Sunday, July 24, 2011

Entrpreneur of the week : Yusuffali M.A

Yusuffali. M.A

The story is familiar: of a young boy arriving on the sandy, windswept shores of an unknown land after a long voyage by ship across the Arabian Sea. It's a story most of the UAE's early Indian and now successful immigrants love to recount of their maiden tryst with Dubai.

The story ofMA Yusuffali is no different, except that his story continues to evolve 37 years and umpteen "dream projects" later. He has built a retail conglomerate with a footprint covering not just Dubai, but all the countries in theGulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Yemen and Egypt. Plans are already underway to foray into India's lucrative retail market in 2012 with Kerala's biggest shopping mall.

"It has not been easy," says Yusuffali, managing director of the Abu Dhabi-headquartered Emke Group, which runs the market-leading Lulu chain of supermarkets, departmental stores, hypermarkets and shoppingmalls. "This growth is my way of giving back to my country, and to this country [UAE], which has given me my bread and butter," he says of the retail empire he has built since landing in the UAE as a teenager to help his uncle MK Abdullah run his small business in the country's capital Abu Dhabi. "We used to do everything ourselves," he recalls, "right from loading and unloading to driving around and selling."

Yusuffali belongs to a traditional business family in Nattika, a village in Kerala's Thrissur district. The background certainly helped.

With H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum,
the Vice-President &
Prime Minister of U.A.E and the Ruler of Dubai.
Emke started by importing and distributing frozen foods, moving on to cold stores, meat and food-processing plants. The big break came in the 1990s when retail was slowly shifting from groceries to large-format supermarkets. Yusuffali launched Lulu's first big supermarket in Abu Dhabi at the height of the Gulf War.

"I always found swimming against the tide more rewarding," he says. "People were leaving the Gulf when I started my expansion." It was risky, but it paid off. He introduced Lulu's first hypermarket in Dubai in 2000, later branching into supermarkets, departmental stores and malls.

Today, Lulu is a household name with a network of 93 stores. It employs 27,000 people drawn from 29 nationalities. More than 19,000 of these employees are Indians. Indians comprise the biggest expatriate community in West Asia, particularly the UAE. It's a big market for Lulu, one of the biggest Indian-owned conglomerates in the Gulf perceived favourably by the price-conscious multiethnic customers. With an estimated 435,000 shoppers walking into Lulu's stores every day, according to industry observers, the chain controls roughly a third of the UAE's organised retail market. Of the Emke Group's annual turnover of $4.5 billion, 60% comes from Lulu.

The brand's growth - the UAE's ruling family "highly supportive" of his expansion plans, says Yusuffali - has been spectacular. Over the past three weeks alone, Lulu rolled out five stores across the Gulf, and is upbeat about reaching its target of 100 stores within this year.

Yusuffali routinely figures in regional power lists as one of the Gulf's most influential Indians. He was elected by Abu Dhabi's business community as the first non-Arab member of the board of directors in the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Recognition has come from his native land too. A 2008 Padma Shri winner, Yusuffali is a director on the board of Air India and a director of Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL).

"I have personally known Yusuffali since his early days in the UAE," says Mohan Jashanmal, a prominent Abu Dhabi-based Indian businessman who has been regional manager of the 90-year-old Jashanmal Group since 1964. "He has never once sought help. Today, he helps hundreds."

NRI businessman Ram Buxani, president of Cosmos-ITL Group and a Dubai resident for over half a century, says Yusuffali is the "real success story of our times". "In an overseas country, you need not just business acumen, but the guts and courage to mingle with locals. Knowledge of the local language, which Yusuffali picked up so well, gave him the extra mileage."

Yusuffali brushes off the praise, saying, "I am a businessman, and my job is to offer good products, good prices, good service and frequent supply."

The Lulu chain is perceived as a value-for-money brand. "Even during the recession when food prices were going up, we froze our prices against any increase in the market," he says. "I travelled to around 11 countries to renegotiate prices with the governments and international manufacturers."

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