50 years on: Dubai's duty free legend Colm McLoughlin

The amazing tale of how Colm McLoughlin became the driving force behind Dubai Duty Free's $2bn success story
50 years on: Dubai's duty free legend Colm McLoughlin
By Sam Bridge
Sat 01 Jun 2019 12:20 AM

Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, will celebrate 50 years in the duty free industry on June 1.

Widely recognised as an industry legend and known as the driving force behind Dubai Duty Free's $2 billion business, McLoughlin was on holiday in his native Ireland in the spring of 1969 when he first read about a job at Shannon Duty Free, the birthplace of the duty free industry.

“I had been working for Woolworths in London so I had a number of years of retail management experience. When I saw the job advertised in Shannon Duty Free I thought “I wonder what that is about”, so I applied for the position mainly to see what the job entailed,” said McLoughlin.

McLoughlin was offered the job on the spot and so began his five-decade long career in an industry that was started by Dr. Brendan O’Regan in Shannon in 1947 and is now a global business worth an estimated $76 billon.

It was 1983 when Dubai International Airport’s then director general, Mohi-din Binhendi,was tasked with the job of setting up a duty free operation in the emirate.

Binhendi met with the Aer Rianta senior management, including McLoughlin, then general manager of Shannon Duty Free and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I remember when Mr Binhendi visited Shannon and we were excited to hear about the plans he had for setting up a duty free operation in Dubai,” said McLoughlin. “I have to admit though that not many of us knew where Dubai was at that time and we had to look it up. But we were left in no doubt that Dubai meant business and they wanted to open a world class duty free operation very quickly.”

Within weeks of the visit, Colm McLoughlin moved to Dubai in July 1983 as part of the 10-man team from Aer Rianta at the request of the Dubai Government to set up the duty-free operation as part of a six-month consultancy agreement.

“We had only six months to turn the project round,” remembers McLoughlin. “During that time we had to recruit and train 100 staff, we had to purchase products, we had to establish systems and so on, so we had no time off and worked around the clock. It was worth it though when we opened for business on December 20 and took $44,000 in that first day and went on to have sales of $20 million in the first full year."

Fast forward to 2008, when Dubai Duty Free celebrated its 25th anniversary and in one single day, sales reached $20 million.

Within months of the opening of Dubai Duty Free, McLoughlin was asked to remain on as general manager of the new operation. Two other members of the original Aer Rianta team also remained in Dubai including John Sutcliffe, who went on to head up Aer Rianta International based in Bahrain, and George Horan, who became president of Dubai Duty Free in 2011 and retired in 2016.

Commenting on McLoughlin’s 50-year career anniversary, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said: “I remember in the early days when Dubai Duty Free consisted of a few scattered shops around the airport, now it is a world-leader... This is thanks to its excellent management team highlighted by the experienced people who remain in top management. Throughout it all, from day one, Colm McLoughlin has been in charge, leading the way.”

In July 2011, Colm McLoughlin was named executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free and its subsidiary businesses, which includes the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, home to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, The Century Village, the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel and The Irish Village in Garhoud and Riverland, with the third Irish Village outlet opening soon at Studio One Hotel in Dubai Studio City.

“I do get a lot of credit at times and I am always very mindful of thanking the Dubai Duty Free team and those who work behind the scenes at Dubai Duty Free to ensure that our operation runs 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Of course, I am very appreciative of my own boss, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who is an absolute superstar and I feel very honoured to have worked closely with him over the years,” said McLoughlin.

On December 20 2018, Dubai Duty Free celebrated its 35th anniversary and history was made as the retailer crossed the $2 billion mark.

“I never would have thought that I would still be working in this industry 50 years on, and now 36 years in Dubai Duty Free. I appreciate all of the support that I have received over the years and I thank my own family, especially my wife Breeda, for being supportive throughout the years”, said McLoughlin.

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