With a budget of Dh100,000 and a humble showroom of electrical devices in Deira, Ebrahim Al Abbas started his journey 42 years ago to shape his current trading empire.
Today, Al Abbas Group is one of the premier groups in the UAE with 30 strategic business units under its fold that serve a whole gamut of business needs. With a total workforce of more than 1,500, the group dominates many market segments in the UAE.
Founded in 1967 by Ebrahim Al Abbas and his late eldest brother, Al Abbas Group has grown by leaps and bounds keeping pace with the growth of the UAE and under the management of the Al Abbas brothers, Ebrahim and Ismail. In an exclusive interview, Ebrahim Al Abbas, the group's chairman, told Gulf News that the talent of trading runs in his blood.
"Not everyone could be a trader. Real merchants should have certain characteristics and special talent. However, I [was] raised ... in a trading business atmosphere and [I] get the sense of trading from the family's roots."
He is descended of a family that has deep roots in trading, he says.
"I inherited this profession from my father and grandfathers who earlier were trading in pearls."
The group now has diversified into areas like trading, travel, education, media and advertising, retail, publishing, restaurants, manufacturing, medical laboratory, real estate and property development.
Gulf News met Al Abbas in his luxurious office in a 12-year-old building on a huge block of space belonging to Al Abbas in Bur Dubai. A modest man, he preferred to talk in the sitting area of the office rather than from the boss' chair.
A row of pictures of Al Abbas with the ruling UAE families in silver frames will immediately catch the eye of anyone who enters the lavish office.
First he introduced his family from another row of black and white picture including a picture of him as a child.
Al Abbas' grandfather was born in Dubai and they still have their old traditional house in the Al Baharna area in Bur Dubai. "Dubai municipality is renovating the house to keep it as a standing model of the traditional houses in the emirates," he said.
Going back to the beginning, Al Abbas told Gulf News how his late father gave him Dh100,000 as capital when he was 18 years old, to start his business in 1967.
At a time when business was just beginning to thrive, he started the trade by selling electrical appliances such as refrigerators and air-conditioners for the American brand Westinghouse, and the first showroom was on Al Maktoum Street in Deira.
"Yes I did follow my father's footsteps in trading, but I diversified this business thinking of something new.
He said in that first year, the company sold Dh100,000 worth of products, which was a fortune at that time.
"And since money generates money, in a year we could add new products to our trading. We got different brands from Germany and in ten years [time] could bring IBM to the UAE."
The father of four sons and five daughters believes the trading blood has been passed on to his children.
"I prefer the trading talent to be transferred to my sons to keep Al Abbas Group as a 100 per cent family business."
Already his eldest son, Hadi, 34, - who joined the interview - has big plans to double the company size. Al Abbas said that the rest of his sons are receiving English and American educations and will join the company once they graduate.
The group has managed to integrate and streamline its activities to draw maximum advantage in the ever- changing dynamics of the marketplace.
It has a strong presence across the Gulf region and was the first to bring many global brands to the UAE. The group is associated with companies like IBM, Konica Minolta, Steelcase, NEC, Casio, Datacard, Pitney Bowes, Hyundai, Carino's, Outback Steakhouse, Mary Brown, Fish & Co., and others.
Al Abbas believes that in order to reduce business risk and achieve balanced and efficient trading, they should not rely on one type of business.
Pointing to the benefit of diversified businesses and how they can be managed, he said: "Al Abbas businesses operate as self-sufficient units and constitute independent profit centres. Yet all of our business activities complement each other and give the group strategic advantages and help diversify the business risk.
"The company has been able to achieve success in each of the diverse businesses due to the wealth of marketing talent and technical expertise employed in each of its divisions. Our entire work force has been meticulously chosen for competence in their respective fields and yet forms a successful integrated whole."
The Group has leading businesses in office equipment, carpets, furniture, medical equipment, travel and advertisements. They are also the exclusive distributers for several brands in the Middle East, not just the UAE.
He attributed the success of Al Abbas Group to a business approach that combines the ability to change while maintaining the values of integrity, commitment, quality, professionalism and social responsibility that defines its core philosophy.
Al Abbas strongly believes that Dubai is a lucky city.
"The oil discovery is a gift from God to Dubai and the UAE. It is a vital clue that Dubai is a blessed city."
He said although the global economic crisis has affected the Dubai market, but it is not as bad as is being reported. It is also a time of opportunity.
"I feel that the UAE market now is more stable and [there are] good chances for investors."
The effect of the downturn on Al Abbas' business was not really big. In 2009, there was a 10-20 per cent drop in the company's turnover compared to 2008.
Although the real estate sector is the most affected in the group, Al Abbas said.
"We will keep looking for good investment opportunities in the real estate sector which we started three years ago. I believe that there will not be a drop in the real estate sector anymore. It is still a good investment in Dubai." He said there is no alternative market for investors and Dubai is still the Middle East's business hub.
The company did slow its investment plans in December 2008, but now it is time to go on with new projects and the group has already started in the food and life sector, where the potential is high, he said. Two weeks ago the group opened the first restaurant of the American chain Outback Steakhouse. A second branch will be opened in the next six months.
"To save our business we played the role of observer during the global economic crisis.
"We were doing small trading business with the same products we already deal with. We finalised ongoing projects but we put on hold all the investment plans last year. However now it is time to start up new business plans.
"On the other [hand], unfortunately, we reduced the company's costs by terminating the contracts of a number of Al Abbas employees."
A strong base and long experience in addition to the logical way of thinking are key elements that help to better handle the crisis, Al Abbas said.
He says he is always optimistic and believes that nothing should make one give up.
"During the past 40 years we passed through lots of ups and downs, but ... this never set back our business or prevented us [from] growing... our company.
"And although the global recession is more effective this time ... nothing lasts forever and the UAE is getting over it and living an era of prosperity."
He points out that the UAE is still a potential market.
"There are still opportunities in every sector and trading will remain at the forefront of businesses.
"Moreover, we are looking for different opportunities trying to target new international brands and franchises. We always negotiate."
Al Abbas believes that industry will boom in the UAE, which will bring a lot of investments to the country and develop new businesses.
Al Abbas understands that the only way to stay ahead is to cater to a global market.
"The group has already begun to think globally and has formed enduring business associations with a host of international companies. At Al Abbas, we see ourselves as a part of a new progressive UAE," he said.
Al Abbas is looking to have more investments outside the UAE. Already they have their brand and franchise in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Iran and Oman. The company's significant competitive advantage is the result of the enduring partnerships it enjoys worldwide.
- Established in 1967; currently 18 active member companies and 7 associate companies, with a staff force of above 1500.
- Authorised distributor and service centre for IBM (Netfinity servers, PCs, Laptops), Develop photocopiers, KIP High Definition Printing Products, Samsung multi-functional peripherals.
- Distributor for brands like Steelcase (Furniture), Durkan (Carpets), NEC (Plasma, Projectors), Casio (Digital Camera), Hyundai electronics etc.
- Master Franchisee for GCC Countries - Mary Brown (Fast-food), Oriental Kitchen (casual dining), Garlicos (casual dining).
- Franchise owner of Carinos & Outback Steakhouse.
- Member of the Dubai Quality Group.
- Joint venture with CMS technology (India), University of Freiburg (Germany), Damas (UAE), Al Fardan (Qatar), Neuflor International (Singapore) and Synlab (Germany).