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Wed 8 Jun 2016 02:07 PM

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Destined for greatness: The Entertainer creator Donna Benton

The developer of the popular two-for-one coupon culture takes a retrospective look at her well-known business and tells Tamara Pupic how staying true to her roots has helped her build a brand that has become a household name

Destined for greatness: The Entertainer creator Donna Benton
Donna Benton, founder of The Entertainer.

It was in 2001 that The Entertainer sprang into life in Dubai and quickly went global and ubiquitous.

For Donna Benton, its founder, a 41-year-old Australian who has not only built and scaled a global business, but disrupted the local market by creating a new, two-for-one coupon culture, there is no secret formula for success.

“I actually think it is how you were brought up,” she says. “I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I came to Dubai with $3,000. I think you really have to remember where your roots are.

“As a CEO, once you have achieved it all, you still have to keep your feet on the ground. You still have to remember where your roots are and you still have to work on growing the company. It is not for yourself, but it is for your staff and what they have put in because you want them to succeed as well. I am very big on leading by example.”

Benton’s business is built on a win-win model for all stakeholders involved – the voucher book allows merchants to reach new customers and provides consumers with incentives to use their services. To get the company off the ground, the then-26-year-old Benton did not hesitate to set up and manage all aspects of the business, including doing most of the sales, literally door to door, herself.

“I know that a lot of people get carried away, but I think if you stay grounded and remember where your roots are, you know, things like manners don’t cost anything, you are not better than anyone else just because you have succeeded," she adds. "Everybody is still human and you should treat people the way you want to be treated back. I’m really big on that.”

The Entertainer currently has more than 10,000 merchant partners and more than 12 million redemptions per year across 45 products. It operates in 40 destinations and 15 countries. The company, according to its founder, was planned to grow to grow organically, slowly, but steadily.

“I have always been a big believer that you have to crawl before you walk,” she says. “So it wasn’t a huge plan to go into 10 countries immediately. At first we focused on the GCC. Then we tried new products here.”

However, Benton tends to divide her entrepreneurial journey into before and after. The shift happened in 2012 when Riyada Enterprise Development, an investment platform of Dubai-based investment firm Abraaj Capital, acquired a 50 percent stake in the company. The exact value of the deal was not disclosed.

She rates Abraaj’s involvement, which fast-tracked the company’s growth and expansion plans, as one of her professional highlights. “That was one of my proudest moments because Abraaj is one of the biggest investment companies, not just in the Middle East but around the world,” she says. “This is my baby and my home-grown brand, and to have somebody come in was a big thing for me.

“That is probably where the mark was, where the rapid growth came because with the funding that they put in, we actually did in two years what we would have done in eight.

“It nearly broke everyone, but we did it.”

When asked whether she considered selling the business entirely, Benton is firm in her answer:  “No. I am still the CEO,” she says. “Everything is still the same. We had to align ourselves. If they don’t have the same vision as you, you can’t be in business together. So you really have to set your ground rules and they have to set their ground rules and, in our case, they have been excellent. They have been fantastic partners in all fairness.”

Due to her hands-on approach, Benton’s day-to-day running of the business has continued as usual despite now having private equity investors on board. “I wouldn’t say it has changed because we have to be very clear that a private equity company doesn’t run a company,” she says. “They invest in a company. So nothing really changed from an operational point of view for us. It was more about guidance and leadership.”

Achieving their new targets – which she describes simply as ‘going international and going digital’ – required them to be extremely agile to keep up with the pace of their own growth. “There were hard times sometimes because we grew so quickly. Some things you sort of implement too quickly thinking that it is not going to go as fast and that you might have another two years.

“We actually repeated some things that we shouldn’t have done. I won’t say mistakes, but the things that you learn along the way. Everyone does that while growing a company.”

The Entertainer Group is now active in Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Africa and London, in addition to every GCC country.

International expansion revealed differences in consumer tastes and behaviours across various markets, except one common thread on which The Entertainer brand is built - everybody loves good value for money. “We are in so many different countries and continents, we have different challenges on a daily basis. Something that works in the Middle East might not work in Asia or in South Africa,” Benton says.

“But actually our challenge is probably about the legalities in so many different countries. I won’t call it a challenge, it is more about just managing those in different ways. A merchant in Singapore might think differently than the one in Cape Town or the one in London.”

Following two years spent ideating, developing, designing and testing to ensure an easy and secure user experience, they launched the Entertainer App in 2013. ”I won’t call it a challenge but it was one of the biggest on my book,” Benton says. “Going digital was probably one of the best things we have done. Our app, and I’m not just saying it because it is our company, but it is one of the best in our industry in the world. It has so many different functions, it has filters, and it is really easy to use.”

Their in-house team of developers, based in Dubai and Lahore, Pakistan, is busy working on developing new features to enhance the user experience, such as  improved mapping, advanced search capabilities that allow users to search by product and filter against certain attributes, social sharing, integration with Trip Advisor, and more.

The App has enabled $60 million worth of savings for customers since launching three years ago. The Entertainer team further estimates that it has also put $1.3 billion into the economy.

“So, the transition to the app was scary. I’m not going to say that it was all easy. It was scary, but it paid off. It was a big investment for us to do it, but now we actually can do everything internally.”

Since 2001 Benton’s team has grown to include 230 people. The so-called Entertainer family is one of the pillars of her success. “I have always said that you can’t do it by yourself. You have to have the right people on the bus in the right seats,” she says.

“You have to employ the right people because there can’t be any weak links when you are growing into seven countries, when you are in four continents. You have got to have the right people.

“Also, we have had a huge staff influx and one of the things that you again personally need to master is knowing how to manage people. You have to be a people’s person. I have always felt proud of myself because I am a people’s person.

“I don’t think you can learn a skill in managing people. I think it is built in you. You have to be good at dealing with people. You have to be sympathetic to people. You have to look at other people’s personalities. It is not about who is more senior or who is more junior, but about really understanding that person regardless of whether they are junior or senior.

“Everybody is a big part of the company and that is critical in any company.”

In addition to running a multi-million dollar business, this multi-tasking modern woman is also a mother of two. Relying on her carefully-built network at both work and home is how she makes her schedule work. “I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, and how I keep everything going is all just about being organised and having a good support system.

“At home, it is also about managing. I have a nanny like 90 percent of people here because we have to, we don’t have our parents and our sisters here.

“When my daughter was born I built a playroom in the office. You just have to be structured and organised. A lot of moms are in the same position as I am, regardless of whether they are full-time workers or CEOs. So it is just about your personal management skills.”

The successful native of Melbourne, Australia, concludes by adding that there are still many goals and dreams on her ‘to achieve’ list. “I love what I do. I love achieving and I want to make my family proud. I do have a lot of goals and dreams. If you don’t take risks, you are not going to get there. My ambition, my self-motivation is a reward really, and it is making the people around me proud.”