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Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

Tony Jashanmal: Family and loyalty spurs retailer

Profile: Tony Jashanmal is a dedicated fan of Tottenham Hotspur but, much as he enjoys sport, the 65-year-old, who plays golf regularly, has no intention of retiring from a business that is nearly a century old.

Tony Jashanmal is a dedicated fan of Tottenham Hotspur but, much as he enjoys sport, the 65-year-old, who plays golf regularly, has no intention of retiring from a business that is nearly a century old. His group has more than 100 stores across the Middle East, Rory Jones writes

It is a couple of days after Chelsea football club knocked Tottenham Hotspur out of the English FA Cup semi-final and Tony Jashanmal, 65, is in a jovial mood, despite being a lifelong Spurs supporter.

"It wasn't a goal," chuckles the executive director of the Jashanmal Group as we discuss whether Chelsea's second goal, which did not appear to have crossed the goal line, should have been awarded.

"I saw a couple of reviews of it again last night. I watched the game and at that time I was already sure, but I wanted to see if they had any new material. I saw a closer shot and it certainly wasn't in," says Mr Jashanmal.

The avid Spurs fan heads a retail and distribution business that is nearly a century old and has more than 100 stores around the Middle East, including a number of franchise agreements and joint ventures with international brands such as Burberry. The company's latest store, Kate Spade, opened last month in Dubai Mall.

Despite captaining this retail behemoth, Mr Jashanmal still finds time to enjoy playing and watching sport.

The conversation about football starts because he has a framed Spurs shirt from 1981, signed by the players, in his office.

"This is a shirt signed by Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa,two Argentinian players [for Spurs] at that time," he says.

"Ricardo Villa went on to become a well-known player and Ossie Ardiles was involved in English football for a long time after that as managers of different teams."

Sport is clearly one of Mr Jashanmal's favourite pastimes. He plays golf regularly and watches cricket. His love for football kicked off at Aiglon College in Switzerland, where he played centre-forward and was captain of his school side.

"I had always been a football fanatic," he says. "I studied in Germany, I did my university in Germany. So not only do I follow the English Premier League, I follow the German too."

A speaker of seven languages, including Arabic, he had hoped to finish his PhD and pursue a career at the United Nations.

But it was in Germany while studying that Mr Jashanmal was told his father, who was running the family business in Kuwait, had suddenly died.

Leaving his PhD half-finished in 1971, Mr Jashanmal had to go back home in Kuwait and help to run the business.

"I did intend to [go] back and finish my PhD," he says. "I got more and more involved and just one day said, 'Forget it, this does not make sense. Now I'm here.' After time you have to make a decision."

Starting in the business in 1971, Mr Jashanmal was the third generation of his family to be involved, after his grandfather, Rao Sahib, an Indian, set up Jashanmal in Basra, Iraq, in 1919.

Following the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sahib realised the new British administration in the Gulf would require books, magazines and newspapers from Europe.

"In those days, there were no other ports in the Gulf than Basra. There was no Kuwait or Dubai. The next port going out was Karachi and going west was Aden," explains Mr Jashanmal. "Any person who was taking a boat had not seen civilisation for eight days so there was a big demand for newspapers, magazines and books."

The store was first set up in Basra, and when oil was found in Kuwait in 1938, the British also asked Sahib to open a store in that country.

"Foreigners would find under one roof the things they knew. A modern department store was the idea that my grandfather set up," says Mr Jashanmal.

In 1956, a store was set up on Al Nasr Square in Dubai. In 1963, it was Abu Dhabi's turn, where the store was housed in one of the first brick buildings in the emirate. The stores sold a wide range of goods, from diamonds to food to cutlery.

"Our history is basically retail, but today our business is now about 65 per cent distribution and 35 per cent retail," says Mr Jashanmal. "Our background and image is retail, people don't see your distribution business."

Jashanmal Group has been on a major expansion, adding a number of brands to its portfolio as retail sales have flourished in the past year.

In the past six months it has rolled out franchise agreements with Bally, a Swiss fashion brand, LKBennett, a women's clothing brand from the UK, and Kate Spade, a fashion, jewellery and accessories brand from New York.

"If you are in the luxury business, you have to be seen to bring in new items. You still have to be up with something new. That's where Kate Spade came in," says Mr Jashanmal.

Business has been strong in the past few years, even after the financial crash, when the executive director says sales were low, but not bad.

The success of the business and the fact that it is now five generations old, as Narain, Mr Jashanmal's son is the general manager for print media and book stores, means Mr Jashanmal is often asked to lecture on the sustainability of family businesses.

He says 30 per cent of businesses make it into the second generation, 10 per cent in to the third and just 3 per cent into the fourth and further generations.

"When people see a family working in the fourth generation, they want to know, how did you do it? Because the statistics don't show this," says Mr Jashanmal, who believes it is vital to keep members of the family involved because they focus on the long-term sustainability and not "short-term profits".

He also appreciates and rewards loyalty, which he says is not ingrained in staff these days.

"Several people have worked in the company for more than 40 years. I do not expect that from the people joining today. In those days, a person joined a company for life."

This combination of a loyal workforce and a backbone of family members is a key reason why Mr Jashanmal says the business is nearly 100 years old.

Even a box at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur's home ground, could not tempt him away from his duty.

"Anyone that starts a business, after some time he wonders, but knows why he is still working. Technically a person could say, 'I'm 65, and I have enough. How many years do I have to live? Why not just sit on the Côte d'Azur and get a box at White Hart Lane?'" he jokes.

"But you are doing the business for future generations. You are doing it for your family. This becomes your raison d'être, your reason for living.

"Sitting at White Hart Lane every weekend, I might get tired."

rjones@thenational.ae

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