Dubai: Majid Al Futtaim, the UAE business doyen who died today (December 17) after a brief illness, will principally be known as the creator of shopping destinations. And as someone who did not stop there but kept re-investing those destinations to go beyond shopping into every facet of leisure and entertainment.
First came the push into retail, through the creation of Deira City Centre and bringing the French supermarket brand Carrefour to Dubai, then the UAE and, thereafter, into the Middle East and Africa. With Deira City Centre, Al Futtaim set the foundation for Dubai’s elevation as a shopping destination for the world to visit. Indeed, right through from the mid-1990s to the end of the last decade, Deira City Centre was one of the most visited tourist spots in the UAE.
“We still remember how in the early days of Deira City Centre opening, Mr. Al Futtaim would keep making periodic visits,” said a senior retail industry executive who had worked closely with him. “But he was just as interested in how Carrefour was performing - those were the early days of the big supermarket destinations. He would want to know every detail.”
Neither Deira City Centre or Carrefour took a long gestation period to hit their mark - and their initial success was the catalyst for the brands to have a move into Sharjah, other emirates and then some of the biggest markets in the wider Middle East and North Africa.
My dream is to create great moments for everyone, every day...
The Majid Al Futtaim brand and presence is as integral to Egypt’s retail scene as it is to the UAE’s and some of the other Gulf markets. The concept of mixed-use destinations has been around for the better part of two decades in the UAE, but one of the true pioneers in this space was Majid Al Futtaim, whether it was adding hotel elements, the cinemas, and anything else that would bring people to spend time at his place.
“Between Deira City Centre opening in 1995-96 and the Mall of the Emirates nine years later, he changed the very concept of retail,” said a CEO who knew him from the Deira City Centre days. “No one could believe it when the Group launched Ski Dubai in a desert climate.
He was inspirational, a true visionary for the entire business community.
Skiing and shopping
That’s right - Majid Al Futtaim was thinking about mixing leisure and entertainment with pure shopping well before it became a must-do for all brick-and-mortar retailers to compete with online. The Ski Dubai component was uncharted territory, so to speak, in this part of the world. The question for many was would consumers want to spend time in an artificial sub-zero environment? Even if there was snow and penguins.
Mall of the Emirates and the Ski Dubai showed there was an audience for it. Even though part of the initial years were spent bearing the brunt of 2008-09’s Global Financial crisis.
According to Yussufali M.A, Chairman of LuLu Group, “Majid Al Futtaim created landmarks as destinations - that was something everyone learnt from him. He had a direct hand in some of the key business sectors - his death is a great loss.”
He will always be remembered for his part in establishing the foundations of this country’s automotive industry, as well as his contributions in countless other areas such as his humanitarian work.
Opening in the pandemic
Nothing suggests this better than the opening of the Al Zahia Mall in Sharjah early this year, when the retail sector was yet to come to terms with the COVID-19 disruption. The biggest mall in the emirate opened for business, and there would not be many who would say it was not an overnight success.
Which is why the term ‘visionary’ keeps being used by those who knew him. Michel Ayat, CEO of AWR Automotive, the local Nissan, Infiniti and Renault dealer, said: “Majid Al Futtaim who played a pivotal role in the development of UAE and the region. He was a role model for all business leaders - and those who worked with him. My deepest condolences to his family and to the UAE for their loss of such a great man.”
Whatever Majid Al Futtaim created did change market dynamics.”
Mohammad Al Badri, Director at Eros Group, is another who does not hold back from using the visionary motif. "We are all saddened by this terrible news. Our prayers are with his family and employees of Majid Al Futtaim."
Numbers tell a story
There are times when numbers do aid in telling the depth of the Group’s influence. In the first six months of this year, as economies and whole sectors were still being reshaped by the pandemic’s influence, it reported revenues of Dh15.6 billion. Sure, that was a decline of 10 per cent - but for a Group that played a critical role in ensuring everyday needs were stocked and delivered during the lockdown phase, the decline was something that could be overlooked.
A Dubai icon, a trailblazer in thought and spirit - Majid Al Futtaim's efforts in building up the region's private sector, retail and tourism ecosystem will never be forgotten.
Just as important, there were deeds that the Group took on that helped its employees. Most notably, it absorbed some of the workforce impacted directly by the lockdown to the ecommerce operations under Carrefour, which was beginning to build up serious momentum. That one decision saved jobs, when the easier option would have been to let go.
He was a visionary who helped transform to the city of [the] future and growth.
It should then be no surprise that Majid Al Futtaim group was one of the first to give full support to the UAE Government’s recently announced ‘Nafis’ programme, which aims at creating more job opportunities for talented UAE Nationals in the private sector.
“The Group is one of the most systemically important names in the private sector when it comes to job creation - for all,” said an HR corporate consultant. “But it is not just not only that - the Group has defined policies on diversity, ESG (environmental social governance) practices that are well above the standard in the region.”
The many achievements of the Group that bear his name is a true testament to his vision and expertise and a business model for future entrepreneurs to emulate.
"As a tenant for about two decades across many MAF assets, I am sure everyone will agree with me that Mr. Al Futtaim was way ahead of his times and will be fondly remembered as the father figure of organized retail in the region," said George Kunnappally, regional chief of the South African F&B brand Nando's.
Staying with sustainability, the Group also introduced ‘green financing’ into its funding needs. This meant raising funds linked to specific environment-friendly actions. Needless to say it was well ahead of the rest in the region’s corporate landscape in thinking green.
A thing for green
That green focus played out handsomely in another venture that Majid Al Futtaim took on - creating self-contained residential communities. Now, again, someone may ask hasn’t Dubai and the UAE just about done everything there is in the property space?
He saw opportunities where people saw sand. He dared to dream big.
That is not how Firas Al Msaddi, CEO of fam Properties, would frame it. “Sure, Majid Al Futtaim’s legacy will be felt more in retail or leisure destinations - but his community themed projects were eagerly awaited and got sold out in hours and days. This was the case whether the market was at its peak or coming off a downturn.
“As people emerged from the lockdown phase, one of the first projects in Dubai to feel the instant upturn was his Tilal Al Ghaf. The villas there - whatever was available - got sold immediately. The whole buy up villas trends started at Tilal Al Ghaf.”
And create those 'great moments'...