More than a quarter of a century ago, Fakruddin Ajmal left India and landed in Dubai to set up his company's overseas office. The times were harsh, but he stuck on and today Ajmal Perfumes is a name to reckon with in the perfumery business. How did the family do it? Friday meets the perfumers...

Two men were in a forest when a tiger suddenly started chasing them. One man immediately began to remove his shoes so he could run faster when the other asked him why he was even bothering to run when their chances seemed slim. The swift reply was, "To survive, all I have to do is run ahead of you.''

Amiruddin Ajmal, head of the 50-year-old Ajmal Perfumes, narrates this story with a laugh. Clad in a crisply-starched kurta, Amiruddin, the eldest of the Ajmal family is seated in his very functional Hamarain Centre office in Dubai, explaining what it takes to stay ahead of the competition.

"There's no single formula (for success). And it works differently for each person,'' states this quintessential Indian businessman and trader, attempting to spell out the company's success formula.

His brother, Fakruddin Ajmal, the first in the family to arrive in the UAE from Bombay to open the company's overseas office here, chips in, "All we did is business. We've been in Dubai for a quarter of a century, but not many have seen or known us. Till now, we've steered clear of the limelight.'' The family may have, but not their perfumes.

Much of this perfume company's success, whose fortunes were tied to the bark of a rapidly-depleting and a slow-to-mature tree called agarwood, has come from, to use a perfumery catchphrase, catching the note at its peak.

Taking the "right approach at the right time'' was one golden rule, says Amiruddin. He provides an example: In the late '70s, French fragrances dominated the perfume market. Realising that their target was largely the over-40-year group, and keen to widen their market, the Ajmals decided on a new business strategy. They decided to introduce an "Oriental perfume spray'' to attract the younger age group.

The move was a departure from the traditional image of Ajmal used by veiled and hennaed women. "We went ahead despite advise from some people. Our hunch was too strong,'' Amiruddin recounts.

From a small shed in Dubai, armed with a rudimentary stirrer and drum, a fragrant fusion of natural oils was created. The fantastic potion was called "Mukhallat'' (Arabic for concoction) spray and the mesmeric fragrance of Dahan-Al-Oud wafted into the market in the mid-'80s.

The rest as they say, is history. The success story of an Oriental fragrant-oil manufacturer from Assam, India, with a modern tweak to ancient aromas was to go down in the success annals of the perfumery business.

Today, the 50-odd Ajmal products jostle for space with leading European brands in perfume stores. This is a company which commands – and gets – Dh2,300 for a 12-ml bottle of its Dahan-Al-Oud Moattaq perfume. This is also the company which boasts a sophisticated $400,000 R&D division which is authorised to issue quality certificates on behalf of the Saudi Arabia Standardisation Organisation (SASO).

This is also the company which strongly believes in the vision of its founder, agar tycoon Ajmal Ali, who never sacrificed quality at any cost. The pioneer in the family, Fakhruddin, recalls an incident when this basic Ajmal aphorism slipped his mind: "Many years ago, the "Gharu Oil'' supplied to a top Dubai family was returned on the grounds that the fragrance was not up to the mark. I was young and not very experienced in the business. I did not know what the problem really was and informed my father about the incident. Maybe I doubted its quality too,'' he says.

An 80's picture of Fakhruddin and Amiruddin Ajmal.©Gulf News
"But my father was calm about it. 'It must be a matter of storage,' he told me. The fragrant oil, when kept inside the aluminium bottle in which it is sold, reacts with the rubberised cap. It has to be transferred to a glass bottle. I informed the customer about this and sure enough, a few days later, I was told that the fragrance had become even better.''

That's when Fakhruddin realised he should have never doubted his father or forgotten the fundamental principle their company rested on – never to shortchange the customer. This ethic is the cornerstone of the company's principles and has been since the time their father, Ajmal Ali, began blending oils in the '50s from agarwood to create the attars so sought after by oriental perfume lovers.

Points out Fakhruddin: "There was a reason for shifting our base from Mumbai to Dubai. Our main clients, the Arabs, used to visit India only during the rainy season. We did not want to wait for them to come to us. We chose to be close to them.''

Setting up base in a foreign country was no easy task. "It was a misty morning when I landed in Dubai in 1975,'' he says. "There were very few buildings around, I looked out for a Clock Tower since I knew all Gulf countries had one. I was sad at leaving my family behind. But there was hope tinged with uncertainty.

"Even in those days, you could feel the vibrancy of the city. Construction activity had started in a small way and the city seemed to hold loads of promise.'' Initially, Ajmals began as just a trade office named Mohammed Fakruddin Corporation. "I struggled at first to convince customers I was indeed part of the authentic Ajmals they were familiar with.''

The market abounded with impure and diluted attars, and Fakruddin, who was barely 26 years old, had to try hard to convince people. Another major problem was coping with the all-oppressive loneliness. There were few Indians around, and the evenings and nights seemed long. Social life was limited to hanging out at Nasr Square where people gathered to watch the fountain and the lights.

"I used to spend a lot of time at the Shindagha area, watching the dhows coming in, and the loading and unloading happening there. Somehow, that used to soothe me. I was miserable because I could not communicate easily with my family in India,'' he remembers.

In the '70s, the perfume players were restricted to the Murshid Bazaar area. There was Allied and Hassan Mukthar dealing in French and international brands, Dhamma Sons concentrating on Western and Eastern perfumes, and Rayab selling Indian attars.

Soon, Fakruddin set up a shop in the narrow by-lanes of Souq Al Kabir (Murshid Bazaar) in the Kuwaiti mosque area. The souq concentrated on dealing with the heavily-fragranced segment of cosmetics, hair oil, henna and aktars. "It was not necessary to have a local partner then,'' Fakruddin notes.

Their customer base was nationals and their client list included many prominent families. Of course, it helped they were dealing with a product targetted primarily at Arabs. Fakruddin remembers a majlis in the Murshid Bazaar area behind Mashreq bank which was well-frequented. This was a good avenue for keeping in tou