Having grown Dubai Duty Free to a $2bn a year business, Irishman Colm McLoughlin recounts an epic career in business.

When he left Garbally College in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, Colm McLoughlin went to London for the summer to earn some pocket money.

“The plan was that I would go back at the end of the summer and study dentistry.”

“Keep your feet on the ground, act normal, treat people well and you’ll be rewarded tenfold”

That plan never came to fruition and instead McLoughlin embarked on a journey that has propelled him to the heights of the global business world, and he is celebrated for growing Dubai Duty Free into a $2bn per annum retail giant. ThinkBusiness caught up with Dubai Duty Free CEO Colm McLoughlin at the recent Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Lahinch.

A career as a dentist didn’t beckon for McLoughlin. Instead he stayed eight years in London doing various jobs. “One of them was I joined Woolworths as a trainee and I ended up in 1969 as a manager of a Woolworths Store.”

While on a visit back to Ireland he saw a job advertised for the Duty Free business in Shannon.

“I had no idea what it meant, I went for an interview, I was offered a job and I took it and that is exactly 50 years ago.

“I worked at Shannon Airport, I was a manager of the Duty Free at Shannon for 14 years. In 1983 the Government of Dubai and the government of Ireland did an agreement to send a team of people to Dubai to set up a Duty Free there. I was one of that team, we went there for six months.

“During that six months I was asked if I would stay there, I said yes. I did a contract for two years and I’ve now been there for 36 years so that’s my story.

“I’m happy I went to Dubai; the first full year there which was 1984 the Dubai Duty Free had a revenue of $20m, it has grown up considerably. We now employ 6,200 people. Our business last year was in excess of $2bn and we are the single largest duty free operation at a single airport in the world and I’m very happy about that.”

McLoughlin pointed out how Ireland was a pioneer for duty free.

“It started in Shannon in 1947. It was the idea of a gentleman called Dr Brendan O’Regan and the business in the duty free at Shannon in that first year was $10,000. The business in the duty free around the world now is $76bn and half of that is at airports. And 6pc of that half is Dubai Duty Free. The business in Shannon when I was there was about $3m to $4m per annum and that has grown considerably everywhere around the world.”

The right attitude will always carry you far in business

Man in dickie-bow with hand on chin.

Colm McLoughlin at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Lahinch.

Recalling the early days of Dubai Duty Free, McLoughlin said: “I liked the attitude there, it was very positive and I know it sounds corny but the attitude was ‘build it and they will come’. And in that time the population of Dubai when we went there was 250,000 people. The population of Dubai is now 3.2m people. The traffic through Dubai airport in 1984 was 3m passengers. Last year it was 89m and of course the whole thing has grown up. It is very modern, it has the best metro system in the world, the tallest building in the world, the third biggest airport traffic-wise in the world and the biggest duty free in the world.

“We’ve spread out, we’ve bought some tennis tournaments, we built a tennis stadium and underneath that we put an Irish bar called The Irish Village, we employ 22 Irish people there and we have 100 staff in it.

“We now own a hotel called the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, and that’s part and parcel of it. When we opened Dubai Duty Free in 1983 we had 1,800 square metres of retail space. We now operate 40,000 sq metres of retail space and we do something like 75,000 transactions every day.

“We have still 25 of our original 100 staff working for us.”

Playing on

Placing a golf ball on a tee.

Teeing off at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.

When you consider the lush golf course at Lahinch as well as the stylish golf courses in Dubai, when McLoughlin first went to the kingdom there was sand.

“We played golf that time in Dubai at the very beginning on sand courses. We carried a little bit of astro turf around with us and if the ball was on an area designated on a fairway you put the ball on the astro turf and hit it onto the browns, and when you did that you had to sweep the browns and wipe your footprints off.

“Now there are 12 world class golf courses in Dubai, the Desert Classic, which is part of the European tour has been held there for 30 years and Dubai Duty Free have been one of the sponsors of it for all that time. The Race to Dubai is held in Dubai each year with the top 60 European players coming to play and we are one of the sponsors of that. And, of course Dubai Duty Free has been the title sponsor of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. This is our 50th year doing it and we are very happy about that.

Ruminating on the importance of sponsorship and marketing, McLoughlin said: “One of the things we’ve done very well is marketing Dubai Duty Free and Dubai as a venue, we do various promotions continuously throughout the year. We spend 2.5pc of our top line on promoting and advertising our business and 25 years ago we created the Dubai Duty Free Foundation where we contribute a certain percentage of our topline to dedicated charities.

“One of the things we’ve done is we’ve restored 1m eye sights around the world, in the last two years we did 4,000 operations for people that needed them. We have paid schoolteachers’ fees in special needs schools and a lot of stuff like that and it is very rewarding.”

In terms of the values he holds dearly in business, McLoughlin pointed out: “It is an old adage to say look after your customers and I think that is very, very important. I think people starting out in a career, degree or no degree, they cannot start at the top they have to work their way up and I think the formula is very, very simple, people just work as hard as they can and stay honest and treat people equally.

“I was 50 years in the Duty Free business last month and our team gave me a present of a piece of artwork and there is a saying on it which I got from my father many, many years ago which was simply: ‘keep your feet on the ground, act normal, treat people well and you’ll be rewarded tenfold’. And I think that is true.”

At 75, McLoughlin has no plans to retire.

“So many times in the last 10 years I planned to retire. I enjoy very much what I am doing and I am enjoying very much the fact that Dubai Duty Free continues to grow. I am enjoying very much that we have become involved in many events like the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open which is why we are here and we are back in Lahinch, and the whole thing has done a full circle and come back home.”

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Written by John Kennedy

Published: 16 July 2019

Photography and videography: Red Square Media

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