Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa was winner of Qatar’s first Entrepreneur of the Year competition this year. His Doha-based Abuissa Holding is a leading business conglomerate in the Middle East. Built over the past three decades, the company spans many sectors including retail, distribution, telecommunications, IT, energy & engineering, investment and real estate. Next year Abu Issa will bring his Mosafer luggage and gadget retailer to New York with plans to open up to 100 locations across the United States and worldwide. It will be the first Arabic luxury brand to expand outside the region and marks the continued growth of Qatar’s global footprint. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan met Chairman Abu Issa at his Blue Salon department store in Doha where the discussion ranged from retailing to a shot at the Premier League.
ET: Tell us about the company’s history?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: We are retailers. My parents started the business and I took over in 1987 when my father passed away. I was 19. We were more a distribution company and I started to focus on retail.
Our business is split. Fifty percent is luxury retailing and 50 percent Fast Moving Consumer Goods. We have 140 stores and about $250 million in sales. We distribute Samsung and Samsonite, 60 perfume brands, Breitling and Zenith. We are big in fashion watches and were one of the first with Fossil in the early ‘90s. We distribute Godiva in Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and operate three Godiva boutiques. We have everything from Nivea to Hershey chocolates.
ET: What are some of your key retail brands?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: Blue Salon has become Qatar’s leader in fashion, watches, jewelry, perfumes, cosmetics, home fashion, home décor and travel gear. It specializes as an exclusive retail luxury goods and fashion brand store.
We have great designers and names such as Armani, Kenzo, Moschino, Aigner, Façonnable, Cerruti, Trussardi, Pal Zileri, Lalique, Swarovski, Damiani, Korloff, Dunhill, Breitling, Zenith, Maurice Lacroix, La Prairie, Esprit, Clarins, Samsonite, La Perla, Chantelle, Corneliani and more.
ET: Do you operate like the typical Western department store?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: No. First of all, they typically have concessions to brands with their own separate stores whereas we integrate the brands. All our buyers are from the floor. They do very detailed buying because they know the customers. They buy pieces for specific customers. They’ll buy two of a medium jacket because they know the two customers they will sell it to. When they are not buying they are managing a team on the floor. They don’t sit in the office.
ET: Does that help in creating new products?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: Exactly. We dress a bit differently here. With A. Testoni we created customized (crocodile) sandals and because Qataris tend to be shorter, a bigger heel.
ET: And what about some of your other retail operations?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: Pari Gallery carries over 450 international brands across cosmetics, watches, jewelry and fashion accessories including leather goods, ladies shoes, and eyewear.
Karisma Cosmetics is a hip trendy concept targeting girls 15 to 25 who don’t want to look like Barbie. We have great quality brand names and designer cosmetics, fragrances, and accessories. The stores are modern with colorful décor and a great young style.
Arabesq offers Arabic sweets from Yemen to Morocco. Ingredients embrace the best of nuts—pistachios, pine kernels—and other vitamin-loaded prime products to provide its customers with a diverse array of the finest of Oriental sweets. We started in Dubai and we are now in Saudi Arabia and here in Qatar.
ET: So what about your expansion to the United States?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: Mosafer means traveler in Arabic, Turkish, Farsi and several other languages. Safer is also where the word “safari” comes from. Arabs have been travelers all their lives and history. There was never enough water in one place, so we were always traveling. Traveling is in our consciousness.
Each store has three sections: Tourist Class, Business Class and First Class. The problem with retailing luggage is that people only think about luggage when they are traveling. Our concept is lifestyle. There will be products like a SIM cardholder, so if you have several SIM cards you can store them in your wallet.
We have an entire Research & Development department. We started in 2009 and already have ten stores between Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Dubai and three here in Qatar. Next year we open in Abu Dhabi.
In malls luggage stores don’t get premium locations because typically they have low sales per square foot. We’ve created products that people buy every day.
Our New York Mosafer will be on Fifth Avenue next to Lord & Taylor.
We’ll have phone gadgets, laptop cases and accessories. We want 40 percent of our own brands. We focus on functional. We will have wheelie bags that are literally configured to be mobile offices. There will be a charger inside. We were even trying to see if rolling the bag could charge the battery.
The First Class section of the store will have very high-end luggage and skin care. There will be skin kits that have product for each phase of the flight—takeoff, cruise and landing. There will also be timepieces such as Breitling and Zenith that make watches for travelers.
Where branded products aren’t answering a need we will have our own products.
We will be the only place in New York that will carry Tumi products from the low end to the high end.
ET: And what about expansion beyond New York?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: New York will be our US flagship. Then we will go to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Boston, cosmopolitan cities. Asia will be before Europe. We will be going to South Africa. To be successful we need 100 stores. When you manufacture your own products you need volume.
ET: Why so much Qatari expansion overseas now?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: It’s the inspiration of His Highness the Emir. We feel like world citizens because of the way our leadership looks at the world. Our market is very small. We have to look abroad.
ET: Dubai has built up a large home market around tourism?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: Dubai wants capital and tourism from the outside. Qatar has wealth and natural resource, so it is not so important to attract mass tourism and we don’t need outside money. We want guests on the high end, specifically with relation to culture, education, meetings and sports. The region can’t take two Dubais.
ET: And what about all the development here at home?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: Our leadership has a vision and we are only at the beginning. If you look at what we are doing in education, it is a good example. When you start a university you don’t have that many students, but we are building something for the region and for the future.
ET: And the World Cup brought a lot of attention to what was happening here?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: I cried from happiness. We were the partner for the bid committee to make all the promotional material. Qatar had plans prior to winning the bid. Winning the bid gave us a timeframe…everything has to be done before 2022.
ET: Any other areas of growth?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: We are opening a Men’s Store in Riyadh in 2013 patterned after the Men’s Store in Bergdorf Goodman. It will be 15,000 square feet and will feature Zilli, Corneliani, Canali, Armani, watches from Breitling, Zenith, Maurice Lacroix, HD3. We saw there was a weakness in menswear offerings there.
ET: Anything else you would like to mention?
Ashraf A.R. Abu Issa: Blue Salon just became the first Arabic member of the International Group of Department Stores. There are one or two members from each represented country. Saks is the member for the US, Boyner from Turkey, Selfridges from England and Printemps from France. We exchange ideas on HR, visual merchandising, sales incentives and so forth. You play here in the Qatari league all your life. We have to go up against the big guys to see what we can do. In New York we will be competing with the ninth floor at Macy’s.