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‘How I Got Here’

Colm McLoughlin is the Executive Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, the single largest Duty Free operation in the world.

The award-winning industry leader tells On Location how his journey took him from Galway to Dubai, what it takes to build a billion-dollar business and his views on the importance of giving back.

By Hillary Fennel & Colm McLoughlin, Fotos By Dubai Duty Free

Dubai Duty Free
Dubai Duty Free

Growing up in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, I had no intention of going into business. My plan was to study dentistry. Although I do remember when I was 12, making pocket money from growing lettuce and selling them to the local shop for six pence each. I was full of mischief, I remind myself a little of my grandson, who’s a bit of a rascal. I liked sports and played tennis, squash and hurling.

In the summer of 1961 I went to London to earn some pocket money for university but ended up staying there for eight years. I had a variety of jobs, including bus conductor, before joining Woolworths and progressing through the ranks to become a manager.

Colm McLoughlin at the start of his career in Dubai
Colm McLoughlin at the start of his career in Dubai

“I believe in luck and fate.”

Back in Ireland on holiday, I saw a job at the Duty Free in Shannon. I didn‘t really know what it meant but I got the job and became manager. That’s where I met my wife Breda.

The airport Duty Free industry started at Shannon Airport in 1947, founded by Dr Brendan O’Regan. In its first full year, sales were $10,000 – today they are $76 billion. Half of that is generated at airports and Dubai Duty Free accounts for six per cent of that total. For a long time, duty free was thought only to mean alcohol and tobacco. Shannon was the first to sell Duty Free perfumes. Then it started introducing other brands and it spread right around the world.

Colm McLoughlin 1983
Colm McLoughlin 1983

In 1983, I was one of a team of ten sent by the Government of Dubai and Ireland’s Aer Rianta on a six month contract to set up a Duty Free at Dubai Airport. We knew nothing about Dubai. When we arrived, the population was only about 300,000 people but the attitude was very progressive. I was asked to stay and run the Duty Free, which is owned by the Government of Dubai. I only signed up for two years, but here I am.

1983 - Colm McLoughlin mit den ersten Mitarbeitern des DDF
1983 – Colm McLoughlin with the first batch of DDF staff

“To succeed, you need to embrace change.”

The biggest change I’ve seen is the increase in the city‘s population, from 300,000 to 3.2 million. In 1984, we had 3 million passengers and 100 staff. Now it‘s 89 million passengers and 6500 staff from 45 countries. 25 of whom have been with us since the start. We pride ourselves on retaining our staff. The challenge, when we first came, was getting to know all the different customs and cultures of our employees, and their requirements. Like anything difficult, we made mistakes, learned from those mistakes, and improved.

Frontier Awards -Flughafeneinzelhändler des Jahres 2021
Frontier Awards -Airport Retailer of the Year‘ 2021

“Some of the best advice I ever heard was to listen more and talk less.”

We are very aware of the importance of corporate social responsibility and of giving back. Our foundation, the Dubai Duty Free Foundation, has given away $27million. We support special needs schools. We have restored eyesight to over one million people. We have helped rebuild a village in Sri Lanka, which was wiped out by a tsunami. We built a street ruined by an earthquake in the Philippines.

“It’s important not to be afraid to try something new. “

I’m proud we’ve built the biggest Duty free in the world, but I like that we continue to progress. We own a tennis stadium and the tennis tournament that takes place there. I like that we continue to do new things. We own an Irish pub and restaurant, the Irish Village, and recently opened a five-star hotel.

Part of Dubai Duty Free’s duty is to promote Dubai, which we do through all our events and sponsorships such as Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship. We also sponsor the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf and the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

The Expo 2020 Dubai that took place from October 2021 – March 2022, did a terrific job of raising the bar across the board. During the 6-month event, Dubai Duty Free recorded sales of US$762 million which is equivalent to 7.3 million transactions. The dedicated Expo 2020 Dubai shop that we opened in Concourse B recorded sales of US$1.5 million which is equivalent to 176,511 Expo merchandise sold.

“Personally, I work very hard and have done for years, but I do take time off, I play golf and cycle. I lack nothing.”

We all have fears. It’s how you deal with them that matters. Having to make speeches used to scare me to death. But I learned how to do it by going to Toastmasters and learning how to tell a story.

One of my main faults – I checked with our managers on this one – is that I want to know too many details and am always asking questions. I also checked with Breda, who says I’ve a memory like an elephant – and that I am too calm!

So far life has taught me the importance of working hard, being part of a team, and giving something back.