Colm McLoughlin, CEO of Dubai Duty Free
Colm McLoughlin, CEO of Dubai Duty Free Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

There is something about the UAE. How many times have you heard people say they left the UAE — only to return months or years later? And then there are some who never leave this country as the UAE turns into their second home!

One happy father-son duo tells us exactly how they found success in a foreign land and why the UAE is now home to them.

Meet Colm McLoughlin (77), Executive Vice-Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free (DDF), and his son Niall McLoughlin (51), Senior Vice-President, DAMAC Group.

Colm is a well-known expat in the UAE. He is regarded as a pioneer who, along with a dedicated team, put Dubai on the global aviation map by launching Dubai Duty Free way back in 1983.

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2000 file photo: His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai (then Crown Prince of Dubai and UAE Minister of Defence) presents Colm McLoughlin, Managing Director, Dubai Duty Free, with “The Most Distinguished Employee Award” from the Dubai Government, making him the first expatriate to receive the award. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Landing in Dubai

It was a day before his 40th birthday on July 15, 1983, when Colm set foot in Dubai. He, along with two other Irish experts in the business of duty free — George Horan and John Sutcliffe — came to Dubai on a six-month contract to set up duty free operations in the emirate. Among the three, Sutcliffe left DDF in the 1990s to work with Aer Rianta in Bahrain, while Horan left DDF in June 2016. Colm, as we know, continues to take giant strides at the helm of DDF operations. Losing baggage on arrival

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1986 file photo: The “Irish Trinity” — Colm McLoughlin, General Manager, Dubai Duty Free (DDF); George Horan, Senior Shopfloor Controller, DDF; and John Sutcliffe, Deputy General Manager, DDF — is pictured with the Frontier Awards for “Airport Duty Free Operator of the Year” (1985), “Best Marketing Campaign for a Duty Free Operator” (1986), and “Duty-Free Person of the Year”, Colm McLoughlin (1986).

“My luggage did not arrive when I landed in Dubai. I flew from Dublin to London and took another flight from London to Dubai. There were no direct flights from Dublin in those days,” Colm explained. He said: “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.”

Colm, who will be 78 this July, said he stayed in the hotel for a few days and then moved to an apartment in Deira Tower.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Duty Free with Colm McLoughlin during the occasion of DDF 25th anniversary
Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Duty Free with Colm McLoughlin during the occasion of DDF 25th anniversary Image Credit: Supplied

From a small team to an empire

“Our team arrived in July and on December 20, DDF launched its operations. We were a small team of ten people. Today, DDF employs more than 2,600 people. The operation has consistently raised the benchmark for airport retail and it continues to grow. We could not have achieved this without the dedicated team we have on board,” said Colm.

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1983 file photo: Colm McLoughlin with the first batch of Dubai Duty Free employee referred to as the “Pioneers”.

“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 said DDF was set up based on Shannon Duty Free operations at the Shannon Airport located in County Clare, Ireland. “We started work based on what we knew from the operations at Shannon Airport. Soon we started sourcing our suppliers and agents. All along, we kept asking ourselves what would and could be different here.”

In the first year, DDF recorded sales of $20 million (Dh73.56 million at current exchange rate). As of 2020, the sales turnover stood at $697 million (Dh2.56 billion).

Setting a good work environment

“During the set-up, our focus was on sourcing dedicated agents for our supplies. We had to set up a training system as well. 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.”

Colm said of these 35 people, 25 worked at DDF until the last year. “Everyone is retired now.”

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2009 file photo: Recreating history — From left: George Horan, Colm McLoughlin and John Sutcliffe came together to recreate the landmark photograph of the “Irish Trinity” after 23 years, featuring the three Frontier Awards won in 1985 and 1986.

DDF success all down to the dream team

“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 said, adding: “We are all like one big family. We all know each other well. We care for each other. Just the other day, I got a message from a former Indian staff member of DDF. He started working at DDF in 1991 and retired last year. He was enquiring about all of us at DDF.”

Colm said he has received a lot of support over the years at DDF. “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.”

Recalling how golf was played in the past

“We have some of the world’s top-rated golf courses in the UAE now. Back then, however, we played golf on sand. In golf courses, there are signs that read ‘please repair the greens’ as in repair the pitch marks. Those days, at the country club, there was a sign that read ‘please brush the browns’. Because the greens were actually sand.”

Colm further said: “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,” said Colm.

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Colm McLoughlin with his wife Breeda. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Buying a Palm villa, but staying in Garhoud — close to work

Until four years ago, Colm and his wife Breeda lived at a villa in the Al Garhoud area of Dubai. “It was close to office premises and it worked best for me. I had some great memories living there. During winter, I would bike to work on my bicycle.”

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2017 file photo: Keeping the tradition of leading by example, Colm McLoughlin Image Credit: Supplied

Colm said he moved to his Palm Jumeirah home some years ago as his previous landlord decided to make some adjustments to his Garhoud villa. “Living on the Palm feels like being in a wonder of the world. We go to bed at night, two miles into the ocean. It is now home to 75,000 people. It is an amazing feeling. Everyday, I take a spin around The Palm on my bike.”

Living it up post-COVID

Colm said: “Last year, my wife and I, our son Niall and his wife Sherly spent a number of Saturdays, exploring the UAE. We went to Masafi, Jebel Jais, the seafront in Sharjah. We went to Hatta — just to catch up on all those places. COVID taught us to not miss out on things. Family is important as well. Bonding with the family has been important for all of us.”

Learning values from parents, passing it on to his children

Colm said many of his values were taught to him by his parents — father Tadgh and mother Mel. “They taught all five of us to respect others. This is imbibed in me as well.” He said these values have been passed on to his children — Tyna, Niall and Mandy. “I believe my children know the importance of these values.”

“I regret every day of my life that I did not learn Arabic. Maybe I will learn the language now.”

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2014 file photo: Dubai Duty Free’s Executive Vice-Chairman Colm McLoughlin accepts the Irish Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad in Business and Education category from Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins, at a special ceremony held in the presidential residence Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin, while An Taoiseach Enda Kenny (right) looks on. Image Credit: Supplied

Sports runs in the family

Colm said sports was always special in the household. Wife Breeda McLoughlin (formerly Fox), is from County Clare in Ireland and belongs to a popular family back home. The family members are regular visitors to Dubai. Like Colm, Breeda is a keen follower of sport, especially golf and tennis. “She is a huge supporter of the DDF Tennis Championships since it was first staged here in Dubai in 1993,” Colm said.

Colm’s older brothers — Ray and Feidlim — both played Rugby for Ireland. “Ray was captain of Ireland. Feidlim became captain of Northumberland for amateur rugby. For several years, I played squash in Dubai. I have been the captain at Emirates Golf Club.”

He further said: “My elder sister Muira retired as a bank manager while the younger sister Enda — the baby of the house — passed away after suffering a motor neuron disease. Enda was a singer, musician and she played the harp.”

Meet Niall McLoughlin

Niall is Senior Vice-Pesident at DAMAC Group. “Some hard work and learning the ropes from down the ladder made me reach here,” Niall said.

Niall’s first job in UAE was back in 1987. “I joined DDF. But just because my father worked there, I did not get any special privilege. My job title was that of a storeman and my responsibilities involved stacking the shelves and sweeping the office floor. At that time, I was 18, ready for anything and learning the ropes,” Niall told Gulf News.

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Niall McLoughlin, son of Colm McLoughlin. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Nine months later, an opportunity came to work for a Tobacco company. “I worked as a merchandiser, going into supermarkets like Lals, Choithrams and selling cigarettes and stocking their shelves. I was a little over 19. It was a tough job. I did that for about a year. After that, I decided to head home to Ireland.”

Niall said he had a Eureka moment while he was in Ireland. “It was raining and I felt the urge to be back in Dubai. The following week, I was back in the UAE. There has been no looking back since then.”

Niall said: “I appeared for some job interviews and joined an advertising agency as an advertising executive. But my first big break came in 1995 when I joined the Al Futtaim Group as the company’s communications manager.”

Niall said he later got a tap on the shoulder from a global bank for a job as head of corporate affairs. “After nine months, they offered a promotion to me as the regional head of corporate affairs for Mena [Middle East and North Africa]. I did that for a year. Then they asked me to take up a bigger role in London.”

Again Niall’s love for Dubai was put to test. It was a choice between a big career jump and staying in Dubai. “I chose Dubai. I got a call from Mr Hussain Sajwani of DAMAC Group and he asked me if I would fancy a coffee. I said yes and the next thing was I was working as the company’s head of marketing.”

Dubai Duty Free CEO Colm McLoughlin, right, and Niall McLoughlin, Senior Vice-President, DAMAC Group.
Dubai Duty Free CEO Colm McLoughlin, right, and his son Niall McLoughlin, Senior Vice-President, DAMAC Group. Image Credit: Supplied

Family bonding

Niall said he, his wife Sherly spend every weekend at his parents’ house. My sisters both live in Brighton. I am in the middle,” said Niall.

Niall said respect, humility, empathy are some values he has learnt from his father. “Like so many other expats, I have created my home here. I met my wife here. I have bought properties here in this country. The UAE is part of my life. Even when I retire, it will be a part of me,” Niall added.

“Dubai has, over the years, created second and third-generation expats who all have left the UAE. However, they always came back. To have a father like Colm who has contributed to the country in a way he has from a business perspective, makes me a very proud son.”

[Edited by Sanjib Kumar Das, Assistant Editor]