By Colin Hastings
BENJAMIN Leiner is living proof that Thailand is the land of opportunities for willing entrepreneurs. In the past eleven years, he’s established two successful but very different businesses here. The first involved the export of clothes to the US. The second involves the import of ice cream from the US.
What makes this more amazing is that New Yorker Benjamin’s background is law. He even worked for the same firm as US President Obama.
“I felt Bangkok had a New York vibe, and decided to settle here, though I didn’t know at that time what I wanted to do,” says 38-year-old Benjamin.
His interest in fashion prompted a move into the clothing business to take advantage of the low costs of production in Thailand and the high cost of goods at the retail level in the US. He took his idea to local factories, some of whom expressed an interest in his business plan and invited Benjamin for exploratory talks.
After a few setbacks which allowed him to better understand market conditions, Benjamin eventually established contacts with local suppliers.
Finding customers in the US proved easier than he had imagined. In fact, it amazed him. “My first order was huge, worth US$750,000 from J.C. Penney, one of America’s biggest department store chains. Honestly, the order was too big – it shouldn’t have come to me.”
Initially, the factory he chose to make the clothes seemed not up to the task. “So for the next two months, day and night, I sat on its quality control lines and personally checked 30,000 pieces of polo shirt. It was tough but in the end it proved a great learning process for me.”
With that order successfully completed, Benjamin’s export business began to really take off and he began working with other major American retailers like Kmart, Walmart and chains located at US army bases.
But after seven years, Benjamin lost interest in the clothing business. “The low wages paid in some countries – not Thailand – and the monotony of the work for ordinary workers depressed me, so I got out.”
For a short while, he operated a small trading company, but this took a back seat when he launched yet another venture much closer to his heart. “I’d always loved ice cream but I couldn’t get any of my New York favourites here in Thailand.”
One of those favourites was Emack & Bolio’s, a Boston-based ice cream brand founded in 1975 by Bob Book, a lawyer and self-declared hippie and activist. Benjamin had learned that Bob and his family were on holiday in Thailand and tried to contact them. A meeting was set up but then cancelled at the last minute.
Determined to get Emack & Bolio’s business in Thailand, Benjamin flew to the US. “I met Bob and his son, and we really hit it off. In the end, they said ‘you’ve got the business if you want it. Now go figure out how to do it.’”
With assistance from his former staff in the now defunct clothing business, Benjamin took on the challenge, finding the best way to ship the ice cream, as well as satisfying Thailand’s formidable Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and overcoming a myriad other hurdles.
Although FDA approval took a lengthy 12 months, Benjamin is perhaps surprisingly uncritical of the delay.
“The FDA works thoroughly and they genuinely want to make sure that imported foods are safe.”
An even tougher challenge, he says, was finding the right location for an ice cream shop. After numerous meetings with the Central Group, he opened the first downtown outlet in mid-2014 in CentralWorld. At the same, he got the go-ahead to open an Emack & Bolio’s at Nichada Thani, the sprawling expatriate housing community in Bangkok’s northern suburbs.
Made from 84% hormone-free milk and 16% milk fat on a small family-run dairy farm in Massachusetts, just outside Boston, the ice cream quickly proved popular, and last year the company opened five new stores in Bangkok – EmQuartier, Siam Center, Central Westgate, Central Festival EastVille and Central Lard Prao.
Although Emack & Bolio’s has a total of 34 flavours, its individual outlets stock between 20-24 different varieties, with regular rotations to ensure customers have access to the full range.
In Thailand, the most popular ice cream is coffee-flavoured with Oreo and chocolate chips, while Emack & Bolio’s biggest seller in the US is the mint-flavoured with Oreo and chocolate chips. The latter is also the most popular at Nichada Thani. The average age of customers is in the 16 to 31 age group, though some of his Facebook ‘likes’ includes people as old as 65.
Looking ahead, Benjamin is targeting hotels and restaurants for his ice creams. He also has the option to open outlets in Cambodia.
The company’s head office and central kitchen, where it makes the cones, is located at Sukhumvit Soi 36. It employs a total of 45 staff, including Benjamin’s Thai wife Khun Dao. “It would be impossible for this company to work without her,” he says proudly.
*Benjamin was the winner of the 2014 BigChilli Expat Entrepreneur Awards, F&B category.