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Born into a business family, Adel Sajan's induction into a business environment started as early as when he was 13 years old, working in different verticals at the Danube Group by first starting with the warehouse, logistics and sales and marketing teams before moving into finance and management roles under the supervision of his father and group founder and Chairman, Rizwan Sajan. It was a test by fire and the efforts paid off. Today, as Group Managing Director, Adel is justifiably proud of having steered the fortunes of Danube Home, making the vertical one of the most recognised lifestyle brands in the UAE and the Middle East. Excerpts from an interview.

What has been your greatest challenge during the pandemic era when leading your firm and how do you feel you have overcome this?

I think the greatest challenge was to correctly assess the situation without panicking, reduce the impact of Covid-19 pandemic by containing the situation and chart a way forward towards a manageable and sustainable growth path. As soon as the lockdown happened, we quickly took a stock of the situation, and ensured health, safety and social distancing across all our operations.

Our two main focus areas were taking care of the health and safety of our staff and our customers, as we are in the retail business and touch and feel is the USP of our model. We were among the first companies to get our staff and their families vaccinated in the UAE which happened in the end of December. We had health managers in our camps and made sure our retail touch points maintained temperature checks of every customer who entered our store.

The next step was to talk to the core team members and strengthen internal communication with them – to assure all that this is a temporary phase and things will be back to normal. With rising infection and death rate, it was important to boost mental health and keep their spirits high.

How has the outlook changed for your sector over the past couple of years, how is your business model evolving to keep pace with new requirements?

We obviously had to adjust our short-term outlook based on the phased recovery from pandemic in different countries. With the new Omicron variant, for example, we have to re-assess the situation and the outlook – if it goes out of hand. So, although we remain careful in our projection for the future, we nevertheless, remain positive.

For us 2021 has been a year of recovery and 2022 will be a year of growth and expansion – into new verticals and territories. During the pandemic, we launched our hospitality division and home services division as we projected an immediate consumer need in these two sectors.

We had already been wise in our approach and had started spending on our e-commerce vertical but since a year-and-a-half, we adjusted our business model – and have expanded our e-commerce channel for a more Omni-channel approach for our consumers not only in the countries we are present but others too.

How has your brand positively impacted the sector since you took over the reins of the company?

I completely took over the reins of the retail business in 2012. Our retail arm was sizeably smaller compared to the overall group, and we were losing heavy money and on the verge of closing operations as it was not a feasible option. It was at that point that I decided to turn the business around and Danube Home was born. Formerly known as Danube Build Mart, the brand took two years to be restructured, in terms of logistics, buying, merchandising and marketing.

From 2014 to now it’s been an upward journey and we are now considered the fastest growing home improvement retailer in the region, having grown 700 per cent in the last six years, which is truly commendable in every way.

How supportive has the UAE government been in furthering the cause for your brand?

The UAE government had offered a number of incentive packages last year during the pandemic – to defer loan repayment, rent relief and a reduction in fees. This helped individuals, salaried professionals and small businesses navigate out of the crisis.

However, I think the biggest incentive for all of us is the effective handling of the pandemic by the UAE Government. You might wonder how this could be an incentive.

The effective handling of Covid-19 not only helped reinforce international investor confidence in the UAE, it helped wealthy people stay in the UAE and relocate their families here – due to the safety, security quality of life the country offers. Thousands of foreign businessmen and highly qualified professionals visited the UAE since the beginning of this year – bolstering hotel occupancy levels and pushing up property prices, with many investing in real estate.

Today, the flights coming to the UAE are almost full, the aviation sector recovered, so did hospitality, tourism and retail. Restaurants are doing good business – all due to the effective handling of the pandemic – which has not only been an incentive, but also comes as good dividend!

Then comes the Expo 2020 – which worked like a tonic for all of us. It helped jump-start the economy for many sectors, especially the aviation, tourism and hospitality sectors. You couldn’t have thought of a better incentive for us. Expo 2020 is a game changer for Dubai and the UAE economy.

Which are the areas of growth regionally in your view, and how are you planning to capitalise on the same?

As a business, Danube Group has matured enough to expand its footprint in international markets. I believe, we now have a solid track record and a strong team to become a global business.

We are looking at growing our retail business - Danube Home by 25% next year. We aim to open new stores in the UAE to grow this business, also an expansion strategy has been put in place for Bahrain, and to expand our presence in the region we are eyeing the Qatar market as that market seems feasible for our model. We are also aiming to double our e-commerce business, which has enjoyed immense growth, latest by next year.

Besides the growth in the GCC market, we have evolved as a global player, our franchise business currently operates out of 12 countries and has 20 stores in its kitty this year, and we are planning to double our franchise business to 40 stores in 20 countries by end of next year, making Danube Home truly a global brand.

Also adding onto this, I am adding a new brand into the conglomerate called Danube Sports World, which is the largest indoor sports facility, which will promote sports in the Mena.

As mentioned, we will grow organically – vertically and expand our business horizontally – by entering new markets and develop business in those countries. As we grow business and start new ventures, we will make those announcements. But surely, the company is back on a solid growth mode and we will grow exponentially.

In closing, and in keeping with the theme of this report, how would you define leadership in the context of a post-Covid-19 world?

Covid-19 is a stress test for everyone, including leadership – be it national, business or social – it tested the leadership quality in us. I believe we came out strong. We are now more confident about our future and this confidence comes from our handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

We as a group are the first few private players to also announce and follow the new work week, in line with the new government directive announced by the UAE government, this will help us be at par with our global counterparts, we as an organisation will support this decision and make it work in our favour, as we have branches across 20 countries and this new work week will help us be aligned and allow smoother financial, economic and trade transactions. This has to be our latest visionary move, which proves that we have a strong leadership vision in place.