platform in the emerging markets to satisfy the needs and wants of consumers.”

He credits Braun Büffel’s success to the synergy it shares with the Chiang family business group. Elaborating, he says the brand’s 130-year history and heritage is considered an intangible asset which is used to scale the business to produce a compound effect. Using the same approach — he calls it a function of many variables — for another brand may not necessarily yield the same results. But in the case of Braun Büffel, it is a “blessing that a lot of variables just fall into place”.

Conversely, Chiang acknowledges that challenges are always present when marketing a brand regionally and the key lies in the management of each of the countries and their different risks and business environments. It is fortuitous that Chiang’s group is experienced in running businesses in the region and sustained by a professional management and operational structure. Even so, the Braun Büffel business needs to be “managed in a very cautious and professional manner”, he says.


Brave new world

Brunk describes the commemorative capsule collection for the brand’s 130th anniversary as timeless as it is inspired by its archives. A limited-edition of 130 bags with serial numbers for women called the Katharina and a briefcase for men — named Johann after Brunk’s great-grandfather and made of signature gaucho Bordeaux leather — are being issued.

When asked to name the highlights of her Braun Büffel journey, she says: “Sometimes highlights can be in instances if you overcome some crises, like the financial crisis in 2008, which affected us. Ultimately, they make you stronger if you find ways to sail past those difficulties.”

Of course, the world has changed dramatically over the course of the brand’s 130-year journey and aside from economic and financial instabilities that threaten businesses, the advent of the digital revolution has proved to be a disruptive force for most industries. Even trusted heritage brands synonymous with quality, integrity, service and expertise built up over decades of experience run the risk of becoming irrelevant, a fact that both Chiang and Brunk are fully cognisant of.

“I think there’s still a lot of work to do in the future, especially in focusing on new media. Social media is a wonderful platform to maintain close contact with our consumers and to understand their needs and demands,” Brunk says. “Nevertheless, I think it’s also important to have our own boutiques to communicate our expression of service. We can elevate the brand in the store setting, but it has to be part of a strategy which includes both digital and in-store experiences.”

Though Chiang’s formal entry into the family business was in 2007 after he had completed his tertiary studies, his familiarity with and experience in the business world — particularly dealing in leather goods — was accumulated during his growing years as the third son of entrepreneur SS Chiang.

It is uncanny that both Brunk and Chiang have shared histories of being from families involved in the leather goods businesses. Chiang started visiting his father’s factory in Melaka on a weekly basis from the age of 12, while Brunk’s first job, when she was four, was sorting out materials in the family business. Taking over the Braun Büffel business after spending some years working in the corporate world was a personal choice, she says.

As for Chiang, the competitive advantage gained over years of being immersed in the family business naturally steered him towards it. He is now tasked with bringing the business — established by his father — that now includes holdings in Braun Büffel to the next level. He is not one to rest on his laurels or to be complacent despite his spontaneously cheerful and playful manner — as is the case with Brunk as well.

“That’s the important thing I always share with many people. My journey into the business started long before [2007], over years of being part of a family that has been in the trade for 40 years. It just happened and we didn’t realise it,” Chiang says. “I call it competitive advantage, but if you do not continue to create more competitive advantage, you will eventually become irrelevant. I may have this competitive advantage but if I come on board taking things for granted, it can be a big problem.”

His mantra — underlying fundamentals learnt from his father — is never to stop learning and listening because there are always new things out there, and that one learns the most by doing something. Chiang is emphatic about the need for consistency in delivering the brand message to convey what the brand DNA represents: heritage, culture, and uniqueness that must be preserved, such as quality leather, craftsmanship and friendly price points.

“Consistency in the brand message — which relates not only to the products but also the shopping experience and campaign shots — plays the most important role in building the brand,” Chiang says. He also points out that stores with good geographical locations, emerging markets, a strong management profile and supply chain, and the ability to motivate people within the business and getting them to work with one another are key.

Having celebrity Orlando Bloom at the anniversary party was pivotal in enlarging his vision for the brand. He has also realised that the world is now powered by digitalisation, a force much stronger than globalisation and which will shape Chiang’s vision for the next 20 years.

“I questioned myself a month ago if I could visualise an American carrying a Braun Büffel bag, an Italian carrying a Braun Büffel bag, or a Brazilian carrying a Braun Büffel bag. But after the anniversary event in Singapore, I caught the vision of the digital world,” Chiang says. “We are so blessed to be backed by strong fundamental assets within the company and we now have access to Hollywood in terms of global marketing strategies of world-class scale. It is a stepping stone for us to explore how to become a real global brand.”