THE MAN WHO BUILT A MULTI-BIL­LION DOL­LAR DUTY-FREE BUSI­NESS IN DUBAI

Colm McLough­lin left Ire­land 35 years ago to set up Dubai Duty Free, and hasn’t looked back, writes John Dennehy

The National - News - - NEWS -

De­cem­ber 19, 1983. Colm McLough­lin stands on an oil barrel in a room be­neath Dubai air­port show­ing his new staff what a dol­lar bill and pound ster­ling looked like.

The fol­low­ing day, a re­tail op­er­a­tion launched that would change the face of duty-free shop­ping across the globe.

“We were so ex­cited when we got our first-day sales. And it was mas­sive,” Mr McLough­lin says of the Dh141,000 gen­er­ated.

More than three decades on, the Ir­ish ex­pa­tri­ate has over­seen the trans­for­ma­tion of Dubai Duty Free into an op­er­a­tion that made a stag­ger­ing Dh7 bil­lion last year. He is now ex­ec­u­tive vice chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Pho­tos of the star-stud­ded pro­mo­tions run since those early free­wheel­ing days line the walls at his of­fices in Dubai. An­dre Agassi and Roger Fed­erer face off on the he­li­pad at Burj Al Arab, while an­other shot shows snooker greats Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis play­ing in the desert wear­ing waist­coats and pris­tine white shirts. There are also pictures of him with Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid, Vice Pres­i­dent and Ruler of Dubai; Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed, chair­man of Emi­rates air­line and his boss; along with count­less other snaps of him with dig­ni­taries, celebri­ties and lo­cal of­fi­cials.

Decades be­fore, Mr McLough­lin had shelved plans to be­come a den­tist and wound up at Shan­non Air­port in Ire­land. The world’s first duty-free shop opened there in 1947. Del­e­ga­tions from across the globe vis­ited Shan­non and a con­tract was signed with Dubai to es­tab­lish a duty free.

He arrived in June 1983 as part of a 10-per­son team af­ter a re­quest from the di­rec­tor gen­eral of Dubai Civil Avi­a­tion, Mohi-Din Bin­hendi. The task: es­tab­lish a duty free in six months. The city had a pop­u­la­tion of 300,000 at the time, with a small air­port car­ry­ing three mil­lion pas­sen­gers a year. Dubai was un­recog­nis­able from the me­trop­o­lis we know to­day. Now in his 70s, Mr McLough­lin re­calls those early days, the re­lent­less growth of Dubai Duty Free and the coun­try he left be­hind.

“We had no idea how hot it could be,” he says. “I stepped out of my ho­tel to look at the pool, my feet burnt on the bal­cony and I had to bor­row san­dals from one of the pool boys.”

Com­pound­ing a fraught ar­rival was the loss of his suit­case. “I did not know the malls then closed be­tween 12pm and 4pm ev­ery day. I went into the Al Ghu­rair Cen­tre at 2pm to buy a shirt and stood for two hours think­ing: ‘what have I done’?,” he says with a chuckle.

But what worked in an Ir­ish air­port in the 1980s did not nec­es­sar­ily work in the Mid­dle East. So you could forget Aran knit sweaters, Water­ford crys­tal and Ir­ish tweeds.

“In Shan­non, you never sold gold by weight. Here it was a very big thing. We had to go down to the souqs and find out who the sup­pli­ers and agents were – every­body claimed to be the agent.” But al­most ev­ery­thing was still sourced lo­cally and to­day, 72 per cent of what’s sold is bought in the coun­try.

Staff were re­cruited from places such as In­dia and the Philip­pines, while the winds of change were blow­ing through the county. A meet­ing with Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid, then Min­is­ter of Defence, in Novem­ber 1983 made things clear.

“I left with a def­i­nite mes­sage … this had to be the best duty free in the world.”

Other in­no­va­tions in­cluded a self-ser­vice bev­er­age shop that elim­i­nated the hatch in the wall. “You came to the reg­is­ter with a bas­ket of stuff and some­one clicked it up – it was to­tally and ab­so­lutely new.”

They also had to learn about the pop­u­lar­ity of pow­dered milk, about wed­dings in In­dia and Pak­istan and how to be dis­creet about cer­tain prod­ucts. When the six-month sec­ond­ment from Ire­land fin­ished, Mr McLough­lin was asked to stay on to man­age the op­er­a­tion. His Ir­ish bosses de­clined to give him a leave of ab­sence.

“So I re­signed and came to Dubai on a two-year deal. And now I’m in year 35.”

Dubai in the 1980s and 1990s is a time of which many speak fondly. It was tight-knit com­mu­nity re­volv­ing around boat trips on the Creek, pi­lot­ing small planes to RAK and Fu­jairah and play­ing golf on sand at Dubai Coun­try Club. “The peo­ple we met then – many would still be good friends. We had only Fri­day off, you worked six days a week and there were no big malls to go to.”

But Dubai isn’t a city that al­lows peo­ple to dwell too much on the past. Trends con­tin­u­ally change. A decade ago there were no Chinese staff. Now there are 808. Chinese traf­fic ac­counts for be­tween 4 and 5 per cent of to­tal but rep­re­sents 14 per cent of busi­ness.

Of the 100 staff who worked in Dubai Duty Free that first day in 1983, 27 are still on the books. Mr McLough­lin takes great pride in this. Now 6,000 peo­ple work there. And the work con­tin­ues.

The new Al Mak­toum Air­port in Jebel Ali is a huge job ahead. But when I ask him the ques­tion most ex­pa­tri­ates liv­ing here are fa­mil­iar with – leav­ing home – he pauses and sits back in his chair.

“I miss it when I’m there. But I’d do it again. I’m de­lighted ev­ery day of my life that I didn’t be­come a den­tist.”

We had to go down to the souqs and find out who the sup­pli­ers and agents were – every­body claimed to be the agent. Al­most ev­ery­thing was sourced lo­cally COLM MCLOUGH­LIN

An­tonie Robert­son / The Na­tional

Colm McLoughin’s task when he arrived with his team of 10 in 1983 was to set up a duty free op­er­a­tion in six months

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