From basement kitchen to world's largest duty free

From basement kitchen to worlds largest duty free
Colm McLoughlin and his wife have lived in Dubai for 33 years now.

Dubai - From thinking "What sort of place is this", to now calling it his second home, Colm McLoughlin, CEO of Dubai Duty Free, talks about turning a former basement airport kitchen into the first duty free operation.


Kelly Clarke

Published: Mon 12 Sep 2016, 9:21 PM

When Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, first landed here in 1983, the population of Dubai stood at 250,000. Now, 33 years on, with over four million residents in tow, he tells Kelly Clarke just how things have changed over the years. From thinking "What sort of place is this", to now calling it his second home, he talks about ? turning a former basement airport kitchen into the first duty free operation, and reminisces on the days of carrying around a piece of astro turf just to get a game of golf in.
What was your first memory of touching down in the UAE? 
I arrived in Dubai on the evening of July 15, 1983. It was the eve of my 40th birthday and I recalled the wave of intense heat that hit me as I was walking down the steps of the aircraft. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. 
I was part of a team from Aer Rianta (the Irish Airport Authority) who had been contracted to set up Dubai Duty Free. I remember being met by Norman Turnbull from Dubai Airport and we went to the International Hotel near the airport, now Le Meridien. The airline had lost my luggage so I went the next lunchtime to Al Ghurair Centre to buy a new shirt, but did not realise that they closed between 1pm and 4pm in those days. I was standing outside waiting for the shops to re-open and I remember thinking: "What sort of place is this?"

(Left) McLoughlin enjoys a regular game of golf with his friends; (Right) Colm and Breeda McLoughlin, their son Niall (right), and daughter-in-law Sherly (left) with Irish politician Enda Kenny. - Supplied photos
What were people's reactions when you said you were moving to the UAE? 
I remember going to a local doctor for jabs before my trip to Dubai. He had been to Sharjah some 20 years earlier and was baffled as to why I would want to go to Dubai asking, "why on earth would you want to go there!" Clearly things had changed dramatically since his time and his reaction was quite amusing.
Where is home and how often do you go back? 
Ireland will always be my home, and I visit quite frequently. I have three grown-up children. My two daughters, Tyna and Mandy, live in Brighton where Mandy and her husband Mike have two children, Erin and Ethan. 
We have a home there, too, so we always look forward to visiting them whenever there is an opportunity to. 
My wife Breeda joined me here in Dubai when I moved in 1983. We love living in Dubai, now our second home for 33 years. Also, our son Niall and his wife Sherly live here, so we see them frequently.
And in what capacity have you previously worked? 
My retail career began in Woolworths, the UK high street chain, in the 1960s. I was walking by the shop in Acton in London and went in and asked the manager how I could get his job. I ended up getting a job, but I started out at the ?lowest level, stacking shelves and learning the ropes from the ground up, which I loved. Within a few years, I managed to get the manager's job and in fact I was the youngest manager within the group at that time.
When I was on holiday in Ireland some years later, I saw an advertisement for a manager at Shannon Duty Free and I applied. I became General Manager of Shannon Duty Free some years later and in 1983 was part of the original team that was sent to Dubai at the request of the government to set up Dubai Duty Free. When we opened for business on December 20, 1983, there was a great sense of achievement. I was asked to stay on to head up the new operation as GM, and I've never looked back since.

Colm and Breeda McLoughlin (right) with their daughters Tyna and Mandy, and grandchildren Erin and Ethan.
Tell us about those first meetings with DDF? 
Luckily, my meetings with the then Director-General of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Mohi-Din Binhendi, went very well and we were given the go ahead to set up the duty free operation in the basement of the existing terminal, where there had been a former kitchen. We had barely six months in which to do everything, from working with contractors on the construction, to hiring staff, to buying stock, everything. 
I certainly got a sense right from the start that things had to move quickly in Dubai and I liked that. 
I very quickly got the idea that everything had to be of a very high standard as well, and that the Royal family, in particular His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who was the Minister of Defence at that time, were the driving force behind the development of Dubai.
In what ways has the UAE changed from when you first touched down? 
There was a great vibe about the city even then. I remember feeling that things were happening to move Dubai forward, but I never imagined that it would grow so quickly. We were excited about the prospect of opening up a new duty free at Dubai International Airport.
At that time, there were around three million passengers using the airport and only about 250,000 people living in Dubai, compared to over 80 million passengers in 2016 and a population over four million. In that first year in 1983, our sales were $20 million, this year sales will be close to $2 billion. A lot has changed in that ?time and I am very proud. When I arrived in Dubai all those years ago, I certainly did not envisage that I would still be here, over 33 years later, but I'm glad, I am!
What is your favourite pastime in the UAE?
I enjoy being active when I have some spare time, and I enjoy cycling around where I live. I also like to play golf with my friends. When I first arrived in Dubai, golf was in its infancy. We used to play at the Dubai Country Club at that time, which was a sand course, and we carried around a piece of astro turf to play if the ball was on the perceived fairway. Then you had to brush the sand back in to place as you went along; it is strange to think of it now, but we made it work.
What is your favourite spot in the UAE?
I like to get out and about and visit new places that open up in Dubai and there is always something new to see. My favourite restaurant is The Irish Village restaurant, which is part of our leisure division. I think it offers something unique in Dubai and I always enjoy chatting to people there, it is very relaxing.
What has been your one stand-out moment in Dubai?
Dubai Duty Free has been part of the success story of Dubai and that success is due, in no small part, to the support we have received over the years by the Government of Dubai and in particular Shaikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Duty Free. He is such a hard-working man as well as being extremely approachable and down to earth.
There have been so many stand-out moments during our time here, but I think I am most happy to see how our employees have grown along with the company.
How would you describe the Irish community in Dubai? 
The Irish community is extremely active and that has always been the case. When we came here in 1983, we became involved with the Dubai Irish Society (DIS), which is the ?oldest society in Dubai and I was chair in 1988-99. We organised the St. Patrick's Day ball and practically everyone Irish attended. I am glad to see that the DIS is joined by the Irish Business Network (IBN), the Dubai Irish Golf Society (DIGS) and the Dubai Celts.
We are lucky now to have an Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi too. 
Describe one 'wow' moment during your time here that reflects Dubai's forward thinking attitude? 
There have been so many 'wow' ?moments over the past 33 years that have marked Dubai's emergence as a major international city but I do think that the inauguration of the Dubai Metro on September 9, at 9pm in 2009 was quite a highlight. It was fantastic to ride the Metro that night and to see Dubai from a new angle; it was a turning point in terms of transportation in Dubai.

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