Colm McLoughlin celebrates 54 years of outstanding duty free service

Colm McLoughlin: 54 years in the duty free industry and still going strong

UAE. Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin today celebrates his 54th anniversary of joining the duty free industry.

McLoughlin’s duty free journey began at Shannon Duty Free in Ireland after he read about a job there while holidaying 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 recalled in an interview with The Moodie Davitt Report in 2019 on the occasion of reaching a half century in travel retail.

“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.”

What it was about was the business sector that would see McLoughlin, who turns 80 in July, become a globally renowned identity over the ensuring years. It seems fitting that the man who ranks as the elder statesman of the travel retail community began his sector career in the very place where the airport duty free industry was started by Dr. Brendan O’Regan in 1947.

Founding father

“Dr. Brendan O’Regan was a great man and was the founding father of the duty free industry that we know today,” McLoughlin said. “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 [who sadly passed in 2021] in the early days. Bill was a great manager and I learnt a lot from him.”

Colm McLoughlin with the Airport Duty Free Operator of the Year award at the inaugural Frontier Awards held in France in 1985, an award that it has won many times since

In the 1970s Shannon Airport 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.

Unsurprisingly then, Shannon was the first port of call for Dubai International Airport Director General, Mohi-din Binhendi, who was tasked in 1983 with setting up a duty free operation in Dubai. Binhendi met with Aer Rianta senior management, including Colm McLoughlin, who by now was Shannon Duty Free General Manager.

“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.”

How a six-month contract turned into a 40-year journey

Super quickly, in fact. Within weeks of Binhendi’s visit, McLoughlin moved to Dubai in July 1983 as part of a ten-man Aer Rianta team. 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.”

Within months of Dubai Duty Free’s opening, 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 Moodie Davitt Report produced this special film honouring Colm McLoughlin to honour his 50th anniversary in duty free in 2019}

Throughout the years, the operation has continued to develop remarkably 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.

In 2019 Dubai Duty Free generated record annual sales of US$2.029 billion, a figure it expects to top this year amid an encouraging recovery from the struggles of the 2020-2022 pandemic-hit years. McLoughlin showed during that dark period in sector history that he was every bit as adept as leading the company through bad times as well as good.

The Moodie Davitt Report salutes this great leader of the global travel retail community on the latest landmark in a glittering career that has simply been studded with them. ✈

When two great leaders met: The late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II shown greeting Colm McLoughlin in the parade ring at the Spring Trials Weekend at Newbury Racecourse earlier this year in 2019

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