x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE family firm that keeps up with the times

A passion for fine Swiss watches led to the start of a business that has gone from strength to strength in 60 years. Now the firm is the subject of an exhibition that shows the benefits of hard work and good timekeeping.

Some of the fine Swiss watches and personal effects from the Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons archives. A letter of recommendation from the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the Ruler of Dubai, is of particular importance to the family firm. Pawan Singh / The National
Some of the fine Swiss watches and personal effects from the Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons archives. A letter of recommendation from the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the Ruler of Dubai, is of particular importance to the family firm. Pawan Singh / The National

Ahmed Qasim Seddiqi liked to collect things.

In the beginning it was cats. As an only child in Dubai, he spent his free time playing with and adopting stray cats, turning them into his family members.

Then when he worked for his uncles in the late 1930s he started to collect watches, particularly luxury Swiss watches. This passion for the finer things in life eventually turned into a thriving family business that has lasted more than 60 years.

“I remember there was always some cat and some watch near my grandfather,” recalls Osama Ibrahim Seddiqi, vice president of finance and administration at Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, and one of the grandsons of Mr Seddiqi, the founder of the country’s leading retailer of luxury watches.

“As a child, I would see my grandfather typing away on his typewriter, using his magnifying glass to check the merchandise as it arrived in boxes, and noting down everything in his little notebook, documenting and stamping papers, making sure everything was top notch and precise.”

Mr Seddiqi, who was born in 1915, is said to have added the “& sons” to the title of the family business at its inception in the late 1940s because he always had every intention of keeping his business in the family.

The extent to which Mr Seddiqi’s family was important to him is reflected in a tradition that lasted until his death in 2007. Every Monday night, the whole Seddiqi family gathered for dinner at his home in Jumeirah.

One night, with about 50 family members there, Osama Seddiqi heard his grandfather say: “Yes. My dream has come true. I see my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren around. I finally have a big family.”

The story of Ahmed Seddiqi is the story of Dubai. What started as a single shop in Bur Dubai souq in the 1950s expanded over the decades to include more than 60 outlets today. And a single award to become an official Rolex franchisee in 1952 grew to a portfolio of more than 54 of the world’s most famous watch brands.

“One of the most touching items for us as a family is a letter of recommendation from the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the Ruler of Dubai back then, who recommended my grandfather’s business to be the official carrier for Rolex,” said the younger Mr Seddiqi. “The UAE Government’s support for local businesses and retailers through the ages is what helped us and others bloom and become what we are today.”

The journey of this family is carefully depicted in an exhibition of personal effects, memorabilia and rare watches that belonged to Ahmed Seddiqi. The exhibition at the Mall of Emirates coincides with the opening tomorrow of a new Seddiqi shop. It will be Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons’ first flagship boutique. The exhibition introduces Ahmed Seddiqi not only to Emiratis who have grown up familiar with the brand but not the man behind it, but also to younger generations of Seddiqis.

“It is important for the new generation to learn about the steps and the passion that goes into setting up a successful business, especially in today’s competitive global market,” said Osama Seddiqi, a father to five daughters.

Rolex was the first big brand for the company in 1952, followed by many others that still remain within the family firm’s portfolio today: Patek Philippe, Chopard, Harry Winston, Audemars Piguet, Hublot, Tag Heuer and Baume et Mercier.

Homing in on the national passion for luxury watches, the secret to the success of the family business, explains Mr Osama Seddiqi, has been to always “change” and to “always move”.

“The UAE is founded on family businesses. Statistics show that family businesses often fail after the third generation. So all of us need to plan ahead to avoid the pitfalls of not planning properly, and set up a proper board and allow only qualified family members to continue running the business,” said Osama, who worked in banking for seven years before joining the family business. The board of directors and executive committee of the company consists of the second, third and fourth generation of the family.

“We are the custodians of the family business, and we have to instil the same love and passion in the new generation as we have for our family businesses,” he said. He also recommends reading books by those who have achieved great success, such Khalaf Habtoor, to understand how it all works.

The exhibition, which closes today, shows some of the rarest watches. There are two Patek Philippes made as gifts for important figures. One is an 18 carat white gold automatic bracelet watch made for the late Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. It has a special green dial and a quote that roughly translates as “Only in times of need will you find freedom”.

Another is a special pocket watch ordered in 1953 by a Saudi Arabian retailer in honour of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud (1876-1953), founder of Saudi Arabia. The pocket watch is an 18 carat pink gold and ruby keyless dress watch with a painted image of the king on the enamel dial.

A unique Corum watch, a large 18 carat gold cushion wristwatch with a beautiful peacock feather dial, and a Rolex commissioned in 1977 for the late Shah of Iran, with Stellar Diamonds, are also on display.

Perhaps the most interesting items are the personal documents; invoices, log books and objects once used by the founder.

The Optima clunky typewriter with Arabic letters, a little green Quran with a faded cover, a tiny pocket calculator, a hand-held radio, old Emirati money such as rupees and dinars used before the union, as well as handwritten address books, a walking stick and reading glasses are just some of the objects that give a glimpse into the family firm’s past.

There is also a photograph display of important moments in the company. For example, in 1965 the company organised the first watch exhibition in the UAE at the Riviera Hotel in Dubai.

The family business has come a long way since the days of watches arriving in heavily fortified boxes on an abra – a traditional wooden boat, and the metro of the past.

As for Mr Osama Seddiqi, despite being in a family of watches, he was given his first Rolex only after he graduated from university.

“I went to my father as a teenager, and I said, ‘I need a Rolex’. He looked at me and said, a Rolex is not an easy watch, you have to earn it. You have to study and work hard, and if you deserve it, you will get it.

“My father, Ibrahim, who also ran the business, wanted me to earn my watch so I would appreciate it. This is the kind of upbringing that we must continue, so that we never take for granted all the blessings that we have.”

rghazal@thenational.ae