Daring to dream: Meet Dubai businessmen who are not afraid to change tracks when opportunity knocks

Daring to dream: Meet Dubai businessmen who are not afraid to change tracks when opportunity knocks

From retail to nightclubs, investment companies to food outlets, these men risked it all

Clockwise from top: Nazih Khattar (left) and Yousef Khattar, Vijay Samyani and Asif Jabbar
Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: Vijay Samyani bought a majority stake in a nightclub in Dubai. He is now negotiating a deal to acquire a second one in the city. All this in the last four months.

For the owner of Concept Brands Group (CBG), it doesn’t matter that he has no prior experience in the business of running a nightclub. “The opportunities presented themselves – at the first one, the previous management wanted funds to expand, which I was willing to bring in,” said Samyani. “At the second, they want someone to turn around the existing operation and make it profitable.”

"There is no reason why business owners should be worried about investing in something new… even when the market is facing tough times. Buying a nightclub is a tactical move."

- Vijay Samyani | Concept Brands Group

But owning and managing nightclubs was not part of the mandate when Samyani launched Concept Brands Group to organize the “Big Brands Carnival” series - week-long exhibitions where off-season fashion accessories were sold at steep discounts. It launched in Dubai and has since expanded into other cities in the Gulf. More recently, the Group ventured into retail, with the opening of “factory outlets”.

Vijay Samyani of Concept Brands Group is all smiles at his factory outlet store in Dubai.
Image Credit: File Picture

As for the nightclub venture, “There is no reason why business owners should be worried about investing in something new… even when the market is facing tough times,” he said. “Buying a nightclub is a tactical move to expand my core business. I felt now was the right time to do it.”

Getting out of their comfort zones

More business owners and investors are echoing the very same sentiments. For some, it meant expanding further into areas they already know quite a bit about. Or they would get into the real estate space, either as a developer or as a strategic investor. In fact, real estate was the default option each time someone wanted to make a diversification.

But many are now taking on ventures well outside of their comfort zones. Eventually it boils down to two questions – is now a good time to double down on your investments? Or should you be waiting for the market and the economy to correct itself?

Hamdi Osman sure knows the answers to this. The former senior executive at FedEx has turned into a serial entrepreneur in recent times. “In my opinion there are a few asset classes in the UAE that can offer great returns because of the attractive low cost of entry and the positive short- to long-term prospects,” said Osman.

“Dubai in particular offers a highly appealing startup ecosystem through a combination of major investment in innovation incubators, private-sector incentives and specialised talent development. This talent continues to graduate from successful exit stories such as Souq.com and Careem and set up their ventures, which will inevitably lead to even wider choice for investors.

“As a serial investor, I only invest in relationships with coachable people who have ideas, a solid plan and experience in that industry.” (Osman’s investments now extend to digital startups in the logistics space, real estate, and “fintech and healthtech”.)

The Souq and Careem boost to sentiments

What Osman said about the rub-off from the Souq.com (with Amazon picking it up) and Careem (acquired by its erstwhile rival Uber) mega deals is apt. These have definitely incentivized the venture local and regional venture capital space. Last month, Sprii, an online store for mothers and children, picked up $8.5 million from a funding round, while The Luxury Closet, which sells pre-owned fashion merchandise, pulled in $11 million.

"We were attracted to the cashflow of the restaurant business and to operate companies that would not require us to provide credit to clients."

- Yousef Khattar | Managing Director, Tastebuds Group

Clearly, there is appetite and the funds available to feed growth opportunities. It needn’t all be within the confines of the digital space.

F&B remains a hot favourite

Even the highly saturated food and beverage sector in the UAE is attracting new entrants. The family-owned investment company Younata has set up TasteBuds Group to explore franchising and other opportunities, the first of which is an alliance with Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.

“We were attracted to the cashflow of the restaurant business and to operate companies that would not require us to provide credit to clients,” said Yousef Khattar, Managing Director, Tastebuds Group. “We did not limit ourselves to US franchises when we were out looking for franchise. Having said that, most of the successful franchises out there happen to be American, and from that sense, we were drawn to the US market when we were seeking out franchisors to work with.

Nazih Khattar (left) and Yousef Khattar of Tastebuds Group at the newly opened Freddy's Burger.
Image Credit: Credit: Abdel Krim
Khattar took the decision to venture into F&B franchising early 2017. “We do not believe that this is going to be a one-off,” he added. On when he forecasts reporting a profit from Freddy’s, Khattar said: “Since this our first F&B franchise as a group, it would be difficult to answer this question in all honesty. We will have to wait and see.”

No such thing as “old economy”

Even difficult market circumstances come with in-built opportunities, though the risks are greater too. Right now, some of the costs associated with launching and operating a business in the UAE have come down, which is the case even for relatively new ventures. The rents, for one, are certainly lower than what they would have been paying a year or two ago. That applies to the retail sector as well, and more so for those located outside of malls.

Asif Jabbar of Alif Investments assumes a confident self at his new multi-brand store Anarkali and James in Meena Bazaar.
Image Credit: Credit: Ahmad Ramadan

But Asif Jabbar, Group CEO of Alif Investments, says low rents alone cannot justify launching a new business. “Rents being down is one of the major benefits; but when the market goes up, so can rents. So we can’t depend on that factor.”

Alif Investments has launched a multi-brand store in Bur Dubai to sell ethnic ready-to-wear under the “Anarkali and James” banner. “A few of these brands are not available in the ready-to-wear segment even in Pakistan, which will further increase their demand here,” said Jabbar. “Our multi-brand store is a platform for other brands to make inroads into Dubai market in a cost-effective way.

“Since the Pakistani rupee devalued against the dirham, these purchases would become more affordable, adding further appeal to stores like ours.”

The last two years have been particularly tough, but brick-and-mortar retailing still offers ample charm in an environment such as the UAE’s, whatever be the scale of competition from online sources. Alif Investments will not be the only one to test out new concepts as more space gets created each year. For the right price and the right product, there will always be a shopper willing to give it a try.

Much the same principle - of chasing opportunities when others fear to tread - would apply to investment opportunities as well. “Investors are by nature adventurous types, always seeking to leverage opportunities, be it strategically or opportunistically,” said Osman. “We live in times that offer great value for money to investors with an eye for a good deal.”