'Never thought about going anywhere else': Dubai Duty Free chief retires after 41 years

Dubai Duty Free has won 780 awards so far, and this kept the spirit and enthusiasm of everybody going, he said


Waheed Abbas

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KT Photos: Muhammad Sajjad
KT Photos: Muhammad Sajjad

Published: Thu 9 May 2024, 7:05 PM

Last updated: Fri 10 May 2024, 8:06 AM

“Many opportunities crossed my path, but I had no interest in them because I enjoyed Dubai very much and the freedom given to do my job,” said Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free (DDF).

With an illustrious career spanning 55 years in the travel retail industry and 41 at the helm of Dubai Duty Free, McLoughlin, 80, will step down at the end of this year, becoming the longest-serving staff member of the duty free.

“I thought about retirement many times and I discussed it with my family also, so I decided to make it definite this year. I have been here since the very beginning and in the industry for 55 years… I enjoyed the trust of Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Ahmed. So I never seriously thought about going anywhere else. This year, because of my age, I decided to retire. I am going to remain in an advisory capacity with duty free,” the outgoing chief executive and industry veteran told Khaleej Times in an interview on Thursday.

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McLoughlin, who had started his career with Shannon Airport in Ireland – the first duty free shop in the world – and a team of 10 people were invited to launch Dubai Duty Free in 1983. During the visit, he was asked to stay back and since then Dubai has been his home.

“The whole growth and attitude of government has been to make Dubai the best place to live and do business. When we were about to start in 1983, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed wanted it to be the best duty free in the world. I am very happy that we were able to achieve that,” McLoughlin added.

“At the beginning, we were consciously told by Sheikh Mohammed that he wanted Dubai Duty Free to be part of the promotion and success of Dubai. Hence, we have been involved in various projects, sporting events and sponsorship. The kind of media coverage DDF generates is about $2 billion a year for Dubai.”

Effective June 1, 2024, Ramesh Cidambi, COO of Dubai Duty Free, will become managing director, while Salah Tahlak, the current Joint COO, will take charge as deputy managing director.

From Dh1m to Dh20m a day

McLoughlin said that he clearly remembered the day they took the first Dh1 million in sales. “Now we take Dh20-Dh21 million every day.”

Dubai Duty Free has won 780 awards so far, and this kept the spirit and enthusiasm of everybody going, he said, adding that except for the Covid-19 year, DDF increased its business every year since its beginning. “Since we started, sales have been Dh112.8 billion till now.”

As many as 86 awards have been attributed to Colm directly, including the ‘Most Distinguished Employee Award’ presented in 2000 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai and the ‘Irish Presidential Distinguished Service Award’ presented in 2014 by President Michael D. Higgins. In 2017, Middlesex University Dubai conferred an Honorary Doctorate to Colm as part of its celebration of the academic success of its class of that year. Ends

Dubai Duty Free’s $1 million and other raffle draws have been quite popular.

“So far we have done 480 million dollars. We had 78 people who won on two occasions, 22 people who luxury cars on two occasions and one person who won a luxury motor and a million dollars. In the duty free world, it is one of the most continuous promotional things that has ever happened.”

10-year target

“We worked well in the first year with sales of Dh72 million and we 120 staff. Few of those staffers are still working for us,” he said.

Currently, Dubai Duty Free employs 5,700 staffers from 55 different countries and it achieved sales of Dh7.8 billion last year and 21.5 million transactions. It sold 55 million pieces of merchandise.

“We are expecting sales this year to be Dh8 billion. We see that doubling in the next 10 years and the number of employees going up to 8,000,” he said during the interview.

Taking care of staff

While narrating the success of DDF, the outgoing head of Dubai Duty Free said that there was no board of directors and he directly reported to chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and that made decisions very easy.

He revealed that DDF introduced a system of internal promotions and increased the loyalty of the staff. “We have not recruited a senior person from outside for many, many years. Our managers and supervisors are those that started at the ground level and were promoted internally and this policy we adhered to all the way through. I am delighted we rewarded the staff and we enjoyed the loyalty of staff.”

DDF also has a management committee – called “dream team” – which meets once a week to discuss and to come up with ideas. The team consists of 9 people including three UAE nationals and three females.

“Taking care of your staff is the most important aspect of operations. I am happy that we introduced an internal promotion policy and I would certainly like that to continue.”

Main residence in Dubai

Post-retirement, Colm McLoughlin will be flying to Vancouver and then on a cruise to Alaska for 14 days before returning to Dubai and playing the role of advisory.

“That is the beginning of my retirement. I’ll be back in Dubai to play golf. Dubai will be our main residence,” said the industry veteran, who will continue in an advisory role for Dubai Duty Free.


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