An Interview With M. A. Yusuff Ali – MD & Chairman of Lulu Group International

Gulf Insider honours the top Non Residential Indian (NRI) leaders in Bahrain on the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day celebrations.

Our interview with M. A. Yusuff Ali, MD & Chairman of Lulu Group International,
and boss of the EMKE Group, reveals how he created a retailing giant.

What is the role played by Bahrain in the growth of Lulu International Group?

Over the 11 years that we have been in Bahrain, we have grown tremendously and I would like to believe that we changed the way the retail industry served customers. Seven of our 158 hypermarkets worldwide are in Bahrain – and we are still growing.

There are plans for warehousing and entering the food processing sector in the Kingdom. We have exceeded our promise of investing over BD 100 million in Bahrain because of our faith in the vision of the leaders of Bahrain, the efforts of the government to keep the promise of business-friendly environment and above all, the people of Bahrain who have welcomed us so warmly, who give us the powerful catalyst of their custom and who make up a significant portion of our multinational team of employees.

All these are factors in our overall growth and Bahrain contributes richly towards how we structure our development, how we understand the future and prepare for it.

What makes Lulu different from its competitors?

Two non-negotiable beliefs underpin our entire service ethos: the first is that Lulu believes in quality and cost-effectiveness. We deliver variety, top quality and affordability and none of these three elements of the retail experience is compromised.

The second is that the customer comes first and is at the centre of the whole Lulu experience. From the shop-floor assistant all the way up to the Board of Directors, we believe that our goal is to serve the customer.

Whether it is about stocking what our customers tell us they need or just leading the customer to the right aisle in the hypermarket, we take pride in making the customer’s shopping a quintessential ‘Lulu’ experience.

The customer feels reciprocated for choosing Lulu for a retail experience.

Finally, we augment these two core values with every effort to make shopping in Lulu an immersive experience. Whether through our different national product spotlights which include the food and cultural shows of countries as varied as Italy, Thailand, America, the Philippines and India or just our reputed Hot Foods section in all the hypermarkets which serve up delicacies from all over the world, everybody who comes to Lulu experiences a unique retail event that makes for an enjoyable shopping interlude.

That’s what makes Lulu stand out in a retail space crowded with many hypermarkets and stores that are very similar. It’s the emotional connection.

What are the current trends in the retail market?

The retail market today places great emphasis on convenience. The retail market of the future will leverage this emphasis on convenience with a re-engineering of the whole retail experience through technology. Online shopping is already a current thing. In the coming immediate future, we shall also be looking at mining customer preferences through tapping The Internet of Things – since The Internet of Things connects over 11 billion everyday products, like home speakers, TVs, and cars, to the internet, retailers can collect hoards of data that provides context about their customers’ product usage.

Technology will help the retail industry to personalize the retail experience and we should all be prepared for it.

How are changing economic conditions regionally affecting business?

I do not believe in running a business based on micro-economic situations. There is always an ebb and rise in regional economics but the way to safeguard one’s business from the shocks of changing economic conditions is to have strong core business values, a well-crafted vision for future development and consistency of implementation. In 1990, the Lulu Group started its retail business with a string of supermarkets and department stores just when the Gulf War began.

Conventionally speaking, it was probably the worst scenario for a new business – but look at how our group has thrived. So it’s not about the economy – every business needs a long-term vision and the capacity to manage change to succeed.

How does the Bahrain government support Indian business leaders?

To narrow down the specifics to “Indian” business leaders is incorrect.

Bahrain’s leaders and Government policies are a combination of ease and flexibility, of a strong legal framework and transparency. All this makes it very easy to invest in Bahrain and see results, regardless of the nationality of the investor.

In addition, Bahrain has a growing middle class that assures the retail business and service industry of returns. The other advantage for foreign investors is that Bahrain’s leaders are accessible and flexible. We can be true stakeholders and contribute more than just investment dollars – we can suggest changes and have the confidence that we shall be heard, our ideas given a sound hearing and change implemented if needed. It is an environment of holistic growth.

What do you believe Bahrain can do to attract more international investors, and specifically Indian investors?

I am happy to see that Bahrain is doing a lot of media campaign and roadshows to attract international investors, going forward I would love to see more road shows, seminars and workshops being organized in India also to get support from Indian industrial houses to explore the investment opportunities in Bahrain.

What do you enjoy the most during your free time?

I love to read. Books, to me, are a gateway to a wider world, to knowledge and understanding. So despite my very busy schedule, I always make time for books. But nowadays, the most happiness I derive is when I spend my free time with my 10 grandchildren, there are no amount words can describe the sheer joy and pleasure and in fact some information and knowledge also I get when I interact with my grandchildren.

Can you detail some of the CSR initiatives by Lulu International Group?

Lulu Group believes in giving back to the community and in every country that we work in, we bind our CSR not just to charity but to the process of nation-building and community service.

In Bahrain, we work closely with strengthening the avenues of character-building for youth – I am honoured to personally contribute to HRH the Crown Prince’s International Scholarship Programme that gives bright Bahraini youth access to some of the greatest seats of learning around the world; Lulu is a regular supporter of the activities of the Royal Charity Organization (RCO) and we host youth from RCO for on-job training; we underwrite the summer camps for the orphans of RCO who get an immersive experience of character-building values and edutainment there.

Lulu is also a sponsor of the Iron Man sporting event which is all about focus, training, determination and physical fitness and a pet project of Bahrain’s very own Iron Man, HH Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa – young people need such role-models to develop their interest in physical health and fitness.

Bahrain was also the place where we developed the Joy of Giving Ramadan programme, an outreach that sees thousands of Iftar food packs distributed to the public at sunset. It connects us to the community and helps us to reach into the heart of the community with the sacred act of sharing the Iftar meal.

Lulu also works closely with the UN offices and the Ministry of Health to take the messages of sustainable living to the public – green living, environmental awareness and healthy lifestyle knowledge are broadcast to the public because we transform the footfall in our hypermarkets and malls into a listening public space.

What’s next for Lulu International Group?

The world of retail is a swift-changing one and we are always on the move to keep abreast of change. We are also getting increasingly involved in food production and processing as part of our effort to contribute to food security of nations where we have a presence.

That means we will invest more in warehousing, food logistics and meat processing just as we have in grains and oil production and packaging in our India operations.

Underscoring our every effort is the vision to be a humane operation – to inspire our thousands of employees to give their best and create a chain of prosperity in every country that we work in. At the end of the day, I believe that even an act as mundane as buying the week’s provisions is remembered not for the brand that you buy but for the emotional exchange that marks the transaction.