It all began with his father's modest tailoring shop. Decades later, Mohammad Al Madani has perfected his father's vision and built a retail empire around it. This is his story. By Faizal Dahlawia.
It is impossible for me to talk about myself and my business without mentioning my father,” says Mohamad Al Madani. “He has played a big par t in helping me become what I am today.” And it all started quite humbly at a tailoring shop that was passed on to his father by his uncle. Despite being a small-scale business, the shop's unique location – it was right across the ruler's office – meant that a constant flow of high-profile businessmen sought his father's services, including the Al Futtaim and Al Ghurair families.
“I used to go to the shop after school and make the invoices for the customers. Then I would go to their offices and collect the money. But that was all I did. My father refused to teach me how to be a tailor, saying that once I knew, I would be more interested in producing clothes than I would be in my studies. He wanted me to become something else, something more, like a doctor or an engineer,” recalls Al Madani. So an engineer he became.
Getting down and dirty
Buoyed by the oil boom in Dubai, Al Madani went to the US in 1974, seeking an education in petroleum engineering. “When I returned to the UAE in 1979, I joined ADNOC, searching around for oil, and drilling wherever we found it. At the time, many locals in the industry preferred to have desk jobs, so my willingness to get my hands dirty earned praise, especially from the expats,” he smiles.
After one full year with ADNOC, Al Madani started to get homesick and decided to return home to Dubai, joining the Dubai Petroleum Company. It was also during this period that he decided to pursue another ambition, to start his own business.
Fortunately, for him, the working hours then were only half a day, so he could still be an engineer in the morning, and transform to a businessman from the afternoon on. In 1981, he set up a readymade garments business.
It was after he got his business running that he realised what he had seen and experienced at his father's tailoring shop as a child would serve him well in dealing with customers. “I saw how good my father was at dealing with different kinds of people, so much so that many people knew him for his perpetual smile,” Al Madani chuckles. “I remember one incident whereby a dissatisfied customer stormed into the shop and threw a fit, saying things like the dress we had made for him was garbage.
But my father simply kept calm and kept that smile on his face. With his openness, courtesy and willingness to address any dissatisfaction, the customer soon changed his tone and became warm towards my father again, and they resolved the situation amicably. So that was a very important lesson for me,” he adds.
But it wasn't only his childhood experiences that would prove to be invaluable. Partly because his job as a petroleum engineer required him to calculate risks and forecasts prices, Al Madani was able to apply the same principle to his business. And together with the right staff and support, he was able to sustain, and then steadily grow, what he started.
In 1989, Al Madani was sent back to the US by his petroleum company to attend a training course, all this while still maintaining his ‘double life'. “While in the US, I was exposed to the different types of business markets. So I dipped my hands into the stock markets and bought some shares,” he says.
Despite changing his focus slightly, he hadn't forgotten about his garments business. “Even though I was away and started getting interested in other markets, I hadn't totally put my business aside. When I left, I handed all the dealings to one of my trusted sales staff, and he ran the company on my behalf,” he nods. Though the business was stable, it was not exactly booming. By the time he got back in 1991, Al Madani was hit by a strong urge to further his business ambitions. “It was boiling in my blood,” he said.
Al Madani started talking to his father's customers, and after getting feedback on various facets of the trade, opened his own tailoring shop. “My father helped me a lot. In fact, he asked his master tailor to work for me,” he said. A year later, Burjuman opened, and offered him a space in the mall. While his father was initially against the idea, Al Madani managed to convince him and accepted the offer.
At that time, he became known as a revolutionary in the tailoring industry, simply by bringing a computer into the office! It was the first tailoring shop in Dubai to bank all the measurements electronically, eliminating the hundreds of pages of customer details. “It was quick, convenient and definitely more organised,” shrugs Al Madani.
In the midst of growing his consumer business, Al Madani started an engineering consultancy firm, Apex International Engineering Consultants, and in 1994, with three shops now under his care, plus his work as an engineer, Al Madani began to feel the strain. But he continued to persevere, always on the lookout for something different.
Then, in 1995, on a business trip to the Far East, he chanced upon a brand called Hang Ten. Identifying a business opportunity in his retail outlets, he decided to stop buying wholesale and go straight to the supplier.
“I talked to the management about becoming a distributor, and in the process, I learnt a great deal about the trade, gaining more in-depth knowledge about the business,” he says.
In December 1996, the distribution agreement was signed, and Al Madani went on to open three shops in a single year, even convincing the Burjuman management to convert his tailoring shop which wasn't making money, to a Hang Ten shop, effectively moving the tailoring business to the outer side of the mall. Impressed by the aggressive expansion, the Hang Ten management gave him the master license to be the distributor for the entire Middle East region.
During the same time, a friend recommended he also try to bring in the jeans brand Levi's to the country. While not an official franchisee for Levi's, Al Madani opened a Levi's store next to his Hang Ten store in Deira City Centre, buying wholesale from the US, and copying the exact same concept for the store as those in the US.
After opening up the Levi's store, Al Madani had figured that Levi's might perhaps be interested in letting him be the official distributor for the Middle East, or at least in the UAE. But he was disappointed to hear that they were not interested in the region.
However, he was also glad that Levi's allowed him to carry on his operations, despite the fact that he wasn't their official distributor. But he didn't give up.
Best day of his life
Al Madani continued to open Levi's stores across the region, and in 2000, Levi's shortlisted 15 companies to be its official distributor in the region. Al Madani was included in the group. Excited at the prospect, Al Madani and his team set out to do a business plan, yet, still cautious about their chances against retail giants like Al Ghurair and Al Futtaim.
The list was later cut down to five, and Al Madani was still in the race. “In August 2000, I got a call from the Levi's office in Amsterdam saying ‘congratulations, you have been selected to be the distributor',” he smiles, “I was ecstatic.” In May 2002, Al Madani opened his new Levi's store, boasting of a whole new concept and stock from Europe.
With Levi's, Al Madani also received the license to distribute Dockers, which meant a significant growth for the company and a jump in profits.
Two months later, he quit his job as a petroleum engineer. “I told myself that it's time to re-focus, and now I can depend on my business to pay for my salary,” he laughs.
After hitting the jackpot with Levi's, Al Madani continued to expand his retail portfolio by bringing in Italian clothes brand Gas, as well as French brand Chevignon. “Now we have brands from around the world that can cater to different cultures. Then I decided to diversify and tap into the food business,” he states, almost matter-of-factly.
In 2004, when Mall of the Emirates began to lease out food spaces, Al Madani decided to strike. “In 2001, while in the US, I had tasted some great food by this company called Charley's. So I decided to go back to the US and negotiate a deal to bring Charley's to the Middle East. Within six months of finalising the deal, we opened up the first Charley's store in Satwa. In 2005, we opened the store in Mall of the Emirates,” he boasts.
The popularity of the food was so great that Ibn Battuta Mall, which had initially leased out all their spaces, told Al Madani that they were willing to make another space especially for Charley's.
Similar to Hang Ten, Charley's management made Al Madani the master franchisee in the region after he opened five outlets in a space of just four years.
Spreading his wings further, Al Madani then turned his sights on to the beverage segment, and in 2007, brought in Whittard of Chelsea, a high-profile British beverage brand, which is even used by the Queen of England.
The family man
Looking back at his success stories, Al Madani realises that he was lucky to have strong family support, particularly from his wife. “I owe all the support that I get from my family to my darling wife, Muna, who has been taking care of the children and especially during my busy travelling times,” he acknowledges. “The support that she has given me cannot be compensated with any material rewards.”
He also knows that it was difficult for his children to spend time with their dad. “They expected me to always be there, when they needed me to support them at school and at home by providing them with the best of education, security and pleasure. They want more of father-child time, more interaction on different activities, both at school and socially,” he says.
These are the reasons why Al Madani now makes a conscious effort to spend time with his family every little time that he can spare away from his busy schedule. “On the weekends, we go out to our farm at the outskirts of Dubai and Umm Al Quwwain. My children and I play football, volleyball and motorbike in the sands. I also take them for dinner, and spend quality time with them, especially on special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
In the summer, we travel to different places in Europe, US, the Far East and Australia,” he says with a smile. With the influence that his father had on him, Al Madani hopes to instill the same values in his children, involving them in his professional life as well. “My daughter, Ebtesam, worked with me as an HR manager for a while, but then she opted to stay at home and take care of her children. I sent my son Othman to Italy for training with the Gas brand while he was still in college.
After graduation, he joined the property industry, and hopes to join our family business after getting hands on experience from the market,” he reveals. Looking forward to the day he passes on the reins, he has this advice for his children: “Keep the wheel of business turning, and expand it to mega retail concepts. Always preserve the joy and the passion in your work, and keep a positive relationship with your employees, who should be treated as an asset of the company. Never compromise on honesty and integrity - it will always come first in any business or family relationship.”
With the current economic climate, it's inevitable that Al Madani is taking it easy with his expansion plans. “Now we need to calm down and try to stabilise the business. So far, we have not been affected that badly, and, in fact, up till December 2008, we achieved our best performance ever since the Al Madani Group was started. But since then, things have certainly slowed down,” he says sombrely.
So how is he coping with the slowdown? Will he give up any of the businesses, which he has worked so hard to get? “On a brand to brand basis, we might consider closing certain stores, but definitely not a whole franchise. At the same time, we have established a team to implement cost-cutting measures so that we would not have to lay people off.
This year, I am not looking for a profit. Instead, like many companies, this year is what we would call the ‘survival' year,” he admits.
Al Madani has said it himself that “my legacy of business is to be the leader in retail market establishing trends in fashion and food with full joy and love for work so my employees, family and shareholders are enjoying the benefit of the business.” And with such a wide and diverse range of successful businesses to count on, coupled with his experience and in-depth knowledge of the industry, survival for the Al Madani Group shouldn't be too hard. In fact, it could almost be a given.
My business idol: My father, for his passion and his dedication to his work, his customers and his staff.
The best day of my business career: When I got the Levi's contract.
One thing I could change in my life: Get into the real estate market much, much earlier.
My shopping weakness: I always like to shop for my family, but personally, I prefer Dockers.
My favourite saying: Do unto others what you want others to do to you.
The value I pass on to my children is: Respect for all regardless of nationality, sex or ethnic background. “We all have been created from Adam, and Adam is from dust”. This is the saying of the Prophet of Muhammad (PBUH), which I always preach among my children.