We asked a selection of leading forces from Dubai Duty Free, as well as those who have worked in the industry and alongside Colm McLoughlin and the team for many years, to reflect on the travel retailer’s incredible evolution as it celebrates its milestone 40th anniversary in 2023.
Below, they share their words of congratulations and must-read anecdotes that will take you on a journey through the company’s four decades of dynamism.
We hope you enjoy reading the captivating soundbites below.
Feature compiled by Claire Malcolm.
This article is an extended version of the version that appears in our November/December 2023 issue, as part of our Dubai Duty Free 40th anniversary coverage.
“The operation has been at the forefront of Dubai’s transformation”
H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Duty Free
“Back in 1983, the Government of Dubai recruited the services of Aer Rianta, the Irish airport authority, to develop the retail operation at Dubai International Airport. When Dubai Duty Free opened for business in December of that year, it quickly developed a strong reputation among travellers and business partners for its world-class service and shopping offer.
“Today, Dubai Duty Free is a US$2 billion business, whose expansion mirrors that of Dubai International Airport and of Dubai itself. Dubai Duty Free has been a central player in promoting the city of Dubai to the world. And we are proud to say that the operation has been at the forefront of Dubai’s transformation and helping to position the city as a global tourism and shopping destination.
“I would like to congratulate the team at Dubai Duty Free on their 40th anniversary. In particular, congratulations to Colm McLoughlin, who has been at the helm of the operation from the beginning, and the many other long-serving members of management and staff.”
“Dubai Duty Free is my life”
Salah Tahlak, Joint Chief Operating Officer, Dubai Duty Free
“It has been a long journey from the Cargo Village to Dubai Duty Free. I was the first Emirati graduate to join Dubai Duty Free as a Marketing Executive in October 1992 and I am happy and proud to have played my part over the past 31 years.
“While I also took on the role of Tournament Director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships 20 years ago, for which I am particularly proud of the role the men’s and women’s events have had in promoting both Dubai Duty Free and Dubai. As outlined in our chapter on the company’s marketing drive, this strategy was led by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai, promoting Dubai as the place where the Middle East meets the world.
“Dubai and tennis are linked in many ways. A lot of the players now live here. They can connect via Dubai International Airport to more than 300 cities worldwide. It underlines how Dubai has become a central hub between east and west. It’s also safe, family-oriented, and works for many people, including the players.
“Dubai Duty Free is my life. I’ve spent two-thirds of my life here, although I have had offers to move elsewhere. It is a great working environment, very professional, with great energy and teamwork, all of which comes from the leadership shown by our Chairman, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and our Executive Vice Chairman and CEO, Colm McLoughlin.
“This gives us encouragement to deal with one another or with partners in a professional way, like you would in a family. All of the staff are dedicated and work hard within our rules and compliance with the company and the UAE.”
“A transformative journey that defied expectations”
Sherif Toulan, President, MEADFA
“Dubai Duty Free embarked on a transformative journey that defied expectations. With the guidance of a great leader and strong determination, Dubai Duty Free emerged as a pioneer in the duty free and travel retail industry, setting new standards of excellence. Since 1983, their remarkable evolution represents evidence of innovation and perseverance.
“It is not only a success story; it has been a guiding force that significantly impacted on the entire industry in our region. Congratulations to Dubai Duty Free on their 40-year journey!”
“My life changed when I met Colm”
Bernard Creed, SVP Finance, Dubai Duty Free
“I originally joined the company in 2001, leaving six years later to work first in the Caribbean and then the US. I then returned later and have been there ever since. My key function is to oversee finance including the back office, the cash office and the exchange bureau, and oversee the legal work for the company – plus its Corporate Social Responsibility division.
“It feels like a family culture with all that comes with that. There is that leadership from Colm McLoughlin’s side – you feel safe to succeed but also to fail now and again. That was a huge change in dynamic for our department but it was super interesting also. It also reflected how the company was thinking bigger, and continues to do so.
“Obviously living and working here make a difference financially, and that has allowed me to make a lot of difference for people in my life, those that are very close to me. And so I always say to Colm that my life changed when I met him, and I have had a great path at Dubai Duty Free.”
“A story of great team spirit”
Erik Juul-Mortensen, President, TFWA
“Personally, I have had the pleasure of working with Dubai Duty Free from the very beginning as a supplier and have been able to follow DDF closely throughout its 40-year history. I still remember meeting Colm and Breeda at the very first TFWA World Exhibition & Conference. At that time, not a lot of people knew them, or indeed knew Dubai Duty Free. How that has changed!
“The story of Dubai Duty Free is one of amazing development and success, and it does not seem to be stopping. It will be so interesting to follow DDF going forward as it reaches new heights. It is also a story of great team spirit. Many of the team have been with Dubai Duty Free for many years, and their pride and passion are clear to see.
“Dubai Airport has always had an extremely diverse customer base, and the success of Dubai Duty Free lies in part in its determination to serve all its customers, whatever their national and demographic background. Its product range is as rich and varied as you will find anywhere, and it has never been afraid to give local brands a chance alongside the major international brands.
“Dubai Duty Free has been a valued supporter of TFWA from the very beginning, and has also always been a true supporter of MEADFA. The company has not only been a great ambassador for Dubai and the UAE, but for our industry across the world. I am sure that will continue long into the future.
“On behalf of all of us at TFWA, sincere congratulations to Colm and all at DDF on reaching this wonderful milestone. Here’s to the next 40 years.”
“Marketing is a fundamental part of the DNA”
Sinéad El Sibai, Senior Vice President Marketing, Dubai Duty Free
“In late 1983 and early 1984, Dubai Duty Free was the only entity that was actually promoting Dubai. There was no tourism board, Emirates Airlines only came along in October 1985. So really the remit was to be the official promoter of Dubai International Airport and the city of Dubai, as well as Dubai Duty Free itself.
“And then, of course, to be part of the PR team who worked with Dubai Duty Free on the first tennis tournament… it was just incredible to be involved in a world-stage event. I remember thinking, ‘I’d love to work for that company’. I liked the fact that they were so focused and that they were actually going out to the world and talking about Dubai.
“So as it turned out, that was a great fit for me to come here, and as you know, marketing is a fundamental part of the DNA of Dubai Duty Free. Colm has always believed in and invested in marketing from the beginning. It plays a crucial role in promoting Dubai and did so from the early days.
“This is a nurturing, family-oriented organisation. There is a clearly defined career path for those that have the talent, work ethic and ambition to do well and our people know that. That comes from the top and it permeates down from the senior management team to how we look after our staff. I have had some fantastic opportunities through a career with Dubai Duty Free, working with Colm, Ramesh, Salah and many others.”
“They have continually redefined and set new standards across airport retail offerings”
Abdul Hamied Seddiqi, Chairman, Seddiqi Holding
“It has been a privilege to work closely with Dubai Duty Free as a trusted partner since 1983. They have been instrumental in cementing Dubai as a destination for luxury retail and serving as a conduit to the world of luxury watches and jewellery, yielding remarkable results over the years.
“With a commitment to enhancing the travel shopping experience, they have continually redefined and set new standards across airport retail offerings and operations.
“The Seddiqi Family extends our heartfelt congratulations to Dubai Duty Free on their 40th anniversary. This milestone honours not only the accomplishments thus far, but also the perseverance that continues to establish them as a leader in its category.
“Looking ahead, we hope to further develop the partnership between Seddiqi Holding and Dubai Duty Free, where the pursuit of excellence remains a common thread, propelling both entities to greater heights.”
“I am confident about Dubai Duty Free’s ability to react and adapt”
Sharon Beecham, Senior Vice President, Dubai Duty Free
“I have been in Dubai Duty Free for 25 years now, having worked across various buying and merchandising roles before assuming my current post as Senior Vice President Purchasing.
“The company is unrecognisable today from the one when I originally joined. We had one shop of around 1,000 sq m, today it’s multiple outlets across 40,000 sq m. I remember when we were about to open what would become Concourse C, I was on my hands and knees filling up the perfume shelves and was wondering how on earth we were going to have enough passengers to shop here. In comparison to what we had, it was huge.
“I have spent more than half of my career at Dubai Duty Free so it has shaped me enormously. When I went into the purchasing department from operations, it was a big change. But that very much changed both my career trajectory and everything that I’ve done ever since. So Dubai Duty Free has been a huge part of my life and a huge part of my career.
“Despite the many changes occurring in a fast-paced world, I am confident about Dubai Duty Free’s ability to react and adapt. At the end of the day, Dubai Duty Free exists at the airport. And the future of airports is very much going to reflect the future of Dubai Duty Free. If all of the growth strategies that exist at DXB continue, Dubai Duty Free will continue to be a big part of the airport and a big part of Dubai.”
“The story of DDF gets bigger and better with time”
George Horan, President, retired
“The story of DDF just gets bigger and better with time. Let’s go back to the beginning, in 1983, a team from ARI – Shannon, Dublin, under the leadership of Michael Hanrahan – came to Dubai to set up Dubai Duty Free. The team reported to Mr Mohi-Din Binhendi. I think this team deserves mentioning. Michael Hanrahan, Colm McLoughlin, John Sutcliffe, Frank O’Dwyer (RIP), Maurice Burke, Brendan O’Shea, David Hope (RIP), John O’Neil, Michael Upton, Michael Geoghegan (RIP), Michael Cashin, Albert Baker and myself, George Horan. We credit the success of DDF to the boss, Colm McLoughlin. This is indeed true. In addition, we have to recognise the part played by the wonderful team at DDF and its five point strategy: High quality service; high quality range of merchandise; high quality shopping ambience; value for money and great aftersales service.
“There were indeed other parties who contributed to this success, to mention just three: The Government of Dubai and the Civil Aviation Authorities vision for the future of the aviation industry locally and globally, which led to the continuous expansion of Dubai Airport to keep up with this vision, culminating with the opening of Concourse A (Airbus A380 facility) in 2013 and the Dubai World Central in the same year. The formation of Emirates Airlines in 1985 started with two aircraft on lease from PIA, to today’s fleet of 250 aircrafts, 135 Boeing 777, 117 Airbus A380. The start-up of Fly Dubai in 2019. A low-cost carrier which today has a fleet of 79 Boeing 737, flying to 110 destinations. Together Emirates Airline and Fly Dubai carry in excess of 60% of all traffic through Dubai Airport.
“DDF is not just an ordinary airport retailer. Mr McLoughlin and the team are continuously looking outside the box especially at issues of a humanitarian nature and damage to our global environment. The DDF Foundation has contributed to so many charities over the last number of years. For example, SightSavers, who restore the sight of millions of children. The company is also involved in promoting Dubai as a sporting destination. For example, DDF Tennis Championship, Dubai Desert Classic, and the Race to Dubai. In addition, DDF can be seen as a sponsor of many events externally, such as The Irish Derby and other events in Newbury and Ascot.
“To finish, I would say DDF is a wonderful company to have been involved with for 34 years. I congratulate Colm and his team for what they have achieved over the last 40 years.”
“They wanted to be different. It was all about the customer experience”
John Sutcliffe, former Managing Director, ARI Middle East
‘’I was fortunate to be selected as one of the 12-man Aer Rianta team sent out to Dubai in 1983. I was only in my late twenties at the time, but it changed my life forever. Our contract was a short term one (six months) to set up Dubai Duty Free. The Shopping Complex opened successfully on time just before Christmas 1983. Shortly after that I was asked to stay on permanently as Deputy General Manager. Colm McLoughlin was General Manager and George Horan was our Shop Floor Manager. I stayed for seven wonderful years.
“Looking back, all I can remember is continuous growth and development of the facilities, and this very much continues to this present day. The Dubai Government was totally focused on the development of Dubai as a world class destination for tourism and business. They gave special priority to the development of the airport and of Emirates airline. This meant continuous expansion of the facilities at Dubai Airport, and of course the shopping facilities. Emphasis was on quality and a first-class service. They wanted to be different. Profit was not the first priority. It was all about the customer experience.
“Colm was the perfect choice to deliver on the Government’s vision, and the success of Dubai Duty Free speaks for itself. Within a couple of years since its start up in 1983 Dubai was considered the premium airport duty free facility in the world, and still holds this position 40 years later. That takes some doing, and all credit to Colm and his dedicated team at DDF.
“Congratulations to Colm and all the team at Dubai Duty Free on their 40th anniversary. Long may their success continue’’.
“An amazing retail powerhouse”
Stewart Dryburgh, General Manager, Nestlé International Travel Retail
“The partnership between Nestlé and Dubai Duty Free is long-standing and highly valued – even pre-dating the moment when our travel retail division was formally established in 1999. It’s a relationship that is marked by strong human relations, open communication and the willingness by Dubai Duty Free to give food and confectionery the shelf space it really deserves. In truly understanding their shoppers’ needs, Dubai Duty Free has been and continues to be the category leader in the execution of the food category.
“Brands are at the heart of our industry and in 2019 Nestlé had the great pleasure to present Dubai Duty Free with a Special Recognition Award to highlight the retailer’s significant achievement in being the number one retail outlet for the KitKat brand worldwide (duty free or domestic) over a period of two decades. In 2023 we are very happy to see that this once again is the case. This really is a demonstration of what an amazing retail powerhouse Dubai Duty Free is.
“As the company approaches its 40th anniversary, we are delighted to have this opportunity to thank Colm and the whole team across the years, not just for their support to Nestlé but for the incredible contribution they have made to the development of the travel retail industry globally.”
“I have nothing but admiration for DDF”
Nigel Hardy, Co-Owner & Joint CEO, TRBusiness
“I have watched with great interest the progress that Dubai Duty Free has made during my 30+ years within the travel retail industry.
“Alongside becoming a successful and much admired multi-billion-dollar business, the company has managed to retain a family-like atmosphere with its staff and I have nothing but admiration for Colm and his dedicated team.”
“Colm has touched our lives”
Rohit Bachani, Chief Magical Officer, Merlin Digital
“I remember back in 2001 I was wet behind the ears – early 20s – and had a roadshow at DDF the next week in Terminal 1. I was called for training the DDF promoters on a Friday 7am and was like: ‘Really, on the weekend?’. When I came there I saw a few flowers on the reception and on the memo board a lot of ‘get well’ cards as Colm had just come out of a surgery. I made a mental note to send a get well card as well. So at 7:30am, rise and shine, I’m in one of the training rooms training the promoters and, surprise surprise, Colm walks in and checks up on how the training is going. He was discharged 24 hours ago and on a weekend at 7:30 he’s here checking up on his business.
“Such stories on his work ethic and his dedication I have in the dozens and today what little success I enjoy is learning from Colm from afar and making him my mentor. I think for thousands, if not hundred of thousands of us, he has touched our lives and he has only thought about the city the country and his contribution to the economy and the travel retail industry over these last 40 years. Very few like him walk this earth.”
“An extraordinary contributor to the travel retail community”
Martin Moodie, Founder & Chairman, The Moodie Davitt Report
“I have been privileged to have benefited from Colm’s support, mentorship and friendship over more than three decades. He has been an extraordinary contributor to the travel retail community, both as a business leader and a benefactor.
“In my view he has inherited the mantle of his fellow Irishman Dr Brendan O’Regan as the global statesman of the travel retail industry, a lineage I suspect that would make him justifiably proud. Cheers to an extraordinary man.”
“Always visionary and ground-breaking”
Peter Jackson, Founder, Milton-Lloyd
“It is more than 40 years since I first visited Dubai full of ambition for a fledgling Milton-Lloyd. The challenge in those days was not winning great perfumery orders, but finding a hotel room. I vividly recall my rising excitement and anticipation as I disembarked at Dubai Airport and climbed the winding concrete stairways to the (then) terminal – and looked back at the many national airlines lined up below. And amongst this it was so exciting to see Milton-Lloyd fragrances selling there. We owe so much to Dubai Duty Free.
“I join others in congratulating the always visionary and ground-breaking Dubai Duty Free on 40 years of innovation and success. I thank Colm McLoughlin – ‘Duty- Free Virtuoso’ – who, together with his extraordinary and loyal team, has changed duty free retailing forever.
“Dubai Duty Free, the world’s most important retailer – now 40 years old and still full of surprises. Thank you, Dubai Duty Free, for seeding world demand for Milton-Lloyd fragrances.”