Dubai Duty Free’s Colm McLoughlin celebrates 50 years in travel retail

By Charlotte Turner |

Colm-Mcloughlin-50-years-in-duty-free-leadOn 1 June, industry veteran, Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman & CEO of Dubai Duty Free will celebrate 50 years in the duty free industry.


Described by the company as the ‘driving force behind Dubai Duty Free’s successful US$2bn 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,” says McLoughlin. “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.”


As fate would have it, 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 US$76bn.



“Dr. Brendan O’Regan was a great man and was the founding father of the duty free industry that we know today,” adds McLoughlin. “He was not in Shannon in my time, but he was talked about with great respect at all times. When I started in Shannon, I reported to Bill Maloney in the early days. Bill was a great manager and I learnt a lot from him.”



The Dubai Duty Free staff gathered in a ‘50’ formation to congratulate the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Colm McLoughlin, in celebration of his 50th anniversary milestone in the duty free industry.

The 1970s witnessed a great deal of expansion and growth at Shannon Airport, which was the major gateway and refuelling stop between Europe and the US.


In tandem with the growth of the airport, the newly named airport authority, Aer Rianta, had developed a reputation for successfully running the duty free side of the business.


In 1983 Shannon was the first port of call for Dubai International Airport’s then Director General, Mr. Mohidin Binhendi, who was tasked with the job of setting up a duty free operation in Dubai. Binhendi met with the Aer Rianta senior management, including then General Manager of Shannon Duty Free, McLoughlin.


“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,” says 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.



Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Duty Free holding the first Frontier Award for “Airport Duty Free Operator of the Year” at the inaugural Frontier Awards held in France in 1985, an award it subsequently won a record nine times including in 2017 and 2018.

“It was worth it though when we opened for business on December 20th and took US$44,000 in that first day and went on to have sales of US$20m in the first full year.


“Fast forward to 2008, when Dubai Duty Free celebrated its 25th anniversary and in one single day, our sales reached US$20m, which is incredible. Fast forward further to 2019 and it is also incredible that 25 of the original 100 staff are still with the organisation”, he added.


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.



Throughout the years, the operation continued to grow and develop under the leadership of H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Duty Free.


Commenting on McLoughlin’s 50-year career anniversary, H.H. 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.


“Along the way DDF has played a pivotal role in building Dubai’s aviation brand and leadership position.  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.


“I would like to congratulate Colm on marking his 50th year in the duty free business and thank him for all his hard work during his 36 years in Dubai.”


In July 2011, Colm McLoughlin was named Executive Vice Chairman & 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.



Dubai Duty Free has won in excess of 700 awards over the years, and McLoughlin has received 70 personal awards from the industry and media alike. Included in this is the Dubai Government Excellence Award for ‘Most Distinguished Employee in 2000’ and the ‘Irish Presidential Distinguished Service Award’ in the Business and Education category in 2014.


He recently picked up an award on behalf of the organisation and the airport for Best Airport for Retail Environment at the 2019 Travel Retail Awards.



McLoughlin and Saba Tahir picked up the award for ‘Best Airport for retail environment’ at the 2019 Travel Retail Awards on 13 May.

“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,” added McLoughlin.


“Of course, I am very appreciative of my own boss, H.H. 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,”



As reported by TRBusiness, on 20 December 2018, Dubai Duty Free celebrated its 35th anniversary and history was made as the retailer crossed the US$2bn mark in the early morning of 29th December, while annual sales turnover reached a record US$2.015bn.


“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,” adds McLoughlin. “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.”



Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Duty Free was guest of honour at a special 50th Anniversary dinner held in Magnolia in Al Qasr Hotel to mark his 50 years in the duty free industry. The dinner was organized by the Dubai Duty Free Executive team who attended along with Mrs. Breeda McLoughlin and Colm’s son Niall McLoughlin and wife Sherly.

Under McLoughlin’s direction, Dubai Duty Free has become a retailing giant with a reputation for excellence throughout the travel retail industry. Dubai Duty Free currently accounts for around 6% of global airport retail sales and is the largest single airport retailer in the world.


McLoughlin has not only helped shape and influence a multi-billion-dollar industry, he also raised the profile of the city of Dubai as a premium sports and leisure destination through the promotion of high-profile international events.


These include the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai as tournament patron; the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, which takes place at the history Curragh Racecourse in June, and Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, which is part of the Rolex Series and this year takes place in Lahinch in Co. Clare.


Over the years, Dubai Duty Free regularly flies the flag in the UK in April and September at the historical Newbury Racecourse, and in August at Ascot for the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup.


Other sports to benefit from Dubai Duty Free’s support include the Dubai Duty Free Golf World Cup, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby 7’s and the Dubai International Basketball Tournament among others.


In addition, the Dubai Duty Free Foundation, which operates under the patronage of HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum with McLoughlin as Chairman of the Board, is now celebrating its 20th year. To date, the Foundation has supported 40 local and 53 overseas charities including; the Hand in Hand for Haiti, The Moodie Report Great Travel Retail Educathlon, Smile Train and the construction of 32 houses in the DDF GK Village, located in the province of Leyte, Philippines.

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