Colm McLoughlin
Colm McLoughlin has spent 41 years at the helm of Dubai Duty Free - one of the largest airport retailers in the world. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Dubai: When Colm McLoughlin signed up for a challenging assignment to set up the Dubai Duty Free in 1983, little did he know that he would spend 41 years at the helm of what would one day be the single largest airport retailer in the world.

And now as McLoughlin steps down as the Executive Vice Chairman & CEO of Dubai Duty Free, he can look back at “a life well spent” - as the title of a biography based on his life says. Under his leadership, Dubai Duty Free (DDF) has grown rapidly over the past four decades, from $20 million in 1984 to $2.16 billion in 2023.

But for all his achievements, the businesses he has helped start and the leadership he has embodied, McLoughlin has refused to take credit for himself. “It is not me. It is not Colm McLoughlin. It is the great dream team we have at DDF that has taken Dubai to an all-new level,” he told Gulf News in 2021. “We are all like one big family. We all know each other well. We care for each other.”

Watch an earlier interview with Dubai Duty Free CEO Colm McLoughlin

He gives credit to Dubai’s “can-do” attitude. “It is amazing how there is no bureaucracy, and our ideas are put into action with quick approvals. Regularly we sit together and brainstorm. That works well.”

In a statement, McLoughlin thanked Dubai Duty Free Chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, “who has been a wonderful boss to me for all these years and who I know will give the same level of support to my successor.”

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Handpicked for the job

McLoughlin’s duty-free journey began in Ireland in 1969, at Shannon Duty Free. In the seventies, Shannon Airport served as a major gateway and refuelling stop between Europe and the US. Having earlier worked in the retail field at Woolworths in London, he applied for a job at Shannon just to see what it entailed. He was recruited and the rest, as they say, is history.

Colm McLoughlin
Colm McLoughlin at the 30th anniversary celebrations of Dubai Duty Free. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

In 1983, as Shannon Duty Free General Manager, the Irishman was handpicked as part of a 10-member team by the Dubai Government to launch a world-class duty-free operation.

Landing in Dubai on July 15, 1983, a day before his 40th birthday, McLoughlin realised his luggage had not arrived. “The first thing I had to do was shop for clothes. So I headed to Al Ghurair Mall. The mall was closed between 1pm and 4pm, which I was not aware of. So I waited outside the mall for two hours and the heat took me by surprise. Even when I stepped into the balcony of my hotel room without a footwear, it was as if my feet would burn. We were right in the middle of the summer,” he said in an earlier interview.

McLoughlin and his colleauges, George Horan and John Sutcliffe, got straight to work. “Mostly, we came to work at 7 in the morning and worked till midnight. We set up the operations in less than six months, which was quite a feat — all thanks to the great team I worked with.”

Colm McLoughlin
Colm McLoughlin during the Draw Ceremony for Women’s Tennis at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

The initial focus was on sourcing dedicated agents for supplies. A training system was also set up. “Our first major recruitment was a group of enthusiastic people from Manila. I flew to Manila personally to hire them for the job. There were more than a 100 people waiting to be interviewed, of which 35 made the final cut.”

Today it employs 5,600 people.

Hard work and humility

McLoughlin combined hard work and humility to expand Dubai Duty Free beyond its retail operation and into leisure.

It operates a Leisure Division which includes The Irish Village in Garhoud and Studio One Hotel, The Century Village, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium and The Jumeirah Creekside Hotel.

Colm McLoughlin
Colm McLoughlin during the interview with Gulf News at Dubai Duty Free Head Office in Dubai on 28th May 2019 Image Credit: Gulf News archives

McLoughlin and Dubai Duty Free have helped effectively promote Dubai’s sporting, leisure and business facilities. It is a sponsor of international horse racing, tennis championships and a series of high-profile golf tournaments.

Under McLoughlin, promotions have also been part of the company’s marketing mix, with residents and tourists trying their luck at the Dubai Duty Free raffle draws to win the million dollar prize.

With numerous awards and an endless line of achievements, the Irishman can now rest easy as he has ensured the airport retailer is in safe hands.

DDF Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin (centre) with Ramesh Cidambi (right), COO, and Salah Tahlak, Joint-COO during the Dubai Duty Free 40th Anniversary. Image Credit: DDF

Ramesh Cidambi, who takes over as Managing Director, and Salah Tahlak, who becomes the Deputy Managing Director, have both worked closely with McLoughlin and will treasure his words.

“What is important in any work you do is to recognise the people who work for you. Wherever you are in life, do not lose touch with reality. The staff you work with should always be treated equally. Compassion is so important. Recognising the team’s efforts even more. This is what makes a true leader.”