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Focus on strategic operations
Ramesh Cidambi, Chief Operating Officer, Dubai Duty Free

Ramesh Cidambi, Chief Operating Officer, Dubai Duty Free, says that it's been a great three decades both personally and in terms of the growth of the company


Suchitra Steven Samuel

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Published: Sun 23 Dec 2018, 11:22 AM

Last updated: Mon 31 Dec 2018, 1:30 PM

To manage his all-encompassing role as Chief Operating Officer, Dubai Duty Free, Ramesh Cidambi maintains a roadmap of goals for the company. "You would want to hit your targets and financial goals, so it helps to know what to focus on that will aid the organisation in a three-year or five-year time frame," he explains, in an interview at his office with Khaleej Times.

His role as COO is to look after all aspects of the business from the front office to the shop floor or incidents in the back office, purchasing, marketing, finance, human resources, loss prevention, and all the different areas of the organisation. Known as the DDF leisure business, this also includes the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, The Irish Village and its second outlet at Dubai Parks and Resorts, which opened at the end of 2016. "In my role as COO and Colm McLoughlin's deputy, I look after all these functions," continues Cidambi, whose long tenure with DDF has given him an understanding of working as a team within the various units in the organisation.

"Jokingly, we call ourselves the 'Dream Team', but we are the Executive Team," he informs, referring to 13 people in the team with direct responsibilities, reporting to him. "We have senior executives responsible for marketing, others for security, purchasing, finance, etc. I assist them to meet the overall vision, goals and objectives for DDF under McLoughlin's guidance. My portfolio, in that sense, is quite broad," he smiles.

Cidambi informs that the role of the COO has always been a tricky one and it just depends on one's mindset. "In a role like this -  with almost 6,200 employees in the organisation, $2 billion in turnover, 180 shops, 38,000 square metres of retail space - stuff keeps happening. This is the nature of operations," he adds.
"In an internal sense you think about the retail and hospitality business, the processes within the company, the general health of the organisation and your external relationships," adds Cidambi.

Daily management
Interestingly, the vast back-office operations under DDF has made investments in processes, warehouses and automation, secure procedures and training staff over the last 35 years.

Crisis management tends to be reserved for their fleet of frontline staff who handle day to day issues that are more strategic and consequential in nature, for example, when the runway was closed for four hours because of fog, or there is water leakage in one particular location, or a passenger has had a heart attack or a shock.

"By and large, operations like ours run smoothly, even though it is a 24-hour operation, 365 days a year, doing 25 million transactions a year on the shop floor and serving around 90 million passengers," he informs.

Besides, DDF has a very high tenure of people and a very low attrition rate - the average turnover per year is about six-and-a-half per cent. It results from maintaining a conducive work environment to retain experienced skillsets who have an understanding of the systems and processes, notes the COO.

Impact of technology
One of the advantages that DDF has had under McLoughlin's leadership is that it has always had a keen desire in using technology to help the retail business in an appropriate way. "What I mean is that it helps the retail business, but not necessarily investing in technology for the sake of technology," Cidambi continues.
"We are not a technology company; we are a retail business. From the start of the computerisation or automation of the systems when I came here in 1987,  we have always kept pace with technology in the back office and front office."

The year 2001 saw a major revamp of all back-office processes with the implementation of Oracle's E-Business Suite. By 2004 DDF was on track to become the first retail business in the Middle East to put an automated system in the distribution centre. "In the retail business, you receive goods in bulk, and then you issue goods in pieces. The picking of goods from the shelves is an important aspect of it according to whatever order the shops give," explains Cidambi.

"With the announcement in 2004 of Concourse B in Terminal 3 that was scheduled to open in 2008, we realised that business would start to fragment," remarks the COO, who anticipated the challenge of accurately dispatching received goods from various concourses to different locations on different days.

Technology and logistics in the retail business
This is where technology has been of instrumental support. "For example, till 2008, 85 per cent of our business came from one location, what we now call Concourse C, at that time, we called it the Sheikh Rashid Terminal. Today, 33 per cent of our business comes from Concourse B, 5 per cent from Concourse C, 20 per cent from Concourse A, 20 per cent from Concourse D, and 10 per cent from Terminal 2," Cidambi outlines the figures.

According to the COO, the challenge in logistics solutions for a retail business has always been the most expensive outlay for DDF, known as the picking, where the goods have to be in the right location at the right time and presented to passengers. It has been achieved by working steadily on procurement, warehouse management systems, automation in the warehouse, inventory systems in the shop floor, and on the financial systems through which the suppliers get paid.

"In a day, for example, we do 9,000 picks and 500 orders. We could do that with an automated system for the first time in this region way back in 2008," notes Cidambi, who continuously stays abreast with technology to improve the back-office processes so that the retail businesses perform better.

"For example, at 7am in the morning, we distribute a report that informs the team what the sales were the previous day. We can know what the sales were about two minutes ago. The technology at the point of sale is crucial. We were the first company in 1999 to integrate card authorisation with the sales transaction," explains Cidambi.

To keep up with credit card transactions in its early days, DDF took hold of technology to integrate dual transactions - one to the cash register and another to the credit card terminal. With 15,000 to 20,000 transactions a day, DDF is relentless to ensure that the customer has only one bill. It traces the authorisation and record of the transaction, a point of sale facility that is commonly used today.

Impact of online sales
According to the COO, although it is hard to quantify the impact of online sales, DDF has felt the need to use the platform and technology available out in the digital world to improve the experience for passengers. This has led to a revamp of the user experience of their new website in early 2019. It now attempts to enhance the digital marketing efforts by being able to target and message groups of people who have booked a ticket to Dubai.

Cidambi asserts that it is hard to know the volume of business undertaken by Dubai-based online sites. "You get an indication, but it is difficult to get precise market share on how much, or is doing. To analyse the impact of online retail is not easy when you are in a business wherein 70 per cent of the share is by transit passengers and 30 per cent are departing passengers."

The COO explains that DDF is a curator of brands and prefers to engage with their customers by building a database to increase the engagement and communication to better support the brands that are driven by a customer-centric approach. "We feel that if you have 90 million passengers using the airport, if you can communicate a little bit better and do certain things a little better, then you have a better chance of increasing the penetration and increasing the spend that the passengers will do at your shops. So that is how we deal with this online situation. But there has been an impact," notes Cidambi.

Awards and recognition of talents
"My feeling as DDF celebrates 35 years is fantastic," says Cidambi. DDF has won the 'Airport Retailer of the Year' award nine times, and most recently in Cannes this year. "It is pretty rare to win this pre-eminent award in the duty-free business back to back, and if we touch the $2 billion mark, that will cap a fantastic 35th anniversary for us. We may not hit $2 billion on the day of the anniversary, but we will hit $2 billion before the end of the year," Cidambi anticipates.

The COO says that he is delighted to have personally enjoyed the 31 years at DDF, and to be part of a great success story that DDF has seen in the 35 years of its existence. "It has been a great journey, under McLoughlin's leadership and the work done by almost 6,200 employees that contributes to the economy and the Government of Dubai. We have flown the UAE flag in many locations either by travelling, visiting, speaking at events or sponsorship of events. But most importantly, we have spent most of our 35 years fulfilling our mission," adds Cidambi, recalling the mission statement when they started: "To provide first-class service to our passengers using our airport, and to promote the city of Dubai and Dubai Airport."

Vision for DDF
"My vision for DDF would be for it to continue to be the first-class retailer, continue to do well in retailing and to look after the almost 6,200  employees that we have," declares Cidambi, who feels a strong sense of responsibility for his team and people power. "They are devoting the best parts of their lives to the company, many of them are young, around 75 per cent of our employees are less than 45 years old. They are here during the prime of their lives, and they are contributing to the growth of the company," he adds.

As the Investment Corporation of Dubai owns DDF, Cidambi reiterates that the objective is to continue to deliver good financial results for the owners in the future.

Internal promotions
The strong policy to promote employees into supervisory and managerial positions from within the firm is well leveraged by DDF via internal advertisements. DDF enables growth and provides opportunities to its 5,000 people working in the front line in the retail area who know and understand their business and operations. Cidambi confirms that this is why there is continued loyalty, dedication and commitment from staff.

Dubai Duty Free’s senior management team assemble on the occasion of the retailer’s 35th anniversary.
Dubai Duty Free’s senior management team assemble on the occasion of the retailer’s 35th anniversary.
Perfumes and Cosmetics shop in Concourse D.
Perfumes and Cosmetics shop in Concourse D.

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