Interview: EMKE founder Yusuffali MA

In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, Yusuffali MA, the founder of the LuLu hypermarket chain and boss of the EMKE Group, reveals how he created a retailing giant that is now worth well over $5bn
Yusuffali MA has built a business empire that has diversified from retail into manufacturing, foreign exchange and real estate
By Beatrice Thomas
Sat 09 Nov 2013 10:37 AM

An hour in the company of Yusuffali MA isn’t very long. In fact, it’s actually half an hour. For a start, the self-styled and self-made boss of retailing giant LuLu Hypermarkets doesn’t usually grant interviews. And when he does, much of that time is spent looking at the other five people in his opulent Abu Dhabi office. His answers, like much of his business empire, are sharp and to the point.

“We are food [and] clothes. People need this on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

He has a point. Food and clothes have made Yusuffali one of the richest Indians on the planet with a fortune of $2.2bn.  During the space of our 30-minute conversation, his loyal shoppers have spent $308,220 – a sum that adds up to an astonishing turnover of $5.4bn a year.

Not bad for a virtually penniless man who made his way to the UAE in 1973 on a small boat to work in his uncle’s tiny distribution company.

Make no mistake: forty years on,  Yusuffali  has definitely hit the big time. The numbers are impressive:  104 stores in the Middle East, 500,000 shoppers a day, and a whopping 32 percent share of the grocery retail sector.

For the last four years, he has also taken up residency at the top of the Arabian Business Indian Power List.

But - like most things about Yusuffali -  you wouldn’t know that from talking to him.

“There is no influential person in the world. In each country the rulers are number one. If there is any influence, I will not use the influence for my business. If there is any influence I will use it for good for the people.”

What he is also very good at, however, is rapidly expanding his empire.

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The company also has interests in manufacturing and food processing, food imports and exports, cold stores and warehousing as well as logistics and trade.

Through Line Investment & Properties LLC it has also moved into shopping malls and real estate projects, opening up 12 malls in five years with plans for seven more, as well as mixed-use projects in the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and India.

But it is the foray into supermarkets in the early 1990s, and later hypermarkets in 2000, which was arguably the biggest game changer for retail in the region.

Having developed EMKE’s wholesale foodstuff trading market, which resulted in it becoming one of the top importers and traders of food products in the UAE, Yusaffali saw an opportunity.

It was amid the background of the Gulf War, and although the scene was bleak, he was confident of the future and forged ahead with investment plans.

“People welcomed it and encouraged us to start more,” he says of the introduction of big-scale supermarkets to the region. “And people like the concept, especially for local people.”

However, it was also a change that was clearly done smartly.

“We transformed the tradition to new [but] we didn’t change any product,” he explains. “Coffee beans means coffee beans. We were in the sacks before, we changed it to a very attractive wooden containers. That’s all.”

Yusuffali, whose personal wealth is estimated by Arabian Business at $2.2bn, says the company’s success was based on a simple premise.

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“If there is an economic crisis, also people need to eat. That’s why we are not going in the luxury things, we are going for the basic needs of the people,” he says.

It was also the reason EMKE Group not only withstood the economic downturn, but “didn’t go back from our expansion”.

“Whatever we were planning before the economic problems, we fulfilled,” he says. “If the population is decreased then it will be a problem, but if the population is there, people are eating, then we don’t have any problem.”

However, the company’s strategy also carried some science. It opened where there was demand, and its stores were not carbon copies of one other, but carried products that were relevant to that to specific neighbourhood.

“We will have a study into what age, what nationality, what type of population, what type of food,” Yusuffali says. “[It’s] not 100 percent correct, but maybe 70 to 80 percent for that area. That’s why this model is accepted by the people.”

And there were three key elements to how the company did business: quality, price and service.

“This is my basic formula,” he says. “This will continue for all of the hypermarkets, even though this is a wealthy place, all of it is very high-class. But our service is the same, our price is the same and our quality is the same – no compromise.”

Despite the company’s phenomenal growth, Yusuffali hints at no signs of slowing down. It will open seven new hypermarkets in the UAE in the next two years, six in Oman, four each in Qatar and Kuwait, three each in Bahrain and Egypt and 15 in Saudi Arabia.

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New markets were also being pursued in Malaysia, Indonesia, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco and Libya. “After this Arab Spring, all these countries now they’re now liberalising the foreign investment law and people need organised retail instead of traditional,” Yusuffali says.

The company has also expanded into other areas, including 65 Lulu International Exchange branches in India, the Far East and Africa and another 40 planned in the next three years in the MENA region, as well as India and the Philippines.

And it has diversified into shopping malls, for good reason.

“Our main business is hypermarkets, not shopping malls,” Yusuffali says. “But why we are going into shopping malls is [because] the shopping malls will complement hypermarkets and the hypermarkets will complement the shopping malls. This is our model.

“I will stick only in the core business, because I’m not a person for experiments. Diversification, from the company’s point of view, will always be in related sectors. Hypermarkets, malls, hospitality, money exchange, food service, entertainment centres, etcetera, will be our focus areas.”

Recently, EMKE opened India’s biggest shopping mall, in Kochi, in March this year. With $400m of investment planned for the sub-continent – “a huge market” - it includes a five-star Marriott Hotel, adjacent to the Lulu Shopping Mall, which will open early next year, as well as India’s biggest convention centre and a five-star Hyatt hotel in Bolghati, Kochi, and another convention centre in Calicut. To beef up its retail and exports business, the group is also investing heavily in developing a logistics centre and cold-storage facility in Kochi.

Personally, Yusuffali is investing heavily in India’s banking sector, spending a reported Rs5.1bn ($83m) buying a 4.99 percent stake in Kerala-based Dhanalaxmi Bank and close to a 5 percent stake each in the Federal Bank and Catholic Syrian Bank.

That investment in India has also extended to hiring staff. He is the single biggest employer of Indians outside of India, with 22,000 on his payroll, employing 4,000 workers from his village in Thrissue alone.

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By training them in a series of skills, he says, they can in turn go on to start their own business.

A well-respected philanthropist, much of his charity work is dedicated to his home country. While declining to give a specific figure, he says, as per Islamic law, “a sizeable portion of the profits” went to various CSR activities and charitable initiatives both in the UAE and India, along with poverty eradication in Africa and education in Palestine.

He is also known to have donated generously to relief efforts following the Gujarat earthquake, plus giving sums to the Tsunami Relief Fund, as well as contributing to Dubai Care.

“[It’s not] just make profit and just keep, because when you flow water the new water will come, I strongly believe,” he says.

His benevolence also extends to his own staff and Yusuffali has a reputation as a generous boss who rewards loyalty and achievement.

He proudly says that the attrition rate of key senior staff was a small one percent. His CEO has been with the company for 32 years.

“I believe in my management scenario to delegate the powers to my people,” he explains. “They will be accountable and responsible. If I take, in my management, everything in my hand, the institution cannot work, so I strongly believe in my people, my colleagues.

“They are running the show, because they are responsible and they are entirely accountable.”

Yusuffali has been ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the most influential non-royals in the UAE.

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Among his many and varied roles in the UAE and India, Yusuffali was also the first expat to be elected to the prestigious Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2005, and he was made a director by the UAE Cabinet of its Zakat Fund in 2011.

He names the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) as the key figure from whom he takes inspiration.

“Our Prophet, peace be upon him, he was a businessman initially,” he says. “He taught us how to do the business – no cheating.  I want to be trustworthy, and I want to be honest with my people.”

Yusuffali says there is room for another player in the hypermarket/supermarket space, modestly describing the entry in 1995 of Continental (later Carrefour) as a major player compared to EMKE’s rank as “small mosquitoes in the world”.

“Retailing all over the world is open for everybody,” he says. “The market is not with one player or two players, it’s a huge market. We are not afraid if anybody comes, it’s better to bring new brands in the market.”

So what is the next step in his retailing revolution? “Big hypermarkets,” he responds. “Before, it was 100,000 square feet, now it’s 200,000 square feet, because more products, more manufacturers, more principles, more brands, more health caution.”

Whereas previously there were no organic foods, now it provided a very huge area for organic produce, he explains. Likewise, it had established specific sections for diabetic food and diet food.

“That means we need a huge space, not like before,” he says.

With that, my chat with Yusuffali is up, and you can see that the retail magnate is already focusing on his next visitor. Given his attention to detail, don’t bet against Yussufali extending his empire even further in the near future.

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