We speak with the found­ing fam­ily of Ma­rina Home as the home in­te­ri­ors brand moves into a new era

Gulf Business - - CONTENTS -

Speak to just about any­body in Dubai about in­te­rior de­sign and it won’t be long be­fore the name Ma­rina Home In­te­ri­ors crops up.

The lux­ury home fur­ni­ture re­tailer, part of the re­cently for­malised hold­ing group Ma­rina Re­tail Cor­po­ra­tion, has be­come syn­ony­mous with unique home in­te­ri­ors over the course of the past two decades, and for good rea­son. Launched in Dubai in 1997 by broth­ers Khur­shid, Imtiyaz and Mush­taq Vakil when the in­te­ri­ors mar­ket was largely of­fer­ing mass pro­duced items de­void of much per­son­al­ity, Ma­rina Home burst onto the scene in a riot of colour. Its unique prod­ucts se­cured it a loyal fol­low­ing, and the rest, as they say, is his­tory. Not that it has been a jour­ney with­out its chal­lenges.

In the course of the past 21 years the com­pany has had to grow, evolve, com­pete with an in­flux of global play­ers, and in­no­vate with its prod­uct mix in a bid to stay at the fore­front of the lux­ury in­te­ri­ors seg­ment. All while Dubai and the UAE grew around it at an as­tro­nom­i­cal rate.

I meet with co-founder and co-owner Khur­shid Vakil, and head of brand de­vel­op­ment Sa­har Vakil at the com­pany’s stun­ning head of­fice in Down­town Jebel Ali for a rare in­ter­view about this evo­lu­tion, as well as the com­pany’s fu­ture plans, and how the fam­ily’s sec­ond gen­er­a­tion is start­ing to make an im­pact.

But be­fore dis­cussing the fu­ture, Khur­shid looks back on the com­pany’s ori­gins.

“Our jour­ney has been no less than a story. And in ev­ery story there are ups and downs, and chal­lenges,” he be­gins.

“It started way back in 1997, when three both­ers de­lib­er­ately drew up the idea of a new busi­ness ven­ture. And not just any other busi­ness

ven­ture. We were fo­cused on this cat­e­gory of busi­ness, based on our own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences.

“Around that time there was very lit­tle present in the mar­ket place. Dubai was in the early stages, as was the coun­try and the re­gion. And we found that the ‘home’ cat­e­gory was not very well rep­re­sented.

“You had generic prod­ucts avail­able, and a hand­ful of re­tail­ers that were in the mar­ket­place, but their prod­ucts were mass pro­duced, run of the mill, and did not have an emo­tion. We wanted to bring some­thing that was dif­fer­ent, that was unique, that had sto­ry­telling. Some­thing that was not vis­i­ble in the mar­ket­place, or was at least very frag­mented and un­or­gan­ised. The story starts from there.”

Af­ter re­search­ing the mar­ket­place to un­der­stand what was avail­able and un­avail­able at that time, and to dis­cover ex­actly what cus­tomers were look­ing for, the broth­ers put to­gether a busi­ness that re­volved around a com­bi­na­tion of what Khur­shid calls “colo­nial, eth­nic and rus­tic prod­ucts”.

They launched their first out­let in Umm Suqeim - a shop which gave Ma­rina Home its core early fol­low­ing, and it still there to­day.

“We re­ceived an amaz­ing re­sponse from the cus­tomers,” says Khur­shid.

“We wanted to at­tract a niche cat­e­gory of cus­tomers - we wanted to be se­lec­tive, to see how we could cre­ate a niche mar­ket seg­ment that we could call our own. The in­ten­tion from the begin­ning was not to copy any­body else’s con­cept but to cre­ate some­thing very dif­fer­ent and stay away from com­pe­ti­tion.

“The re­sponse was phe­nom­e­nal and it led from one stage of learn­ing to the next. We had to quickly gather our ef­fort, time and man­power to un­der­stand what the cus­tomers were seek­ing. We had to not only meet their ex­pec­ta­tions but pro­vide lev­els of ser­vice and stan­dards of prod­uct in such a way that they be­came our brand am­bas­sadors. And that is ex­actly what hap­pened.”

The first few years of the com­pany’s ex­is­tence brought suc­cess and sta­bil­ity, as well as, ac­cord­ing to Khur­shid, am­ple plan­ning time “to be­come a big­ger player in the mar­ket­place”. As such, the early 2000s saw Ma­rina Home ex­pand into much larger stores within malls.

“The large for­mat stores in some of the top malls changed the game,” he con­tin­ues.

“But it also be­came very chal­leng­ing for us to with­stand a dif­fer­ent type of com­pe­ti­tion as the brand evolved. “We kept in mind the num­ber of new brands that were com­ing into the mar­ket­place. Ini­tially the in­ter­na­tional brands were not present here - we had com­pe­ti­tion from the lo­cal brands, some the home grown brands. But the likes of Pot­tery Barn, Crate and Bar­rel, Bloom­ing­dales Home, or the likes of Ar­mani Casa, and so on, came as

What we do is about cre­ativ­ity; it’s sto­ry­telling, it’s rein­vent­ing at all times. We’re talk­ing about a type of cus­tomer who is in­tel­li­gent, who is ed­u­cated, who is very worldly, well­trav­elled, who un­der­stands what the trends are.

we were grow­ing, and we could see we were tar­get­ing the same kind of cus­tomers.

“So the com­pe­ti­tion was to­tally dif­fer­ent - it was world-class com­pe­ti­tion - and our ob­jec­tive was to not only com­pete with them but to stand apart, stand away, and have our own pres­ence in the mar­ket­place.”


Hav­ing man­aged to with­stand the chal­lenge pre­sented by in­ter­na­tional brands over the past decade or so, Ma­rina Home has held its po­si­tion and rep­u­ta­tion in an in­creas­ingly crowded seg­ment.

Khur­shid at­tributes this feat to the com­pany’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to stay aware of peo­ple’s wants, while also in­no­vat­ing with trends and evolv­ing as a brand. A dif­fi­cult bal­ance to strike, but one Ma­rina Home has so far suc­ceeded in achiev­ing.

“We’re not com­pla­cent when it comes to com­pe­ti­tion,” he says.

“The sense of di­rec­tion was to keep evolv­ing each year, so that by the time the com­pe­ti­tion re­alises what we have done, it’s al­ready two or three sea­sons down. And to­day’s cus­tomers are smart enough to un­der­stand where the orig­i­nal prod­uct is sold from.”

Pick­ing up on the theme of evo­lu­tion, head of brand de­vel­op­ment Sa­har Vakil adds that there are var­i­ous as­pects to con­sider when mov­ing the brand for­ward.

“We talk about be­ing able to rein­vent your­self and evolv­ing as a brand, and it’s not only in­ter­nal fac­tors to con­sider, but ex­ter­nal. For ex­am­ple the lo­cal clien­tele and how their dy­nam­ics are chang­ing, and en­sur­ing we are on top of global trends for the de­sign in­dus­try,” she says.

“As home in­te­ri­ors have moved more to­wards fash­ion, it’s more ef­fected by the way fash­ion is evolv­ing around the world. In the past cou­ple of years ev­ery­body has seen that fash­ion trends play such a big role in how the home di­rec­tion has moved - whether it’s fab­ric, mo­tifs, ma­te­ri­als, or what­ever it may be.

“Our role is to be ever evolv­ing in the global trends, and to present that to our home base, but to be mov­ing with our home base as well.”

Khur­shid adds: “Much of what we do is about cre­ativ­ity; it’s sto­ry­telling, it’s rein­vent­ing at all times. And when we talk about cre­ativ­ity, we’re talk­ing about a type of cus­tomer who is in­tel­li­gent, who is ed­u­cated, who is very worldly, well-trav­elled, who un­der­stands what the trends are. They don’t nec­es­sar­ily like trends in the sense that they don’t want their home to be just like their neigh­bours’ homes - they want some­thing unique.

“So there’s lots of cre­ativ­ity in­volved, and at the fore­front of our de­vel­op­ment is ‘how dif­fer­ent can we be?’ How much can we sur­prise our cus­tomers at all times?”

Dig­i­tal chal­lenge

One par­tic­u­lar area where re­tail brands are need­ing to be in­creas­ingly cre­ative is tech­nol­ogy. The im­pact of e-com­merce, the growth of smart cities and the ubiq­ui­tous na­ture of mo­bile de­vices have forced re­tail­ers to think dif­fer­ently in re­cent years.

But it’s a topic the Ma­rina Home team re­mains calm over, of­fer­ing a bal­anced per­spec­tive as well as well as ex­plain­ing how they are us­ing tech­nol­ogy to their ben­e­fit.

“There are many ways of look­ing at this ques­tion,” says Khur­shid.

“On one hand, the re­gion is in the in­fancy of dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion. On­line busi­ness is very low as of now, es­pe­cially when com­pared to Europe and Amer­ica. This shows there is a long way to go.

“At the same time, it varies from cat­e­gory to cat­e­gory. On­line busi­ness for elec­tron­ics, for ex­am­ple, is do­ing very well here and grow­ing year on year. But it’s not nec­es­sar­ily grow­ing at the same pace for our type of busi­ness.

“For our po­si­tion­ing and price point, peo­ple still like to ex­pe­ri­ence the touch, the feel, the smell, the aroma of a pur­chase. It’s a fam­ily pur­chase – not an im­pulse pur­chase. We are still at a stage where cus­tomers like to en­ter our stores and ex­pe­ri­ence and un­der­stand the prod­uct.

“But we un­der­stand that dig­i­tal is the fu­ture. We un­der­stand that the Z gen­er­a­tion and the mil­len­ni­als are very aware of tech­nol­ogy, on­line, dig­i­tal, and we are pre­par­ing our­selves in line with the as­pi­ra­tions of these young peo­ple.”

Delv­ing deeper into the topic, Sa­har adds: “For re­tail­ers the ques­tion is how do we con­nect to the end con­sumer at ev­ery step of their jour­ney.

“I think like most re­tail­ers, our in­ten­tion has been to con­nect at mul­ti­ple points of that con­sumer jour­ney – from when they first come into con­tact with our brand, all the way to the af­ter ser­vice.

“The trans­ac­tion el­e­ment of it, when you’re con­vert­ing on­line, will prob­a­bly be the last part for us to at­tach be­cause that’s where we need to fig­ure out where is the per­fect mar­riage be­tween how a cus­tomer wants to in­ter­act with a prod­uct and how they want to re­ceive it in their home. But all the other el­e­ments where they re­search, they in­spire, they ex­plore – we want to make sure we’re ac­ces­si­ble, present, in­ter­est­ing and in­for­ma­tive.”

She ex­plains that the on­set of dig­i­tal has added a huge num­ber of touch points to the cus­tomer jour­ney – a far cry from when peo­ple would visit a shop, see an item and choose whether to buy it.

“Now a cus­tomer hears about us, then they dis­cuss it, then they go on­line, then they go to the store, then they shop around, then they go back, they’ll com­pare prices, they’ll take opin­ions of friends and fam­ily or on fo­rums, they’ll read re­views, and then they might go and spend Dhs15,000 on a sofa, let’s say,” she says.

“So be­cause we’re not in the ‘im­pulse’ price of cat­e­gory, we have to make sure we’re present in ev­ery one of those stages, so the cus­tomer is con­nected to us to re­tain that loy­alty to the brand.”

And with the phys­i­cal store still so im­por­tant to Ma­rina Home, it should come as no sur­prise to learn that it is here rather than the digi­sphere where the big­gest trans­for­ma­tions have come over the years.

“I think this is what has kept the pas­sion and love in the minds of the con­sumers, in ad­di­tion to the magic of the prod­uct,” says Sa­har.

“The mix of in­gre­di­ents has been the per­fect for­mula all along – the prod­ucts and the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. The show­rooms are be­com­ing that much more ex­cit­ing, as is the sto­ry­telling around them. And this ex­pe­ri­ence is so crit­i­cal for us to per­fect, be­cause all the parts to the puz­zle are es­sen­tial to make peo­ple come in and browse, spend time and ex­plore, and walk away with the most pos­i­tive mem­ory they can have.

“You can never du­pli­cate what you feel when you walk in and stim­u­late all five senses, as op­posed to one or two that you might stim­u­late when you’re brows­ing on your mo­bile.

“So the phys­i­cal as­pect is an ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial part of the suc­cess of our busi­ness.”

But for the in­store ex­pe­ri­ence to res­onate so well with cus­tomers, what is the defin­ing fac­tor? For Sa­har there is a key el­e­ment at play here.

“One re­ally im­por­tant word is au­then­tic­ity. I think the rea­son why the mar­riage of prod­uct and phys­i­cal show­room has done so well is that at ev­ery stage there was au­then­tic­ity.

“So at the begin­ning when we were only sell­ing the colo­nial, eth­nic, rus­tic range, we did right by it in the way it was pre­sented. When we widened our prod­uct mix we went be­yond to the sto­ry­telling el­e­ment of the prod­ucts that we source from all over the world. The way our show­rooms were de­signed at that mo­ment in time were the right fit out for the right propo­si­tion.

“As our ranges be­came more di­verse, we started cater­ing to a much wider au­di­ence than we ever had be­fore. We came to a point where we had to study fur­ther store ex­pan­sions that were un­der­way. We had to ask ‘what is the new Ma­rina Home? What does it look like?’ We had out­grown where we were be­fore and it needed a facelift, as many homes do as time pro­gresses. We worked with a won­der­ful ex­ter­nal team to bring to life the vi­sion ev­ery­body had, and the way our homes look now – all our stores – is a per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the diver­sity we bring into the stores.”

The gen­er­a­tion game

In call­ing the stores their ‘homes’, Sa­har em­pha­sises the fact that the com­pany is a fam­ily busi­ness, and like all fam­ily busi­nesses Ma­rina Home has had to pre­pare for a process that has been the un­do­ing of some suc­cess­ful brands – gen­er­a­tional tran­si­tion.

Al­ready in the midst of this po­ten­tially dif­fi­cult shift, the com­pany has in­stalled three of its sec­ond gen­er­a­tion into lead­er­ship po­si­tions – Sa­har Vakil who heads brand de­vel­op­ment, as well as Sahil Vakil lead­ing prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and Shayan Vakil man­ag­ing re­tail op­er­a­tions.

“A suc­cess­ful busi­ness is one which un­der­stands what’s re­quired in the mar­ket­place next,” says Khur­shid.

“Who else can un­der­stand the next gen­er­a­tion of cus­tomers than our own next gen­er­a­tion? They’re in a bet­ter place to un­der­stand how the world is mov­ing for­ward and what likes and dis­likes a con­sumer goes through. What pur­chase pat­terns are in the minds of the mil­len­ni­als and Z gen­er­a­tion, and the cus­tomers to come in the years ahead.

“We be­lieve run­ning a fam­ily busi­ness is a good chal­lenge, and with the right un­der­stand­ing and the right trans­fer of knowl­edge, ex­pe­ri­ence and au­thor­ity, it is likely to suc­ceed.”

One of the at­tributes Sa­har is keen to carry for­ward from the founders is the re­fusal to be com­pla­cent.

“One of the rea­sons they were able to take such a strong begin­ning to the busi­ness is that there was no ac­cep­tance of com­pla­cency. No page was left un­turned in ev­ery role they were play­ing in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively.

“The threat of com­pla­cency is just as rel­e­vant now, if not more, and will con­tinue to be.”

She adds that be­ing a fam­ily busi­ness also gives them a com­mon goal, with a strong level of com­mit­ment, say­ing it al­lows them to “achieve even more goals” ev­ery year.

Global am­bi­tion

And what of those fu­ture goals? Ac­cord­ing to Khur­shid and Sa­har, the two gen­er­a­tions will be work­ing to­gether on some pretty am­bi­tious growth plans, both in terms of its of­fer­ing and its foot­print.

“There are mar­kets that are hun­gry for our kind of con­cept,

and there are mar­kets that strive for in­no­va­tion, strive for busi­nesses that can make an im­pact,” says Khur­shid.

“As such, we have a very good growth plan. We will be con­sol­i­dat­ing our po­si­tion in the mar­kets we are al­ready present, and in those mar­kets that we are rep­re­sented in a smaller way than we should be, we will fur­ther ex­pand, as well as ex­plor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in new mar­kets where we be­lieve there is a gap and we are a right fit.

“The other form of ex­pan­sion is our fran­chise roll-out plan. We started a fran­chise plan five years ago and we're very happy with the way we've learnt from it and its var­i­ous suc­cesses. It is a way to go for­ward into new ter­ri­to­ries.”

As well as the Mid­dle East, Khur­shid namechecks the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent as “a mar­ket to watch that has huge po­ten­tial”. Ma­rina Home has al­ready ven­tured into the re­gion, with a pres­ence in In­dia and Pak­istan, as well as across the GCC and Egypt.

But he re­vealed the com­pany's main fo­cus would be else­where: “Our ex­ist­ing busi­nesses have a huge fol­low­ing in the Euro­pean and Amer­i­can mar­kets.

“A ma­jor­ity of our cus­tomers to­day are Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can. We have been study­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of en­ter­ing these mar­kets for some time now and have been wait­ing for the right time to move into them.

“We un­der­stand these cus­tomers very well and they like our prod­ucts. Be­ing in some of those mar­kets – the im­por­tant mar­kets – would be a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of our busi­ness.”

Sa­har adds: “The east is melt­ing into the west, and the west is a lit­tle bit sat­u­rated with the on­com­ing of new brand de­vel­op­ment lo­cally. There is a huge in­ter­est in bring­ing east­ern brands into Euro­pean mar­kets – es­pe­cially the UK.”

The duo cite the UK as one of the key mar­kets Ma­rina Home is tar­get­ing, but are less keen to sug­gest a time­frame.

“We don't like to men­tion dates,” says KV, “but the world is go­ing through phe­nom­e­nal change these days.

“The re­gion has the geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, Europe is go­ing through its own chal­lenges, the UK is go­ing through its own chal­lenges be­cause of Brexit, and so on. We wish that these chal­lenges set­tle down a bit to be able to give us the right in­sights into how we wish to take the growth plans for­ward.”

In terms of prod­uct mix, Sa­har adds that “it's nat­u­ral for us to de­velop over the years and in­tro­duce new prod­uct lines,” but also hints at new ar­eas of in­ter­est.

“There is sub-brand growth that we want to do for new prod­uct mixes that tie into the home ex­pe­ri­ence. That al­low us to con­tinue to the shop­ping jour­ney for our cus­tomers and ex­pand their jour­ney with us,” she says.

But when pressed on the na­ture of the new re­tail ven­tures, Khur­shid sim­ply adds: “It's too early for us to say.”

One thing the co-founder isn't hes­i­tant to pro­claim, how­ever, is his firm be­lief that Ma­rina Home is in the right hands for the fu­ture - both in terms of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, and the staff com­pany-wide.

“We have an amaz­ing tal­ent pool, and we at­tribute much of our suc­cess to the tal­ent that we have,” he says.

“The pas­sion they have is amaz­ing, and it's ob­vi­ous that when our co­work­ers have this pas­sion, they con­vey the same in many ways to the cus­tomers. They are our true brand am­bas­sadors.

“From our point of view as the founders, we also be­lieve we have an amaz­ing tal­ent pool in the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion that are al­ready work­ing along­side us, and many more in the mak­ing. We firmly be­lieve that the brand is in the right hands with the next gen­er­a­tion tak­ing it for­ward.”

And it seems fit­ting that we end our con­ver­sa­tion on such a note – one of evo­lu­tion, con­fi­dence, and pos­i­tiv­ity; all things that have helped Ma­rina Home carve out a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion 21 years in the mak­ing.

MA­RINA HOME'S LEAD­ER­SHIP TEAM. FROM LEFT: Shayan Vakil, Sa­har Vakil, Khur­shid Vakil, Mush­taq Vakil, Imtiyaz Vakil, and Sahil Vakil

Ma­rina Home aims to stay at the cut­ting edge of global in­te­rior de­sign trends

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: A taste of Ma­rina Home's prod­ucts in-store, and out of doors. BOT­TOM: The found­ing broth­ers of Ma­rina Home, Imtiyaz, Mush­taq and Khur­shid Vakil

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