EXCLUSIVE: Ashish Chopra, CEO, Delhi Duty Free

By Andrew Pentol |

Ashish Chopra, CEO, Delhi Duty Free Services.

Since joining travel retailer Delhi Duty Free Services (DDFS) in December 2013, newly appointed CEO Ashish Chopra has played an integral role in the evolution of the DDFS joint venture (Aer Rianta International, GMR Airports and Delhi International Airport Limited) which runs stores at Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport Terminal 3.

Having joined the company as Head of Purchasing, he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer in April 2017 and Deputy Chief Executive Officer in September 2019.

His ascent to CEO was complete on 5 December 2020, when his predecessor Philip Eckles stepped down to return to his family in England after many years overseas.

In the first of a two-part interview with TRBusiness Senior Editor Andrew Pentol, Chopra, who is giving his first trade media interview since becoming CEO, outlines his short and long-term objectives and reveals how the company continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

How will the experience gained from working with Delhi Duty Free in roles such as Head of Purchasing, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy CEO assist you in your role as CEO?

I have been with the company for seven years and it has been a very successful journey. I have obviously grown with the company and throughout it all I have had the confidence and trust of the chairman, shareholders and board members past and present of this ever-progressing organisation.

Becoming CEO was obviously a very proud moment for me. Travel retail is a global business, but we all try to understand our passengers and their behaviour according to nationalities. Delhi Duty Free Services is no exception.

Ashish Chopra, CEO, Delhi Duty Free Services (third from left) was all smiles at the unveiling of the retailer’s  premium shopping experience at Delhi International Airport Terminal 3 in 2019.

Having worked in purchasing and then kind of on the dark side in operations, I then started working with the marketing department. I have had great support and excellent relationships with all heads of department.

The team is mainly unchanged which is a big positive. We have a great bunch of people who have always supported me and the organisation. I am sure my expertise will only help as I move forward on this journey.

Can you please offer an insight into your leadership style?

As a leader myself, or any leader for that matter, it is important to focus on the people you work with. I want to thank each and every one of our team members who have been there during these difficult times.

In terms of leadership style, I am someone who is quite situational. As a leader though, I must be effective and delegate.

Delhi Duty Free Services’ stores were closed from March to June 2020, but have been fully operational since the end of July.

I believe I have to keep learning, whether that is from staff, colleagues, customers or passengers. You have to learn, lead and intervene when required. Times are changing so we all need to evolve.

What worked earlier might not work now, so you must remain on your toes and be situational. Obviously, we all want to be running a successful business during these tough times. Hopefully, I can motivate a few along my journey.

How does it feel to be the first Indian CEO to lead Delhi Duty Free Services?

We are a global business. I would not like to concentrate too much on global CEOs and local CEOs. It’s about having the best person for the job. I am glad to be in the position of CEO, but it could have been a local CEO five years back and an expat now. I am just proud to be leading this bunch of excellent people.

What are your short-term and long-term objectives and why?

Let’s take a step back to the start of 2020, when we all heard a few terms for the first time. One is social distancing. Previously, the world was all about socialising and then social distancing came into play. We then heard terms such as survival, uncertainty, health and wellbeing and PPE kits.

As Covid-19 was beginning, we had to shut our stores, which do not even have shutters as we are a 24/7 business. Closing our stores was very emotional for everyone at Delhi Duty Free and I am sure there were similar scenarios with all airports and businesses worldwide.

Once we began coming out of this period — I would say we are still in Covid-19 times, but kind of managing/navigating it — the aim was to keep the business afloat.

The focus was on restoring finances and cash-flow and reassuring our people more and more as well. We had to be really compassionate with our people as they have been the ones who have delivered the growth and drove our success over the last 10 years or so.

It was also important to maintain/renew our partnerships with different business or brand partners. I can proudly say that we have remained united through these difficult times.

The retailer has strived to provide a seamless shopping experience during these challenging times.

We also had to get back to business because life had to kind of slowly return to normal. It was all about the customer value proposition which we had to kind of begin understanding again. We always thought we were getting to know our customers better, but have had to instil confidence in our passengers and make them realise it is totally safe to travel from an airport and shop in the process.

Slowly but surely, we have managed to instil confidence and the results are showing. Passengers feel assured. I would not use the term comfortable, but they feel assured in terms of shopping and with the precautions and measures in place relating to the safety of passengers, staff and products.

From March to June, when the stores were closed it was a step-back. Since re-opening stores from July onwards, the focus has been more short-term. Obviously, short-term will translate to long-term.

International flights to and from India remain suspended until further notice.

We are placing a strong emphasis on digital expansion to give confidence again to customers, who obviously have to travel in a duty free environment. We are learning and innovating, whether this is to do with payment options, the ability to interact with customers before they travel, or virtual technology in stores.

Some of the projects implemented in the past nine months, under normal circumstances many not  have not been executed until end of 2021. This pandemic has taught us a few things and we have learned and evolved quicker than we perhaps would have.

Can you please offer an update on the current status of Delhi Duty Free’s operations?

As far as DDFS is concerned, we have been fully operational since the end of July 2020. The shop-and-collect service, however, remained suspended until 1 December 2020. This was because India is still not operating any commercial flights.

Sales from the shop and collect service have not returned to previous levels, but we are already seeing why the concept was so popular among passengers.

International flights to and from India are suspended until further notice, although some international flights are taking place under the Vanda Bharat Mission (a quest to bring back stranded Indians from foreign destinations) and following he establishment of air bubble agreements with a number of countries.

How much emphasis is Delhi Duty Free placing on digital technology and sustainability and why?

In terms of technology, we have focused on offering convenience for our passengers who must travel. We are continuing to work on elements such as self-service and providing cashless transactions.

During these times, it is best to provide a seamless shopping experience for passengers with less interaction.

Delhi Duty Free has left no stone unturned in trying to maintain/renew relationships with business and brand partners during the pandemic.

We are giving customers an option. They can interact with our excellent sales staff or explore our other payment and shopping options if they feel uncomfortable.

Shopper safety is key for us, as we try to navigate our business back to normality. We will continue focusing on retail standards, retail experience and theatre from the short-term to the long-term.

We will also focus on sustainability. If we are not sustainable there will not be a future tomorrow. We have to look at sustainability, which is more in terms of the financial element as of now, but also focusing on the environment.

How has the Delhi Duty Free joint venture progressed over the years and what have been the key contributing factors?

As we know DDFS is a joint-venture between Delhi International Airport Limited Aer Rianta International and GMR. Obviously, in this case one our shareholders are our landlord .

The joint-venture has been great. Each shareholder brings global expertise. GMR and Delhi International Airport Limite bring an overall perspective on airports and concessions and Aer Rianta International more on the retail and duty free side.

Focusing on retail standards, retail experience and theatre from the short-term to the long-term has been the priority for Chopra and his team.

DDFS was awarded the concession for 15 years. The joint-venture has been in place for more than 10 years and there are more than five years remaining. It has been a great journey for all involved..

Watch out for the second part of our exclusive interview with Ashish Chopra, CEO, Delhi Duty Free Services.

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