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Business Leader of the Week: Meet Colm McLoughlin, Dubai Airport’s retail king

IFM_Colm McLoughlin
As of January 2023, Colm McLoughlin's net worth is around USD 1.85 billion

Dubai Duty Free (DDF) is a travel retail group which operates stores at the Dubai International Airport and the Al Maktoum International Airport, as well as a large online e-commerce retail centre.

Their products fall into a variety of industries, including jewellery, cosmetics, clothing, cuisine, beverages, fashion, and technology. The company was established in 1983, and it has its main office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. DDF is a government-owned Investment Corporation, and it comes under Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum who is the head of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority.

DDF was established in December 1983 and had sales of USD 20 million in its first year. DDF sales increased from USD 44,000 on the first day of trading in December 1983 to USD 32 million in 1986. Arrivals Duty-Free opened to the public in 1987 and was making about USD 200,000 per day.

In 1989, Dubai Duty Free launched its ‘Finest Surprise’ promotion, a raffle for 1,000 tickets to win a high-end vehicle. In 1990, there were approximately Five million passengers at the airport, which contributed to USD 95 million worth of revenue, although operations were severely hampered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Since then, the company has developed into one of the largest travel retail operators in the world, with USD 2.02 billion in sales in 2019.

With the opening of the Sheikh Rashid terminal at Dubai International Airport in 2000, the number of employees at the different Dubai Duty Free sites throughout the airport increased to 900, along with a 5,400 M2 increase in floor area. The turnover of the company in 2003 reached USD 380 million, and around 17,000 M2 of additional shop space was added with the opening of Terminal 3 and Concourses 2 and 3 at Dubai International.

Dubai Duty Free has experienced tremendous growth and development over the years and has been dubbed the world’s largest airport shop in terms of revenue. The entire Dubai International Airport’s 38,000 square metres of retail area are occupied by retail activity. Over 6,100 employees from 47 different countries work at the Dubai Duty Free, including 25 of the original 100 employees hired in 1983. It anticipates business to exceed USD 3 billion annually by 2025 and to employ between 9,000 and 10,000 people.

The brain behind this successful venture is 80-year-old Colm McLoughlin, an Irish businessman, and the executive vice chairman and CEO of the company.

    Who is Colm McLoughlin?

  • Colm McLoughlin was born in July 1943, in Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland and happens to be the brother of Ray McLoughlin, former Ireland international rugby player
  • In 1960, he went to London to study dentistry, but he began working in retail
  • Colm McLoughlin worked for Woolworths, an Australian multinational retail and finance company and soon became one of the youngest managers in the company
  • In 1969, he joined Shannon Airport Duty Free, and went on to become general manager of the duty-free operation
  • In 1983, at the request of the Government of Dubai, Colm McLoughlin joined Dubai Duty Free at Dubai International Airport
  • He was the first non-UAE national at the time to receive the ‘Most Distinguished Employee Award’ from the ‘Dubai Government Excellence Awards’ in 2000
  • In 2004, Colm McLoughlin was honoured with the ‘Frontier Lifetime Achievement Award’ which was presented by Frontier magazine, making him only the second person after Brendan O’Regan
  • He was also named one of the ‘50 Most Influential Expats’ in the UAE, in a list released by Forbes Middle East Magazine in 2016
  • In 2019, Colm McLoughlin celebrated 50 years in the duty free industry
  • According to Arabian Business, Colm McLoughlin’s net worth is around USD 1.85 billion, as of January 2023

‘DDF set up was based on Shannon Duty Free’

On July 15, 1983, the day before his 40th birthday, Colm arrived in Dubai. He travelled to Dubai on a six-month contract to establish duty free operations along with two other Irish industry professionals, George Horan and John Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe, one of the three, departed DDF in the 1990s to work in Bahrain for Aer Rianta, while Horan quit DDF in June 2016. As we all know, Colm continues to lead DDF activities with great success.

In an interview with Gulf News, he recalled how he lost his luggage when he first came to Dubai back then.

“My luggage did not arrive when I landed in Dubai. I flew from Dublin to London and took another flight from London to Dubai. There were no direct flights from Dublin in those days,” Colm McLoughlin explained.

“The first thing I had to do was shop for clothes. So I headed to Al Ghurair Mall. The mall was closed between 1 pm and 4 pm, which I was not aware of. So I waited outside the mall for two hours and the heat took me by surprise. Even when I stepped onto the balcony of my hotel room without footwear, it was as if my feet would burn. We were right in the middle of the summer,” he said.

He also asserted how from a small team he built an empire.

“Our team arrived in July and on December 20, DDF launched its operations. We were a small team of ten people. Today, DDF employs more than 2,600 people. The operation has consistently raised the benchmark for airport retail and it continues to grow. We could not have achieved this without the dedicated team we have on board,” Colm McLoughlin added.

“DDF was set up based on Shannon Duty Free operations at the Shannon Airport located in County Clare, Ireland. We started work based on what we knew from the operations at Shannon Airport. Soon we started sourcing our suppliers and agents. All along, we kept asking ourselves what would and could be different here,” he noted.

He concluded by saying that the UAE has a dynamic economy, which is diversifying over a period of time.

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