A film tribute: Colm McLoughlin, travel retail statesman, celebrates 50 years in duty free

UAE. The Moodie Davitt Report is delighted to present a special video tribute to Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin, who celebrates his 50th anniversary in the duty free industry on 1 June.

The film was produced by The Moodie Davitt Report, working closely with the Dubai Duty Free communications team.

In it a number of travel retail industry figures and Dubai Duty Free management and staff pay their respect to Colm McLoughlin and his immense contribution to the business over half a century. Two versions were made of the film: one, shown to Dubai Duty Free management last week, included comments from friends, as well as the industry personnel featured in the video on this page.

In the film, DFS CEO and Chairman Ed Brennan says, “For me personally, you have been a huge inspiration. Both from a personal and philanthropic standpoint, everything you do is such high touch.” Gebr Heinemann Co-owners Gunnar and Claus Heinemann pay rich, poignant and humourous tribute to Colm McLoughlin’s “fantastic” industry contribution.

The Moodie Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie says, “You have become not just an industry legend but an industry statesman. You have inherited the mantle of a man you admire greatly, the founding father of our industry, Dr Brendan O’Regan.”

[Readers can add their own tribute via the Disqus comment platform at the foot of this story.]

A lifetime of outstanding achievement

As we reported earlier in the week, Colm has been the recipient of many awards over the years recognising his outstanding leadership and service, and is considered the driving force behind Dubai Duty Free’s US$2 billion business. [That story was marked in a special eZine published last year celebrating the company’s 35th anniversary.]

A lifetime of leading the way: Colm McLoughlin began his duty free journey at Shannon Duty Free on 1 June 1969.

McLoughlin’s duty free journey began at Shannon Duty Free after he read about a job there while on holiday in his native Ireland in the spring of 1969.

“I had been working for Woolworths in London so I had a number of years of retail management experience,” he said. “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.”

Colm McLoughlin 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 organised by the Dubai Duty Free Executive team who attended along with Mrs. Breeda McLoughlin and Colm’s son Niall McLoughlin and wife Sherly.

McLoughlin was offered the job on the spot at the place where the duty free industry was started by Dr. Brendan O’Regan in 1947.

“Dr. Brendan O’Regan was a great man and was the founding father of the duty free industry that we know today,” said 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.”

McLoughlin with the Airport Duty Free Operator of the Year award at the inaugural Frontier Awards held in France in 1985, an award that was subsequently won a record nine times including in 2017 and 2018.

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 USA. 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, Mohi-din Binhendi, who was tasked with the job of setting up a duty free operation in Dubai. Binhendi met with Aer Rianta senior management, including then General Manager of Shannon Duty Free, Colm 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,” commented 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.”

McLoughlin moved to Dubai in July 1983, within weeks of the visit, as part of a 10-man team from Aer Rianta. At the request of the Dubai Government, a duty free operation would be established as part of a six-month consultancy agreement.

“We had only six months to turn the project round,” McLoughlin explained. “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. It was worth it though when we opened for business on 20 December and took US$44,000 in that first day and went on to have sales of US$20 million 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$20 million, 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.”

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.

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.

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 Dubai Duty Free 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.

In October 1985, the operation was named ‘Airport Duty Free Operator of the Year’ at the inaugural Frontier Awards in France, an award it subsequently won a record nine times including in 2017 and 2018. McLoughlin was also honoured with a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award in 2004, making him only the second person, after Dr. Brendan O’Regan, to receive the award at that time.

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.

In 2017, he was conferred by the Middlesex University Dubai with an Honorary Doctorate of the University as part of its celebration of the academic success, and in the same year was honoured with a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ at The BURJ CEO Awards organised by CEO Clubs Network.

A specially-designed logo for Colm McLoughlin’s 50th anniversary.

“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. 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,” McLoughlin said.

The new millennium brought with it major new changes at Dubai International Airport, including the opening of the new Sheikh Rashid Terminal in April 2000. The new terminal provided Dubai Duty Free with a new retail operation covering 5,400sq m. “This was a major development for both the airport and the retailer and heralded a new and exciting development in Dubai’s aviation story,” the company noted. “By the end of 2000, Dubai Duty Free’s sales reached US$222 million, and that figure grew dramatically as the decade progressed.”

In October 2008, the next major development at Dubai International was unveiled with the opening of Concourse B in Terminal 3, which included an 8,000sq m Dubai Duty Free retail operation. In January 2013, Concourse A opened.

When two long-serving leaders meet: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II greets Colm McLoughlin in the parade ring at the Spring Trials Weekend at Newbury Racecourse earlier this year. 

With the opening of Al Maktoum International Airport in October 2013, and the development of Concourse D in Terminal 1 at Dubai International Airport in February 2016, Dubai Duty Free’s retail footprint grew to a total of 42,000sq m across both airports.

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

“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. 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,” said McLoughlin.

Dubai Duty Free noted that under McLoughlin’s guidance, the company currently accounts for around 6% of global airport retail sales and is the largest single airport retailer in the world.

Sports marketing and charitable causes

McLoughlin has also raised the profile of the city of Dubai as a premium sports and leisure destination through the promotion of high-profile international events.

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free, is an example of this. The championships began in 1993 is now a leading tournament on the WTA and ATP Tours, and marked its 27th anniversary in 2018. According to Dubai Duty Free, media analysis showed that the two-week tournament generated an estimated US$1.3 billion worth of TV exposure for Dubai of which US$445 million is for the Dubai Duty Free brand alone.

Milestone moment: Colm McLoughlin and Dubai Duty Free staff marked the 35th anniversary of Dubai Duty Free in December 2018.

The airport retailer sponsors other major sporting events including the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, which takes place at the historic 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 has also been a supporter of events at Newbury Racecourse and Ascot in the UK, including the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup.

Other events include the Dubai Duty Free Golf World Cup, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby 7’s, and the Dubai International Basketball Tournament, among others.

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, which was built in 1995 as a permanent venue for the Dubai Championships, led to the opening of the first Irish Village in 1996, a bar and restaurant concept developed by McLoughlin. Built into the stadium structure, The Irish Village is modelled on a traditional Irish street and even features the ‘Ballinasloe Post Office’, which is a nod to McLoughlin’s home town in Ireland.

Colm McLoughlin with Rory McIlroy after the golfer won the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in May 2016. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images).

The Irish Village opened a second outlet in 2017 at the Dubai Parks and Resorts, while the third outlet will be opening soon at Studio One Hotel, in Dubai Studio City. In addition to The Irish Village, Dubai Duty Free also manages The Century Village, which is located around the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium and features a number of individual restaurants. In July 2012, the operation opened The Jumeirah Creekside Hotel on the nearby site, with the 292-bedroom hotel completing the sporting, leisure and hospitality complex in Garhoud.

To mark its 20th anniversary celebrations in December 2003, Dubai Duty Free offered a 20% discount to travellers on the day and sales subsequently hit US$1.9 million. On the instructions of McLoughlin, the operation donated the day’s proceeds to nine local charities and this resulted in the formation of the Dubai Duty Free Foundation in 2004.

The Dubai Duty Free Foundation operates under the patronage of HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum with McLoughlin as Chairman of the Board. To date, the Foundation has supported 40 local and 53 overseas charities, including: 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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