COR­PO­RATE­S­PEAK

Sham­lal Ahamed first tasted huge fail­ure with Mal­abar Gold & Di­a­monds – and from then on, has steered the com­pany from one ac­com­plish­ment to the next .

Friday - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS BY AIZA CASTILLO-DOMINGO

One date that will re­main etched in Sham­lal Ahamed’s me­mory is March 14, 2002. For the man­ag­ing direc­tor – in­ter­na­tional op­er­a­tions of Mal­abar Gold & Di­a­monds, UAE, it was on this day that the first in­ter­na­tional re­tail op­er­a­tion of Mal­abar Jew­ellery, of which he was the driv­ing force, came into be­ing with the open­ing of a show­room at Dubai’s Shaikh Colony Shop­ping Cen­ter in Al Ghu­sais.

His fa­ther, MP Ahamed, a for­mer spice farmer and trader, had sold part of the fam­ily prop­erty to set up Mal­abar Jew­ellery in 1993 in his na­tive Kozhikode, in Ker­ala, with a staff of eight em­ploy­ees. Sham­lal was a young boy of 12 at the time. In an in­dus­try where ‘trust’ and ‘qual­ity’ are of para­mount value, Ahamed en­sured that his cus­tomers re­ceived gold for the money they were pay­ing and gained full value for it while sell­ing. This busi­ness prac­tice soon earned him a larger clien­tele, and he be­gan to ex­pand his grow­ing busi­ness into neigh­bour­ing towns.

Af­ter Sham­lal grad­u­ated in com­puter ap­pli­ca­tion in 2002 from St Joseph’s College, De­va­giri, Kozhikode, he joined the com­pany. The tran­si­tion was easy – ‘Trad­ing was in my blood and I was al­ready fa­mil­iar with the busi­ness as I used to ac­com­pany my fa­ther to the show­rooms and work­shops and even to buy stock,’ he says.

It was dur­ing this time that Sham­lal put for­ward the idea of open­ing an over­seas show­room in Dubai, the prover­bial city of gold, as a large num­ber of their cus­tomers were from Gulf coun­tries. Thus, to reach out to its core con­sumers, the com­pany’s fifth out­let and first in­ter­na­tional show­room was opened in Al Ghu­sais.

‘The in­au­gu­ra­tion was held with a lot of fan­fare but hardly a few months into the run­ning of the show­room, I re­alised that my in­ex­pe­ri­ence in run­ning a busi­ness was be­gin­ning to show up,’ rec­ol­lects Sham­lal. ‘The lo­ca­tion we chose was clearly not the right one; I had un­der­es­ti­mated the im­pact lo­ca­tion has on walk-in traf­fic and con­sumer con­ve­nience – vi­tal el­e­ments for any re­tail out­let’s suc­cess. I had also erred when hir­ing peo­ple. In my ea­ger­ness to fill up po­si­tions, I had failed to see whether they had both the right char­ac­ter and skill set for the job. But most im­por­tantly, I had made the fun­da­men­tal mis­take of plac­ing the en­tire stock of gold on an un­fixed price ba­sis, as­sum­ing that it would yield higher prof­its in the event of a price drop.’

With all his cal­cu­la­tions hav­ing gone awry in a slim-mar­gin, high-vol­ume busi­ness, Sham­lal was forced to close down the show­room within a mere eight months of its ex­is­tence. ‘I dis­tinctly re­mem­ber the hu­mil­i­a­tion, em­bar­rass­ment and pangs of guilt that fol­lowed. I had let down not just my fa­ther but the in­vestors who had placed their faith in me solely be­cause I was my fa­ther’s son. In the process, I had tar­nished my fa­ther’s rep­u­ta­tion that he had painstak­ingly built up,’ he says.

‘More than hav­ing to face my fa­ther, the ig­nominy of meet­ing our in­vestors and in­form­ing them of the 30 to 40 per cent losses in­curred is some­thing that stays with me to this day. I was just 22 years old and it seemed as if

my ca­reer had ended be­fore it even be­gan.’

Wind­ing up op­er­a­tions in Dubai, Sham­lal re­turned to his home­town in Ker­ala. ‘My fa­ther never be­rated or crit­i­cised my ac­tions. He only said: take this as a learn­ing curve; the lessons you have learnt from this ex­pe­ri­ence will help you grow.’

For the next few years, Sham­lal fol­lowed his fa­ther to work every day. ‘I shad­owed him through the day and night. I ob­served and ab­sorbed his op­er­at­ing prin­ci­ples, his cus­tomer­first at­ti­tude, his tal­ent for hir­ing and re­tain­ing great em­ploy­ees, build­ing up a great team cul­ture and his tire­less work ethic.’

In 2007, there­fore, when his fa­ther told him it was time to carve out a role for him­self within the fam­ily busi­ness, Sham­lal de­cided he would pick up the reins of the in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion project once again. By now, Mal­abar Jew­ellery had been re­branded as Mal­abar Gold and the group had ex­tended its reach not only within Ker­ala but also across other south In­dian states.

This time around, when Sham­lal made his way to the UAE, he had a dif­fer­ent game plan. He scouted for a lo­ca­tion in Rolla Square in Shar­jah, which had a large Asian pop­u­la­tion, and de­cided to go in for a full-scale whole­sale op­er­a­tion be­fore re­launch­ing into the re­tail side of the busi­ness. ‘What we did for the first year was to source our spe­cially crafted de­signs from our cen­tres across In­dia and dis­trib­ute it to the re­tail­ers here. This helped in un­der­stand­ing the pulse of the mar­ket and the re­gion, and the fol­low­ing year, in June 2008, we opened our first re­tail store in the Mid­dle East in Shar­jah.’

Work­ing closely with his team, he built up brand loy­alty among cus­tomers by of­fer­ing ex­cel­lent ser­vice, the best buy-back rate and a strong ex­change pol­icy with life­time free main­te­nance. ‘In the jew­ellery trade, trust is a price­less jewel, and once you have earned it, we have to work hard to main­tain it. A clean rep­u­ta­tion can only come from be­ing hon­est and con­sis­tent at all times. I think this is what paved the way for our suc­cess in the re­gion.’

When Sham­lal spear­headed the in­ter­na­tional op­er­a­tions of Mal­abar Gold in 2007, it was the 20th out­let of the Group. Fast for­ward to 2018, and now in its 25th year of op­er­a­tion, the com­pany – re­branded as Mal­abar Gold & Di­a­monds – has just opened its 250th out­let and its first on US soil in the city of Chicago. With a $4.51 bil­lion (about Dh16.5 bil­lion) an­nual turnover in 2016-2017, Mal­abar Gold & Di­a­monds to­day has a re­tail pres­ence in 10 coun­tries across the world, in­clud­ing all of the GCC, in ad­di­tion to whole­sale units, of­fices, de­sign cen­tres and fac­to­ries spread across In­dia, Mid­dle East and Far East.

The com­pany has also ex­panded into 22 other ver­ti­cals in­clud­ing real es­tate and in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment, lux­ury watch re­tail­ing and IT ser­vices and busi­ness so­lu­tions, among oth­ers.

Al­though his ini­tial foray into open­ing the com­pany’s first over­seas branch had turned out to be a costly ex­er­cise ‘I have no re­grets as it was a great learn­ing curve,’ ad­mits Sham­lal. In­deed, the in­vi­ta­tion card of the Ghu­sais out­let’s in­au­gu­ral event to­day oc­cu­pies a

Sham­lal gets ad­ven­tur­ous every Tues­day night as he sam­ples ex­otic new flavours or cuisines and cre­ative dishes with close friends

prom­i­nent place on his of­fice desk. ‘It serves as an in­spi­ra­tion and keeps me grounded. I am grate­ful for the mis­takes I made then and more so, for the faith my fa­ther and his part­ners re­posed in me. His first busi­ness ven­ture, an ice fac­tory, had failed and per­haps that is why he could be so ob­jec­tive about it. He saw it as the fail­ure of a ven­ture, not my per­sonal fail­ure.’

To­day, the com­pany cur­rently ranks among the largest re­tail­ers glob­ally in terms of vol­ume of sales and is in­volved in the en­tire value chain of the jew­ellery in­dus­try rang­ing from bul­lion and man­u­fac­tur­ing to whole­sal­ing and re­tail­ing. Yet Sham­lal shies away from tak­ing credit for the com­pany’s ag­gres­sive growth and its plans

to fur­ther spread its wings in new mar­kets. ‘The suc­cess of Mal­abar Gold & Di­a­monds is the col­lec­tive achieve­ment of our ded­i­cated and com­mit­ted set of team mem­bers,’ he says. ‘From our Chair­man to our se­nior and ex­pe­ri­enced Board di­rec­tors to our healthy base of 2,700 plus in­vestors and a staff of 13,000. While the se­niors de­cide the vi­sion and strat­egy, my role is to ex­e­cute this by tak­ing it for­ward through our large em­ployee base.’

Em­ployee loy­alty has also been key to the com­pany’s growth, he adds. ‘We treat our staff as our ex­tended fam­ily; it is part of our work­ing ethos and hence, at­tri­tion rates are very low.’ It was the founder MP Ahamed who in­stilled the cul­ture of plac­ing em­ploy­ees first, even ahead of cus­tomers, as he felt a tremen­dous re­spon­si­bil­ity to the peo­ple who worked for him. ‘This also meant be­ing re­spect­ful of their ideas and giv­ing them the free­dom to grow within the or­gan­i­sa­tion so that they can be part of the jour­ney of our shared vi­sion for growth. Some of our for­mer sales trainees are now in the top tier man­age­ment as in­ter­nal pro­mo­tions are a key part of our HR pol­icy.’

Just how much the com­pany puts into prac­tice the prin­ci­ple of treat­ing em­ploy­ees as fam­ily is ev­i­dent from the ca­ma­raderie Sham­lal shares with his col­leagues as he sits down for lunch in the of­fice can­teen at the com­pany head­quar­ters in Deira, Dubai. Over a meal con­sist­ing of Ara­bic bread, hum­mus, grilled chicken, green salad and fresh fruits, he en­quires about their fam­i­lies and dis­cusses some of the news events un­fold­ing dur­ing the course of the day. ‘All our em­ploy­ees, be it in any of­fice or show­rooms, are provided sim­ple, home-cooked food every day,’ he says. ‘This is a prac­tice that was started by my fa­ther when he opened the first show­room in Kozhikode, a place renowned for its wel­com­ing hos­pi­tal­ity.’

For 37-year-old Sham­lal, his fa­ther con­tin­ues to be his source of in­spi­ra­tion. ‘He is my men­tor and still the most ac­tive mem­ber in the com­pany. Al­though he is very hands-on and gets real-time info on all the 250 out­lets at his fin­ger­tips, he is a fam­ily man at heart and urges us to do the same. His mantra is: look af­ter your­self first and take care of your health; and then de­vote time to your fam­ily. The com­pany should only be your third pri­or­ity.’

Sham­lal has taken this ad­vice to heart. ‘Since I have a trusted and re­li­able team, I am able to take my mind off work when I am with my fam­ily. My life re­volves around my wife Ashni, and our three daugh­ters Nazah, 13, Ishael, 9, and Sim­rah, 7, when I am at home. Every year I take three short breaks – with my im­me­di­ate fam­ily, our ex­tended fam­ily in­clud­ing my sis­ter, and an an­nual trip with close friends. We en­joyed the mes­meris­ing and spec­tac­u­lar beauty of Alaskan glaciers last year, while ex­plor­ing the un­der­ground mines in Aus­tralia was also an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence. But it is Switzer­land that re­mains my favourite des­ti­na­tion be­cause of its pic­ture-per­fect scenic ter­rain.’

When in Dubai, Sham­lal gets ad­ven­tur­ous every Tues­day night as he sam­ples ex­otic new flavours or cuisines and cre­ative dishes with a close cir­cle of friends. ‘I am a foodie,’ he says, ‘and love to try out new dishes and cuisines.’

What keeps him ex­cited about the work­place, ad­mits Sham­lal, is the thrill of ex­pand­ing to new ter­ri­to­ries, cap­tur­ing new mar­kets, and cater­ing to dif­fer­ent tastes and styles that are a far cry from the In­dian-in­spired de­signs that form the core of its busi­ness. ‘We are in­vest­ing $960 mil­lion in a global ex­pan­sion plan to triple our re­tail net­work from 250 show­rooms to 750 out­lets in the next five years,’ he says. ‘Our aim is to achieve an an­nual turnover of more than $6.85 bil­lion by 2023.’

Sham­lal is con­fi­dent the al­lure of gold and pre­cious stones can never fade. ‘As my fa­ther once told me, there’s a 5,000-year-old tra­di­tion be­hind the me­tal. As long as man and woman ex­ist, love and af­fec­tion will reign, and peo­ple will give gifts. Gold is a per­fect gift to both give and re­ceive as it never goes out of style.’

54

Sham­lal says In the jew­ellery trade trust is a price­less jewel, which is why he works hard to main­tain it

Sham­lal with his wife Ashni and daugh­ters Nazah, 13, Ishael, 9, and Sim­rah, 7

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