Colm McLoughlin arrived from Ireland in 1983 to establish Dubai Duty Free - he's never regretted it for a second
Portrait of a Nation: the expatriate who built a billion dollar duty free in Dubai
December 19, 1983. Colm McLoughlin stands on an oil barrel in a room underneath Dubai airport showing his new staff what a dollar bill and pound sterling looked like.
The following day, a retail operation launched that would change the face of duty free across the globe.
“We were so excited when we got out first day sales. And it was massive,” recalls McLoughlin, of the Dh141,000 generated.
More than three decades on, the Irish expatriate has overseen its transformation into an operation that made a staggering Dh7bn last year. He is now executive vice chairman and chief executive.
Photos of the star-studded promotions run since those early freewheeling days line the walls at his offices in Dubai. Andre Agassi and Roger Federer face off on the helipad of Burj Al Arab, while another shot show shows snooker greats Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis playing in the desert wearing waistcoats and pristine white shirts. There are also pictures of him with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai; Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed, chairman of Emirates and his boss; along with countless other snaps of him with dignitaries, celebrities and local officials.
Decades before, McLoughlin had shelved plans to become a dentist and wound up at Shannon Airport in Ireland. It was here in 1947 that the world’s first duty free shop opened. Delegations from across the globe visited Shannon and a contract was signed with Dubai to establish a duty free.
He arrived in July that year as part of a ten-person team following a request from the director general of Dubai Civil Aviation, Mohi-Din Binhendi. The task: establish a duty free in just six months. Then the city had a population of just 300,000, with a small airport carrying three million passengers a year. Dubai was unrecognisable to the one we know today. Now in his 70s, he recalls those early days, the relentless growth of Dubai Duty Free and the country he left behind.
“We had no idea how hot it could be,” he says. “I stepped out of my hotel to look at the pool, my feet burnt on the balcony and I had to borrow sandals from one of the pool boys.”
Compounding a fraught arrival was the loss of his suitcase. “I did not know the malls then closed between 12pm and 4pm every day. I went into the Al Ghurair Centre at 2pm to buy a shirt and stood for two hours thinking: ‘what have I done’,” he recalls with a chuckle.
But what worked in an Irish airport in the 1980s did not necessarily work in the Middle East. So you could forget Aran knit sweaters, Waterford crystal and Irish tweeds.
“In Shannon, you never sold gold by weight. Here it was a very big thing. We had to go down to the souqs and find out who the suppliers and agents were – everybody claimed to be the agent.” But almost everything was still sourced locally and today, 72 per cent of what’s sold at is purchased in the country.
Staff were recruited from places such as India and the Philippines, while the winds of change were blowing through the county. A meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, then Minister of Defence, in November 1983 made things clear.
“I left with a definite message … this had to be the best duty free in the world.”
Other innovations included a self-service beverage shop which dispensed with the hatch in the wall. “You came to the register with a basket of stuff and someone clicked it up – it was totally and absolutely new.”
They also had to learn about the popularity of powdered milk, about weddings in India and Pakistan and how to be discreet about certain products. When the six-month secondment from Ireland finished, McLoughlin was asked to stay on to manage the operation. His Irish bosses declined to give him a leave of absence. “So I resigned and came to Dubai on a two-year deal. And now I’m in year 35.”
Dubai in the 1980s and 1990s is a time that many speak fondly of. It was tight-knit community revolving around boat trips on the Creek, piloting small planes to RAK and Fujairah and playing golf on sand at Dubai Country Club. “The people we met then – many would still be good friends. We had only Friday off, you worked six days a week and there were no big malls to go to.”
But Dubai isn’t a city that allows people dwell too much on the past. Trends continually change. A decade ago there were no Chinese staff. Now there are 808. Chinese traffic accounts for between 4 and 5 per cent of total but represents 14 per cent of business.
Of the 100 staff that worked in Dubai Duty Free that first day in 1983, 27 are still on the books. Mcloughlin takes great pride in this. Now 6,000 people work there. And the work continues. The new Al Maktoum airport in Jebel Ali is a huge job ahead. But when I ask him the question most expatriates living here are familiar with - leaving home - he pauses and sits back in his chair.
“I miss it when I’m there. But I’d do it again. I’m delighted that every day of my life I didn’t become a dentist.”