Business | Features

Juma Al Majid: A life in service

The secret of entrepreneur Juma Al Majid's success is modesty and a quest for excellence

  • By Zaher Bitar, Staff Reporter
  • Published: 00:00 November 24, 2010
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Megan Hirons Mahon/Gulf News
  • Juma Al Majid in the library of the Juma Al Majid Centre. The library holds over a million books in several languages including Persian, Arabic, English, French and Italian.
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Juma Al Majid is a patient man. Describing how he built his business empire, he says: "I deeply believe that small continuous growth is far better than rapid, random [expansion]. I rely on a two to five per cent growth strategy. I don't look for 100 per cent or even 50 per cent growth because this needs big management."

And he does not embark on any venture until he has completed thorough research and is convinced the business will succeed. Today, the Al Majid Group comprises more than 40 companies in engineering, retail, automotive and investment — to name but a few — across the world.

Al Majid says it's the sea that taught him to be patient. When he was eight, he used to accompany his father, who owned two boats, on pearl-diving trips. During the summer, he would serve refreshments on the boats for a few rupees.

First lessons

"It was the most difficult work I have ever had in my life. But I learnt from the sea patience and tolerance," he recalls.

Around that time, the local pearl-diving industry was at a low ebb amid intense competition from Japan. But Al Majid kept sailing with his father and for six years helped ship goods to Iran, Bahrain and Oman, among other places. Former pearl divers were seeking work in ports as the industry collapsed.

When he turned 15, his uncle, Ahmad Majid Al Ghurair, asked Al Majid to help at his shop in Deira, which dealt in wholsesale fabrics, rice and other commodities.

After two years at the shop, Al Ghurair, spotting his nephew's skills at business, decided to open a small shop that he could run on his own.

"They gave me fabric with some assorted goods to sell with Rs700 [Dh56]. I was not happy because it was a heavy duty and responsibility for a 17-year-old boy, who did not have enough experience to handle such a business. However, I couldn't refuse this offer as we used to obey the elderly, whatever their decision," Al Majid recalls.

Tricks of the trade

Being the only Emirati in the local market, Al Majid was initially discouraged by some of the other shopowners who would say that such business was not for nationals. Soon, however, many of them were teaching him the tricks of the trade.

"When I felt that I was doing well in my trade and I started to get the money I needed, I was very enthusiastic to be the first shop to open and the last to close. I [even] worked on Friday." At the end of the year, he saw the rewards of his hard work. He had made a profit of Rs2,000, which was not easy to achieve at the time.

"I owe my uncle a lot," Al Majid says. "He put me on the business track and taught me the ethics of a trader."

Al Majid continued in the same business for another two to three years until he met his close friend, Mohammad Al Qaz in 1952. Al Qaz brought goods in Dubai from Kuwait and Bahrain, and Al Majid would help with the sales.

In 1956, Al Qaz asked Al Majid to travel with him to Kuwait to trade in that lucrative market. The two used to take tobacco and Omani dry lime to sell in Kuwait and Bahrain and returned with goods like fabric and watches — from Switzerland and France — to sell in Dubai.

With a lot of hard work, the business expanded to Pakistan, India and across the Arab world into Europe, as it began to attract the support of international brands planning to enter the then Trucial States. It was around that time that Al Majid formally launched his own companies, Mohammad & Juma Al Majid and United Arab Agency.

Al Majid recalls how he began an association with General Electric. He says he came across refrigerators produced by the company — at the time not available in Dubai — at the Al Qusaibi showroom in Bahrain.

Sensing an opportunity, he pretended to check the refrigerator, while picking up the guarantee card with the company's details. He contacted GE once back in Dubai. But his first deal with GE was not a great success. He bought 200 air conditioners directly from the GE dealer in Lebanon at a discounted price, as the order was quite a substantial one in those times.

Franchise rights

However, it took him two years to sell all the stock as there was no proper electricity supply then. By the 1970s, his company was the second-largest in terms of sales of GE products, including up to 700,000 air-conditioners a year.

Over time Al Majid went on to secure franchise rights for other international brands — in engineering, automobiles, office furniture, communication and tyres — from companies like Samsung, Hyundai, Hitachi and many more.

The partnership between Al Majid and Al Qaz lasted 11 years. When they decided to go their separate ways, they sat down and divided the business equally. There were no contracts or ownership papers, but the partners had faith and trust in each other.

For Al Majid, trust and reputation form the basis of any trade relationship — and the success of the UAE as a trading hub. He points out that he was one of the Emirati businessmen — together with the Al Owais, Al Ghurair, Al Futtaim and Al Mulla families — who were part of the gold trade between the UK, Switzerland and India.

Because of the trust and reputation that UAE traders enjoyed, banks in Switzerland and UK would entrust them with 500 or 1,000 kilogrammes of gold without any guarantees or letters of credit. "We used to sell to the prices they gave and send them the money back. They never lost a dirham," Al Majid said.

After the UAE Federation was formed, Al Majid left the gold business as the trade and development projects the country offered greater opportunities. He realised that the contracting and engineering fields called for investment.

In 1974, he began work on establishing a Pepsi factory in Dubai, the National Cement Company, and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He also diversified into the carpentry and décor business. The group has since diversified further into transport and logistics, construction, food and advertising.

There is also an international investment company, Al Majid Investment.

In recognition of his role in the development of the economy of the emirate, Al Majid was made deputy CEO of the UAE Central Bank and appointed head of the Dubai Economic Council in 2003.

Dubai "My passion and dedication to work, faith and trust are the secrets of my success," Juma Al Majid says. Work is at the centre of his life. "If you want to exist, you must work."

For a man who has achieved much in the world of business and philanthropy, Al Majid lives a modest life.

His modest way of life comes from the teachings of his family, his culture and his religion. "Our religion says that excessive spenders are the brothers of the devil," Al Majid remarked, "Showing off doesn't add anything to your name, fame and reputation. Only weak and shaky people need to boast.

"If we save this money and spend it on the education of needy people, it would be far better," he added.

However, Al Majid remarked that people should not deprive themselves and live in misery. "I know my expenses; no increase or decrease," he says.

Al Majid was born in 1930 in the Al Shindagha area in Dubai to a small family that belonged to the tribe of Aal Bu Muhair. His early life was shaped by his father Majid Bin Abdullah Qraiban, mother Aisha Majid Al Ghurair, a brother Rashid and two sisters Hamda and Shamsa.

Early years

His mother wanted him to go to school and continue his education as far as he could, but trading was in his blood. Al Majid sold stationery and candy at his school to earn money. He left school to go work before finishing his primary education.

"I wish that the old Al Shindagha was still there," he says, fondly recalling his early life. In one room of the Centre for Culture and Heritage is a 50-year-old map of the Al Shindagha area with the names of the Emirati families that used to live there.

The Al Majid family house, marked on the map, had one room built of gypsum, while the other part was a tent made of palm leaves.

Despite the lack of wealth, Al Majid did not consider his family poor. "The poor man is the one who refused to work. And anyone who can work and feed himself and his family is not poor," he says

He dismisses those who refuse to work because they say cannot find a suitable job. "A man should work in any job even if it doesn't match his qualifications rather than be dependent on others," Al Majid says. "Such people don't deserve charity. Instead of giving them money, you should give them work."

Humble approach

Those who work for Al Majid perceive him as a serious man who is clear about what he wants but also very patient and not demanding. When he needs a secretary, he does not call, but goes to her desk to speak.

Every morning he makes a list of notes, articles and information to be sent to people in the company (or to other people he knows) that might benefit from them. Al Majid is a voracious reader.

On his desk are at least five books — full of yellow post-its — which he is reading simultaneously. "Sometimes I find important information which we should highlight or clarify; and sometimes I grab interesting and useful books and research titles which we should seek if we don't have it," he explains.

A private man, Al Majid does not easily talk about his family. He attributes a good part of his success to the woman in his life.

He says: "Behind every successful man is a good woman, who supports and helps him in the good and bad times in his life."

The father of a son and two girls says: "Continuity is not in the number of children but in a good reputation and useful deeds." In any event, he considers all the children of the world his, and both boys and girls have the same importance in family and life.

His son Khalid is Al Majid's right hand. "Khalid is handling all Al Majid businesses, but his first concern is charity work, even before the commercial ones."

Awards given to Juma Al Majid

  • 2010: Honorary PhD degree from the Institute of Oriental Studies (The Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow).
  • 2010: Award for International Commitment, The Arab American Institute, USA.
  • 2007: Sultan Al Owais Award for Scientific and Cultural Achievement.
  • 2005: Award for The Year's Personality, The National Council for Culture and Art and Letters, Kuwait.
  • 2005: Merit of Jerusalem honour bestowed by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority.
  • 2003: Voluntary Work Award from His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah.
  • 2001: Excellence Certificate for Islamic services, Ministry of Information, Kuwait.
  • 2001: Honoured by the Arabic Culture Society for role in preserving Islamic and Arabic heritage, Beirut.
  • 2000: Excellence certificate for supporting the Palestinian cause from the associations of The Palestinian Reform and Charitable Work.
  • 2000: Excellence certificate from the Islamic Centre, Aachen, Germany. 
  • 2000: Award of the International Personality for serving Culture and Heritage, from Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
  • 1999: Honoured by the Scientific Council ofSt Petersburg University for preserving Islamic heritage.
  • 1999: King Faisal International Award for service to Islam, Saudi Arabia.
  • 1998: Hamdan Bin Rashid Award for Distinguished Academic Performance.
  • 1998: Appreciation award from Her Highness Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, Wife of the late President Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Chairwoman of the General Women's Union.
  • 1997: Award from Ministry of Justice and Awqaf, Kuwait.
  • 1995: Education Award, Ministry of Education, UAE
  • 1994: Dubai Quality Award for the Businessman of the Year.
  • 1992: Sultan Al Owais Award for Cultural Personality of the Year.


Important positions held by Juma Al Majid

 

  • Chairman of Dubai Economic Council
  • Deputy Chairman of UAE Central Bank (Ex)
  • Member of higher Committee of UAE University
  • Vice Chairman of Emirates Bank International (Ex)
  • Chairman of Juma Al Majid Group of Companies
  • Founder and President of Juma Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage
  • Founder and President of Islamic and Arabic Studies College
  • Founder and President of National Charity Schools
  • Board Member of  Al Nisr Publishing
  • Founder and Chairman of Bait Al Khair Society
  • President, Parents’ Council of Dubai Educational Zone (Ex)
  • Director of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry
  • Committee Member of the Middle Eastern Studies Center in Harvard University, US (Ex)
  • Founder and President of The Arab Thought Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon
  • Member of the National Committee for Education,
  • Culture and Science, Ministry of
  • Education and Youth (Ex)

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